Every January, the media run features on how to lose those holiday pounds. As schools let out for the summer, the media share warnings about damage from the sun and showcase the newest sunscreens. In Thanksgiving, turkey tips abound.
For theatre, September reveals two variants of its seasonal press staple, either “Stars Bring Their Glamour To The Stage,” or, alternately, “Shortage of Star Names Spells Soft Season Start.” Indeed, the same theme may reappear for the spring season and, depending upon summer theatre programming, it may manage a third appearance. But whether stars are present or not, they’re the lede, and the headline.
The arrival of these perennial stories is invariably accompanied by grousing in the theatre community about the impact of stars on theatre, Broadway in particular, except from those who’ve managed to secure their services. But this isn’t solely a Broadway issue, because as theatres — commercial and not-for-profit, touring and resident — struggle for attention alongside movies, TV, music, and videogames, stardom is currency. Sadly, a great play, a remarkable actor or a promising playwright is often insufficient to draw the media’s gaze; in the culture of celebrity, fame is all.
But as celebrity culture has metastasized, with the Snookis and Kardashians of the world getting as much ink as Denzel and Meryl, and vastly more than Donna Murphy or Raul Esparza, to name but two, the theatre’s struggle with the stardom issue is ever more pronounced. Despite that, I do not have a reflexive opposition to stars from other performing fields working in theatre.
Before I go on, I’d like to make a distinction: in the current world of entertainment, I see three classifiers. They are “actor,” “celebrity,” and “star.” They are not mutually exclusive, nor are they fixed for life. George Clooney toiled for years as a minor actor in TV, before his role on ER made him actor, celebrity and star all in one. Kristin Chenoweth has been a talented actor and a star in theatre for years, but it took her television work to make her a multi-media star and a celebrity. The old studio system of Hollywood declared George Hamilton a star years ago, but he now lingers as a celebrity, though still drawing interest as he tours. Chris Cooper has an Oscar, but he remains an actor, not a star, seemingly by design. And so on.
So when an actor best known for film or TV does stage work, it’s not fair to be discounting their presence simply because of stardom. True stardom from acting is rarely achieved with an absence of talent, even if stardom is achieved via TV and movies. Many stars of TV or film have theatre backgrounds, either in schooling or at the beginning of their career: Bruce Willis appeared (as a replacement) in the original Off-Broadway run of Fool For Love before he did Moonlighting or Die Hard; I saw Bronson Pinchot play George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? while he was a Yale undergraduate (the Nick was David Hyde Pierce); Marcia Cross may have been a crazed denizen of Melrose Place and a Desperate Housewife, but she’s a Juilliard grad who did Shakespeare before achieving fame. But when Henry Winkler is announced in a new play, three decades after his signature television show ended, despite his Yale School of Drama education and prior stage work, all we hear is that “The Fonz” will be on Broadway.
The trope of “stars bringing their luster to the theatre” is insulting all around: it implies that the person under discussion is more celebrity than actor and it also suggests that there is insufficient radiance in theatre when no one in the cast has ever been featured in People or Us. By the same token, there’s media that won’t cover theatre at all unless there’s a name performer involved, so ingrained is celebrity culture, so theatre sometimes has to look to stars if it wishes to achieve any broad-based awareness. But the presence of stars on stage is nothing new, be it Broadway or summer stock; we may regret that theatre alone can rarely create a star, as it could 50 years ago, but we must get over that, because the ship has sailed.
There’s certainly a healthy skepticism when a star comes to the theatre with no stage background, and it’s not unwarranted. But I think that there are very few directors, artistic directors or producers who intentionally cast someone obviously unable to play a role solely to capitalize upon their familiarity or fame. In a commercial setting, casting Julia Roberts proved to be box office gold, even if she was somewhat overmatched by the material, but she was not a ludicrous choice; at the not-for-profit Roundabout, also on Broadway, Anne Heche proved herself a superb stage comedienne with Twentieth Century, following her very credible turn in Proof, before which her prior stage experience was in high school. Perhaps they might have tested the waters in smaller venues, but once they’re stars, its almost impossible to escape media glare no matter where they go.
The spikier members of the media also like to suggest, or declare, that when a famous actor works on stage after a long hiatus, or for the first time, it’s an attempt at career rehabilitation. This is yet another insult. Ask any actor, famous or not, and they can attest to theatre being hard work; ask a stage novice, well-known or otherwise, and they are almost reverent when they talk about the skill and stamina required to tell a story from beginning to end night after night after night. Theatre is work, and what success onstage can do is reestablish the public’s – and the press’s –recognition of fundamental talent. Judith Light may have become a household name from the sitcom Who’s The Boss, but it’s Wit, Lombardi and Other Desert Cities that have shown people how fearless and versatile she is. That’s not rehabilitation, it’s affirmation.
I should note that there’s a chicken-and-egg issue here: are producers putting stars in shows in order to get press attention, or is the media writing about stars because that’s who producers are putting in shows? There’s no doubt that famous names help a show’s sales, particularly the pre-sale, so in the commercial world, they’re a form of (not entirely reliable) insurance. And Broadway is, with a few exceptions, meant to achieve a profit. But it’s also worth noting that star casting, which most associate with Broadway, has a trickle down effect: in New York, we certainly see stars, often younger, hipper ones, in Off-Broadway gigs, and it’s not so unusual for big names to appear regionally as well, cast for their skills, but helping the theatres who cast them to draw more attention. Star casting is now embedded in theatre – which is all the more reason why it shouldn’t be treated as something remarkable, even as we may regret its encroachment upon the not-for-profit portion of the field. But they have tickets to sell too.
Look, it’s not as if any star needs me to defend them. The proof is ultimately found onstage; it is the run-up to those appearances that I find so condescending and snide. It shouldn’t be news that famous people might wish to work on stage, nor should any such appearance be viewed as crass commercialism unless it enters the realm of the absurd, say Lady Gaga as St. Joan. If stars get on stage, they should be judged for their work, and reviewed however positively or negatively as their performance may warrant.
I’m not naive enough to think attention won’t be paid to famous people who tread the boards, and I wish it needn’t come at the expense of work for the extraordinary talents who haven’t, for one reason or another, achieved comparable fame. I don’t need a star to lure me to a show, but I’m not your average audience member. Perhaps if the media didn’t kowtow to the cult of celebrity, if they realized how theatre is a launch pad for many, a homecoming for others, and a career for vastly more, theatre might be valued more as both a springboard for fame and a home for those with the special gift of performing live. So when the famous appear in the theatre, let’s try to forget their celebrity or stardom, stop trying to parse their motives, and try, if only for a few hours, to appreciate them solely, for good or ill, as actors.