Julia Takes Pay Cut for Broadway Boost

The Pretty Woman is headed for the Great White Way.

Julia Roberts makes her Broadway debut this week in the revival of Richard Greenberg's drama "Three Days of Rain," which begins previews Tuesday before opening its 12-week run on April 19.

But why would the Oscar-winning Roberts, who makes about $20 million a movie, want to settle for the reported $35,000 a week she'll make breaking a leg?

"Performing in front of a live audience is the ultimate torture test for an actor," said Jed Bernstein, the president of the League of American Theatres and Producers. "It's where the rubber hits the pavement. To step up to the challenge of recreating a performance eight times a week in front of a live audience week after week, where there are no retakes, there are no do-overs, I think is a source of enormous pride and satisfaction."

Roberts is stepping out in "Three Days of Rain" — a three-actor play (also starring Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper) in which the cast plays a brother, sister and childhood friend in the first act and then plays those characters' parents after the intermission.

When the curtain goes up, she'll join a long line of Hollywood A-listers who have recently headed to New York to test their mettle at the theater.

Denzel Washington ("Julius Caesar") and Billy Crystal ("700 Sundays") are among the film actors who migrated East last season to play to the footlights, with great box-office (and for Crystal, critical) success. And last week, it was announced that Julianne Moore, who got her acting start off-Broadway, would make her Broadway debut this November in "The Vertical Hour."

Also gracing the stage this season: Ralph Fiennes, David Schwimmer, Mark Ruffalo, Julianna Margulies, Ali MacGraw, Fran Drescher and Eric McCormack.

Laurence Maslon, associate arts professor at New York University and author of the book "Broadway: The American Musical," said movie and TV stars do Broadway not only to test themselves but also to gain acting "street cred."

"You can be a Hollywood star, I guess, but to be the darling of Broadway is really a horse of another color," he said. "It still has a certain kind of cultural achievement attached to it."

In Roberts' case, however, some have suggested that the megastar's age — 38 — has been a factor in her decision to do Broadway.

"[It] can be seen as the beginning of her transition from America's sweetheart to middle-aged actress with depth, range and seriousness of purpose," wrote New York Post theater critic Michael Riedel, calling Roberts "no longer a Pretty Woman but an Older Pretty Woman."

He also cited a person who knows Roberts as saying that she was partly motivated to do the play by the artistically rewarding experience of working with director Mike Nichols in the 2004 movie "Closer," which was adapted from the stage.

Hollywood heavyweights and has-beens have also increasingly turned to Broadway in the last decade to pad artistic resumes and revive flagging careers. And given the current box-office slump at movie theaters, Broadway is looking better than ever.

The marriage of Hollywood stars and Broadway shows, however, is a reciprocal arrangement. With plays costing between $2 million and $3 million to produce, and musicals hovering in the neighborhood of $10 million to $12 million, an A-list name on the marquee can go a long way to ensuring strong ticket sales.

Indeed, when "Three Days of Rain" tickets went on sale Jan. 13, the clamor caused the Telecharge Web site to crash in the first hour of sales (the play scored $7 million in advance sales in one day.)

And stars happily forgo large salaries for the chance at Broadway success.

"No movie or television actor is doing theater for the money," Bernstein said. "It's about other kinds of satisfaction."

To ensure a hit, stars tend to stick to revivals, plays or musicals previously staged on Broadway to some success.

"You already know the play works and it's easier for the producers to raise money," Maslon said. "I guess what's interesting about 'Three Days of Rain,' it's technically a revival [it ran off-Broadway in 1997and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist], but nobody knows that play so it might as well be Julia Roberts in 'What You're Having for Lunch Tomorrow.'"

But while movie stars on Broadway may seem like a new phenomenon to youngsters, the relationship between Broadway and Hollywood has been going on since the beginning of the film industry, when Hollywood producers poached their talent from the New York stage.

Before the Great Depression, it was unheard of for big-name actors to head West to Hollywood.

"Great actors like Ethel Barrymore refused to be on film," Maslon said. "It would be like a major film star appearing on a video game now."

The 1929 stock-market crash changed everything. "People couldn't be so choosy anymore because so many theaters closed and it was so hard to get work in New York. So a lot of people went to Hollywood."

Broadway continued to breed acting talent for the movie industry through the 1950s, with Method actors like Marlon Brando finding success as Hollywood outsiders.

But in the 1960s and '70s, proven movie actors made their way back to the stage. Middle-aged stars who couldn't find work in Hollywood had newfound success in New York, most famously Lauren Bacall, who won a Tony in 1970 for her role in "Applause," a musical version of the film "All About Eve."

The current wave of movie stars on Broadway appears to be working — ticket sales are up 8 percent and attendance is up 5.5 percent over last year. But some say star attractions may be hindering the quality of the shows produced.

"People used to go see a theater piece because the show was good and they were really into it, and now they go see a star," Maslon said. "Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in 'The Odd Couple' got some of the worst reviews I've ever read, but it doesn't seem to matter and that's a little scary."