Star-Packed Casts May Be Backfiring on Broadway

Bullets are flying over Broadway (search), and Hollywood stars are in the crosshairs.

In what seems like an effort to lure in audiences, Broadway producers appear to be casting an increasing number of big-name celebrities from television and film. But the actors aren't always bringing down the house. Between drop-outs, cancellations and bad reviews, star power may be backfiring on the Great White Way.

“A bunch of stars won’t make for a show — one of the dullest Shakespeare [productions] I’ve seen was Al Pacino in '[Julius] Caesar,'” said Chicago Tribune theater critic Michael Phillips. “Producers do look at a name more and more — if they can recoup the investment with a limited run, sell tickets before it opens, that’s hedging their bet. But it’s up to them to find someone famous and good."

The best current case in point seems to be “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” recently the subject of scandal as actor Ned Beatty, who got his start on the stage, publicly criticized his co-stars Jason Patric (search) and Ashley Judd (search), who are more famous for their big-screen roles.

Beatty told The New York Times that Judd is "a sweetie, and yet she doesn't have a whole lot of tools." And he implied that Patric is not nearly as good as Brendan Fraser (search), with whom he did the play in London last year. Beatty reportedly later sent Judd and Patric letters of apology.

In other examples, Jasmine Guy dropped out of a preview of the "The Violet Hour" during intermission for what she said were medical reasons; Jenna Elfman quit "Nine," saying she needed more time to prepare for her role; Mary Tyler Moore quit "Rose's Dilemma" in previews after playwright Neil Simon reportedly reproached her for not knowing her lines; Farrah Fawcett’s Broadway debut, "Bobbi Boland," was cancelled after a week of previews and Ellen Burstyn's one-woman show, "Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All," closed after its first night.

Phillips says it all depends on the star — and how much experience he or she has on the stage.

“It’s great to see someone like Ned Beatty in 'Cat' and Hugh Jackman in 'A Boy From Oz' because they’re such engaging personalities. They’re extremely well-trained performers that can be heard in the back row and are fully investing themselves in a character.

"It’s a big step down to Jason Patric, and then there’s Ashley Judd in the middle," Phillips continued. "She’s pretty hard-working and effective, but doesn’t have the years that Ned Beatty has."

That said, the masses may be more likely to see a show with a so-so performance from a star like Judd than a great performance from an unknown.

Frequent theatergoer Jennifer Goldstein, 27, paid full price to see Nathan Lane (search) and Matthew Broderick (search) in "The Producers" when they return to the show this winter.

“That’s pretty much the only reason I’m going. All my friends who saw it with Lane and Broderick loved it — I’m assuming that’s why they brought them back."

Indeed, "The Producers" saw ticket sales slump when Lane and Broderick left the show.

But Phillips says this is not just because Lane and Broderick are famous — it's because they are good.

"Nathan Lane is terrifically funny — it's much better with Lane. His name above the title is worth whatever they are paying him. Broderick has a huge fan base too."

It is this proven star power that has producers clamoring for celebrities, said Robert Hofler, theater reporter for the entertainment trade publication Variety.

“Shows are seeking names more than in the past — there are a number of shows where they say it won’t transfer to Broadway without a star. They need the names to get the money to start the production."

Phillips added that the phenomenon could be tied to the tricky economy.

“There’s a danger [right now] that a producer might be more fearful of taking a chance on a relatively unknown play with a star-free cast."

Indeed, Goldstein, a social worker in New York City, said she got tickets to two of the three shows she will be seeing in the near future — "Avenue Q" and "Fiddler on the Roof" — largely because they were on sale.

“It’s expensive with the recession — most shows are $100 a ticket, some for the whole theater. That’s a lot to spend for two hours.”

But Phillips said he doesn't want to overstate the trend of Tinseltowners taking over the theater.

“I wouldn’t say it’s anything new — every two or three years there’s a concentration of names. The public can be fooled for a while but not indefinitely, if they get stars thrown at them that don’t have much to bring to the party.”

And he doesn’t think Hollywood celebs will ever steal the shows from traditional stage actors.

“Part of the thrill of Broadway is still discovering someone new,” he said. "It’s all about talent."