Broadway, even more than the West End, is driven by star power — and no wonder. The costs of producing here so high that you need to build in some kind of guarantee to attract audiences, and a star name (or two) can provide that essential insurance.
The revival of How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying on Broadway, for example, recouped its initial investment thanks to the star power of Daniel Radcliffe — then consolidated it with a brief sold out run when Darren Criss (from TV’s Glee) took over. Now Nick Jonas is starring, with Beau Bridges also in the cast.
Sometimes, of course, the show itself (and its recognisable title) can be its own star — as witness titles like The Book of Mormon, The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, Mary Poppins, Wicked or Jersey Boys. Other attempts to capitalise on title recognition, however, like Sister Act or Priscilla Queen of the Desert, aren’t doing as well, though interestingly Spider-man - Turn off the Dark has confounded sceptics (and its disastrous preview period) to turn a weekly profit and then some, even though it has massive running costs will mean that overall recoupment will be a long way off.
Those, of course, are shows that are booked on open-ended runs; a more regular phenomenon, especially when it comes to plays, is to book them on limited engagements. That’s partly dictated by star availabilities; but also by creating a sense of urgency around them, they get audiences to come sooner: you need to see this now, because it won’t be here beyond the next three months, or at least with this cast.
A new production of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man opened on Broadway last night, and it is only booking through July 8. Casts do not get much starrier than this: stage legends James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury appear along with movie and TV star Candice Bergen, Emmy award winner John Larroquette (last seen on Broadway in How to Succeed in the role now being played by Beau Bridges), and Will and Grace star Eric McCormack (whom I once saw on Broadway in the last revival here of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man). Also in the cast are Broadway actors Kerry Butler, Jefferson Mays and Michael McKean, amongst others.
You can see why each of them were attracted to the play. For the vets James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury, who have little more to do than scene-stealing cameos, its not too taxing, yet they can make their mark; for Larroquette and McCormack, there are meatier roles to sink their teeth into as rival candidates to be their (unstated) party’s nomination to run for president. And at a time when the two major US parties are in the middle of running their Primary elections, the production has an extra topicality that gives it another contemporary hook, even though the play itself is set in 1960.
It’s an enjoyably middle-brow, satisfying night in the theatre, and has been skilfully produced to attract audiences on many different fronts. But for theatre fans, it is once again unmissable for the opportunity to see James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury onstage again. We saw James Earl Jones last year in the West End when he reprised his last Broadway run in Driving Miss Daisy in the West End, and before that also starring in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in another Broadway-to-London direct transfer in 2009.
But we’re yet to see Lansbury back in the West End, who was last seen there in the 1973 revival of Gypsy, even though she has been making a welcome twilight return to the Broadway stage with a vengeance over the last few years. In 2007, she came back for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century to star in Deuce, after the intervening years between a flop revival of Mame in 1983 and then were filled by her long run as TV’s Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. But in the five years since Deuce, she’s been back for Blithe Spirit and A Little Night Music, and now The Best Man.
When I interviewed her during her run in Deuce, she said to me, “This is simply a re-introduction to Broadway for me, but not necessarily an ongoing affair. I don’t think I want to spend a tremendous amount of time in it. It is tremendously hard work - not that I’m not up for that, I am, but I’d rather do things from time to time rather than on an ongoing basis now.” In fact, that “time to time” has become quite ongoing; and it’s great to have her back so regularly.
As she told me then, there’s nothing quite like the live response of an audience: “It rocks your innards,” she said. And when I asked what it was like being back on Broadway, she also replied, “It’s changed a bit since I was last here, let’s say that, but in the main, it’s the same old Broadway - it’s quite wonderful and very unique and so different from TV and the movies. I’m very comfortable here: I love being in the community of theatre.” And the theatre community loves having her back amongst them again, too. Six months older than the Queen (and like Her Majesty also London-born), she is true theatrical royalty - the Queen of the Broadway stage.