One of the biggest changes to the commercial theatrical landscape - on both sides of the Atlantic - over the past decade or so is that sightings of big star names turning out to do plays has gone up; but the runs they are prepared to commit to has gone down. Time was that a producer would require a minimum commitment from his star of six months, and perhaps a year; now, the 13-week run is the norm.
This has partly been fuelled by the studio theatre culture: if big stars, from Nicole Kidman and Gywneth Paltrow to Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Ewan McGregor, crave a return to the stage, they can give themselves a fix at a place like the Donmar or Almeida, but without interrupting their movie careers for too long.
The pay may be nothing like they’re used to, of course, in the movies; but it is payback time, in every sense, to the theatre that may have nurtured them, and not only can they afford it, of course, but also they earn something far more valuable than money: renewed kudos and credibility as actors.
The phenomenon of the short star run has been highlighted on Broadway by last Sunday’s Tony Awards, where many of the major awards went to performers that are about to leave their shows or indeed were in ones that have already shuttered. As Patrick Healy wrote in the New York Times on Monday, “If you want to see a 2010 Tony Award recipient onstage this summer, you are probably out of luck. Or you may have to shell out big money, depending on the newly crowned show or star you want to see.” Best Play winner Red, starring Alfred Molina and Best Featured Actor winner Eddie Redmayne, closes June 27. Fences, starring Best Actor and Actress winners Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, closes July 11 - with only premium tickets at $376.50 now available for the rest of the run. Best Actress in a Musical Catherine Zeta-Jones departs A Little Night Music this Sunday (the show then goes on a short hiatus, before re-opening with Bernadette Peters taking over as Desirée Armfeldt, and Elaine Stritch replacing Angela Lansbury as her mother Madame Armfeldt, from July 13). A View from the Bridge, which starred Featured Actress winner Scarlett Johansson (or ScarJo, as they are now dubbing her), closed back in April.
As Healy points out, “Broadway once had many homegrown stars who committed to working on a show for a year, as Nathan Lane has for the The Addams Family. This year, some theater heavyweights like Mr. Lane were not even nominated; instead, several Tony Awards were given for productions that were always intended to be short-timers on Broadway, given that many of their film-star performers had to move on to other commitments.”
And Healy quotes producer Ken Davenport - who also writes an excellent blog about the theatre, The Producer’s Perspective - as saying, “You could read the outcome of the Tonys this year as indicating that some shows have become Tony Awards smash-and-grab productions, where they come in for 12 or 16 weeks, get eligible for a Tony, win it and leave. You start to wonder, when that will bleed over to theater mainstays like Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in Addams Family, or John Gallagher Jr. in American Idiot, who might say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m doing long runs of shows and not getting nominated but these other folks are only doing 14 weeks and winning?’”
Of course, theatre exists in the moment - and sometimes only for a moment. The lead producer of Red, Ariella Tepper Madover, regrets that her multiple Tony winning production can’t run beyond June 27, and says, “It’s a little strange, doing so well at the Tonys and closing so early. Do I wish that when we set out to do the play, we thought about all the ‘what ifs’? Sure, but you can never predict early on that a show will win six Tonys.”
And her two stars, Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne, have other commitments to move onto now. (Redmayne, according to the New York Times, is expected to have a role in the new HBO drama Miraculous Year, scripted by Red scribe John Logan, and is also rumoured to be in line to play the lead role in Steven Spielberg’s film version of War Horse). So why not re-cast instead? That does not appeal, she tells the New York Times, because it is “a perfect accomplishment that I don’t want to change.”
And part of the perfect accomplishment of it, perhaps, is its exclusivity. Theatre isn’t something that can be bottled or mass manufactured; you have to see it now, or the moment passes forever.