Last fall, reporters and television cameras crowded the St. James Theatre as Nathan Lane was joined onstage at the curtain call of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by the actor who would take his place: Whoopi Goldberg.
Months later, Pseudolus as Sister Act continues to make headlines nationwide as a non-traditional casting coup -- non-traditional in that previous Broadway Pseudoli of note (two of them Tony winners, Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers) were all played by white men, while this new girl in town is African-American.
But there is another aspect of Goldberg’s reign at Forum that makes her replacement of Lane newsworthy: Goldberg is a movie star.
Broadway has always attracted Hollywood’s brightest, be it Katharine Hepburn in Coco or Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria. Still, it’s one thing to originate a role, and another to replace a performer who’s already left a seemingly indelible mark on a part. Try turning the clock back 30 years and imagine Cary Grant replacing Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, or Marilyn Monroe stepping into Bells Are Ringing at the end of Judy Holiday’s run. Back then, stars only shone in original casts.
And now? “That old business of it being demeaning to replace someone is absurd,” says Roger Berlind, one of Forum’s producers. “It takes a consummate performer to replace a star, one who is very secure in his or her own firmament.” Berlind describes this star-for-a-star approach to recasting as a trend, and though there are examples to be found in Broadway’s glorious past, closer examination indicates that he is right. Consider John Stamos’s post-Matthew Broderick stint in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying Or Sarah Jessica Parker coming in near the end of that show’s run to replace Megan Mullally -- terrifically talented but hardly famous—and give the box office a final boost. Not just a boost, but an influx of new audiences, people who wouldn’t have thought about seeing a Broadway show who until their favorite star came to town.
Master Class is a good example of both new and old style casting: Patti LuPone’s takeover for Zoe Caldwell was one highly-regarded stage actress replacing another, the way it used to be done. But after LuPone took the play to London, venerable producers Robert Whitehead and Lewis Allen (along with Spring Sirkin) bought into this new approach; enter Dixie Carter of “Designing Women” mega-fame, bringing her take on Maria Callas—and bringing in a new audience. After all, there are tourists who have never heard of Callas, but you’d be hard pressed to find a person in the TKTS line who hasn’t seen at least one episode of Carter’s long running, much loved sitcom.
Says Carter, “A lot of the people who wait for me at the stage door say, ‘Dixie, I came to see Julia [Carter’s character on “Designing Women”], but now I love opera.” Thanks to Carter’s heralded performance, chances are that now they love Broadway, too.
In Brooke Shields’ case, the route from TV to Broadway seemed to work in reverse. Shields is one of her generation’s most famous faces, a top model since she was a pre-teen. The world watched her grow to be a six-foot tall Ivy Leaguer, and though she always made the papers, no one seemed quite sure what to do with her. Except the producers of the revival of Grease!: Shields’ stepped in as Rizzo (a part originated by a pre daytime TV Rosie O’Donnell). Her performance generated good press and good will, jump starting her then stalled acting career, and eventually leading to a sitcom, “Suddenly Susan,” renewed for a second season because of Shields’ rave reviews.
Thanks to a recent replacement at the Neil Simon Theatre, the marquee could now read The King and the Prince. Two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy turned her hoop skirt over to Faith Prince, who won the 1992 Tony for her unforgettable portrayal of Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.
How did Prince, a carrot-topped comedian, approach the darker colors that Murphy brought to the role of Mrs. Anna? “It’s a different situation when you’re replacing somebody, as opposed to exploring a show from the ground up,” she admits. “There are certain staples that are already there—which I utilize—but the challenge is finding the places where you can put out your own personality.”
Sometimes, that personality can be vastly different from the person who originated the role. Consider Victor/Victoria: who would have imagined in 1966 that the world’s favorite singing nun (Julie Andrews) and Hollywood’s hottest sex goddess (Raquel Welch) would play the same part?
“Julie and I are such different types, it will be difficult to make the usual comparisons,” says Welch, whom Andrews chose as her replacement. “It’s flattering when the actress who originated the role suggests you for the part,” Welch adds, “and it’s a tremendous responsibility when that actress is as talented as Julie Andrews.”
Dixie Carter agrees. “If you don’t think it’s daunting to replace Zoe Caldwell and Patti LuPone, think again,” says Carter, who found strength in her striking physical resemblance to Maria Callas, and a lifelong passion for opera in general, and Callas in particular. “The thrust of my performance is my love for opera,” she says, “and my deep desire to honor the genius of Maria Callas.”
No love of ancient Rome fueled Whoopi Goldberg’s fire, just an innate desire to keep her career full of surprises. Still, she had her doubts. “I didn’t know if wanted to open myself up to the kind of criticism you get when you replace somebody—particularly the great performers who have done this part before me,” she recalls, her face lighting up with that famous Goldberg grin. “Then I thought, ‘Well, you’ve been criticized before. . . .”
Liza Minnelli, who garnered much press this season for her “Give Julie Andrews a break!” appearance in the title roles of Victor/Victoria, claims to have kicked off this trend of big names replacing big names when she stepped temporarily into the original production of Chicago to relieve an ailing Gwen Verdon. “That was the first time, remember?” she says. “Sammy Davis told me, ‘You can’t do this.’ But I told him, ‘I’ve got to.’ And I did.”
Minnelli specializes in Good Samaritan Star Turns: pitching in to help a friend. The fact that her friends are often superstars, or that her brand of “pitching in” involves weeks of rehearsals, a dozen songs, demanding dances and New York critics, makes her generosity all the more noteworthy.
Of course, there’s a long list of stars who stepped into an already running show long before Minnelli’s Chicago appearance—consider all the Dollys that Broadway said hello to: Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers and Pearl Bailey, whose legendary takeover won her a special Tony, one of the only replacements in Tony Award history to be so honored. But Martin and Merman were Broadway stars, and neither Grable nor Rogers had made a movie in some time, whereas Whoopi Goldberg released three films in the last 12 months. Goldberg’s at the top of her game, and where is she choosing to play it? On Broadway.
Ditto Dixie Carter. And Vanessa Williams, whose Grammy-Award winning, solid platinum recording career was flourishing before she replaced Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman, and has continued to thrive since. In fact, it was Williams’s idea to re-record the Kiss cast album, exposing Kander and Ebb’s score to a younger audience who’d never before strayed from the pop section at Tower Records.
So listen up, casting directors, Broadway pundits and anyone who loves theatre: the path is paved for stars of the first magnitude to replace other stars equally as bright. Imagine Meryl Streep replacing Kate Nelligan in An American Daughter, Robert Duvall succeeding Rip Torn in Young Man from Atlanta, Celine Dion stepping in for Linda Eder in Jekyll and Hyde. And what if the Artist Formerly Known as Prince became known as the replacement Angel in Rent? Don’t ask how they’d get that glyph-like symbol up in lights, but it would be a sight worth seeing.
-- By Harry Haun