Star Treks: This Season, All Hollywood Roads Led To Broadway

Star Treks: This Season, All Hollywood Roads Led To Broadway By Robert Cashill

By Robert Cashill

The seats did not sprout cupholders, and the smell of popcorn and hot dogs did not waft through the rear mezzanine. But theatregoers can be forgiven for thinking that

the stage was replaced by the screen this past season, so numerous were the stars who swapped coasts for a chance at live performance. Nicole Kidman sent temperatures rising in The Blue Room; Christian Slater jazzed up Side Man; Jennifer Jason Leigh had her Cabaret act; Laurence Fishburne roared through The Lion in Winter; and Kevin Spacey sidled up to the bar in The Iceman Cometh. While the New York coronation of stage queen Judi Dench drew the Broadway faithful, surely it was her screen queens (in Mrs. Brown and Shakespeare in Love) that drove up the box office for Amy's View.

"For many actors, the ultimate acting experience is still the live stage -- both in terms of the talent and skill to do it well, and the psychic and emotional rewards they get from it," theorizes Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre Company, which on an annual basis sees more stars than the Hubble Space Telescope. "I think that as actors find that what they're doing in their commercial careers isn't as enriching as the stage, they look to the theatre. There's a purity about the theatre that doesn't exist much elsewhere in the entertainment industry."

This season, it wasn't the talent that was selling out; it was the theatres. "I can't remember an influx of star performers to Broadway like this before," says Biff Liff, who heads the theatrical department of the William Morris Agency. "Theatre owners want names; they hedge their bets with them. And the actors, who are drawn by the strength of the plays, don't want to stay for a year or two, as in the past; they want short runs. It's risky, economically, to make 12 to 14 weeks pay off, but Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, and Kevin Spacey generate healthy advances and draw crowds. A theatre professional can't help but be pleased." forgiven for thinking that the stage was replaced by the screen this past season, so numerous were the stars who swapped coasts for a chance at live performance. Nicole Kidman sent temperatures rising in The Blue Room; Christian Slater jazzed up Side Man; Jennifer Jason Leigh had her Cabaret act; Laurence Fishburne roared through The Lion in Winter; and Kevin Spacey sidled up to the bar in The Iceman Cometh. While the New York coronation of stage queen Judi Dench drew the Broadway faithful, surely it was her screen queens (in Mrs. Brown and Shakespeare in Love) that drove up the box office for Amy's View.

"There has been fine dramatic material and stars who wish to be involved with the material and the directors," opines Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization. "There is a recognition more than before that a successful engagement on Broadway can be an impetus to a career."

"For many actors, the ultimate acting experience is still the live stage -- both in terms of the talent and skill to do it well, and the psychic and emotional rewards they get from it," theorizes Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre Company, which on an annual basis sees more stars than the Hubble Space Telescope.

This season, it wasn't the talent that was selling out; it was the theatres. "I can't remember an influx of star performers to Broadway like this before," says Biff Liff, who heads the theatrical department of the William Morris Agency. "Theatre owners want names; they hedge their bets with them. And the actors, who are drawn by the strength of the plays, don't want to stay for a year or two, as in the past; they want short runs. It's risky, economically, to make 12 to 14 weeks pay off, but Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey generate healthy advances and draw crowds. A theatre professional can't help but be pleased."

Freshly minted theatre man Tony Danza, who replaced Anthony LaPaglia in last year's successful Roundabout revival of A View From the Bridge before slinging suds as Rocky the bartender in The Iceman Cometh, is a pragmatic Brooklynite about the whole situation. "Look, let's face it -- sometimes people come because they can't get a job anywhere else," he says. "But there's no money in it -- it's truly a labor of love."

Though there is no truth to the rumor that Playbill considered changing its name to Premiere East last season, other stars in the constellation that appeared over New York did talk to the publication about their return to their roots. Said Helen Hunt, who did 12 weeks in Twelfth Night last summer, "I love [director] Nick Hytner's work. I got the part of Viola once in another theatre and couldn't do it because of a scheduling conflict. I was heartbroken."

As Hunt mended her heart at Lincoln Center, Nicole Kidman was warming up for The Blue Room, under the direction of Cabaret's Sam Mendes. "I had seen almost every play David [Hare] had written, and I couldn't ask for anything better -- the emotions are all heightened and extreme. That's what I liked about it."

While material comforts are at a minimum on Broadway, the biggest comfort to these stars is, in fact, the material. "There are eight of us to a dressing room here, like a dormitory," laughs Danza of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. "Hollywood is where the money is, and if an actor doesn't have a home here, it's probably costing him or her to do a play," Liff says. "The plays and the directors attract them, and the agency thinks about what would be good for the actor."

"I think that every actor wants that opportunity to prove that they don't need ten takes to do a scene," agrees producer James B. Freydberg. "They want to be out there and really connect with an audience. There is a well known film actor I know who intends to do one play a year. It's important to him to do plays as an actor, to find that way to connect. Other actors are beginning to think that way. And that is very exciting."

And Broadway offers an experience without peer to stars willing to make the leap. "Theatre acting is a muscle; if you don't use it, it atrophies," Haimes says. "And the longer an actor stays away, the more he or she may develop issues about performing onstage. There are great film and TV stars who were great in theatre, but who haven't done any in 15 years. We may never see them on the stage again, which is a great shame. We want them to keep coming back to the theatre."

Iceman producer Emmanuel Azenberg thinks they will return. "I know there is an awareness out there that theatre is still the 'queen of battle,'" he observes. "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. The successes of Kidman, Spacey and others have encouraged other people. And the more stars that come, the more the legitimate theatre gets legitimatized."

To producer Elizabeth McCann, the interesting phenomenon -- more than Kidman and Spacey -- is Leigh and Slater, "who are going in as replacement actors. The glory of creating their roles has already been claimed by another actor. What they're saying is that younger actors are beginning to realize there is a real value to stretching their muscles and using them in theatre rather than in film."

If there is a downside to the migration of Hollywood talent to the New York stage, it may be that flames that burn twice as bright last half as long. The open-ended engagement, and the touring show, seem quaint in an era of star-driven productions. "Kevin is devoted to the theatre and wise about how he handles his own career," says Liff of the Iceman star, a William Morris client. "And it's exciting to see so many straight plays produced in a single season. But the runs are short. Perhaps the short run will be the new way of life on Broadway."

And Broadway may be the new way of life for top box office draws. "As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be involved in the theatre. I went to the theatre two to three times a week with my father and mother and was captivated by the experience," Hunt told Playbill. "I wanted to be part of that ritual." Once the current crop of stars rejoins the Spago set, it seems likely that new challenges will lure them back to Broadway. Haimes hopes so.

"I'm not saying that every star I've worked with has been a dream, but we're all doing theatre for the same reason -- we love it."

Danza sums up his commitment to the stage. "I like this Broadway stuff!" he enthuses. "I like being back in New York. I like working with Kevin, the rest of the cast and director Howard Davies. And I like getting the chance to do Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill.

"But what I really like," he concludes, "is getting my picture in The New York Times. And it's for being on Broadway -- not because the photographer spotted me in a strip joint like Scores.