Tom Hanks On Broadway: Are Celebrities Ruining Broadway?

A burgeoning Broadway season is upon us, as many productions are wrapping up rehearsals and launching into previews. As an article from The Wrap is quick to point out, many of these shows tout star-studded marquis and credits such that theater audiences will be seeing many familiar faces from other parts of the industry. To name a few, Tom Hanks, staple of American cinema, will be making his Broadway debut in legendary romantic comedy filmmaker Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy, Cindy Lauper’s music will be featured in the newest drag queen centered sensation Kinky Boots, and Bette Midler will appear later this spring in a one woman show called I’ll Eat You Last.

While this season has plenty of notable names, it is not necessarily any more noteworthy than recent Broadway seasons. Broadway has been somewhat notorious lately in casting big names, whether or not those actors ‘deserved’ the role. Given our culture’s penchant for cyber-hype and commentary, one can find troves of articles and reviews (professional or personal) about the live acting chops of our famous faces. 

One also can’t forget the fact that many folks who have ‘made it big’ came from aspirations for performance in a variety of mediums. For many actors, a gig is a gig. And the spectrum of reception is as broad as the definition of “celebrity.”

Cynthia Nixon, known best to the wider world as Miranda on HBO’s Sex and the City, appeared on Broadway while a freshman at Barnard College. She also won a Tony for her performance as a grief-stricken mother in Rabbit Hole. If ever there were a way to affirm theater acting skills, arguably a Tony Award is one of the ways. Robin Williams fared well in many circles for his portrayal of the Tiger in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Chris Rock’s reviews for The Mother****** With the Hat were somewhat mixed, and Katie Holmes’ reception has been pretty tepid more than once. That pretty much sounds like all the possibilities that Broadway performers, veterans, and novices alike, anticipate come opening night reviews.

The problem, therefore, is not the casting of Hollywood celebrities in Broadway shows. The problem is casting actors who can’t act. Or actors who can’t do live theater. Or actors who are not right for the roles they have been cast in. The problem is Broadway using fame and face to justify skyrocketing ticket prices that continue to drive a somewhat irreconcilable rift between wealthy Broadway patrons (according to the Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2011-2012, the average annual household income of Broadway patrons was $193,800)  … and everyone else. Producers are finding themselves strapped to continue filling seats, especially given our culture’s waning interest in live theater. Explain to me why else Jerry Springer gets to sport a Broadway credit on his resume.

Broadway and Hollywood have a long standing, albeit complicated, relationship. The controversy over casting between the two industries goes back generations; for example, Audrey Hepburn stole Julie Andrews’ Broadway role in the film adaptation of My Fair Lady which had people up in arms (especially since Marni Nixon was secretly her ghost-singing voice), but that in turn left Andrews free to snatch the role of Maria from Broadway star Mary Martin in The Sound of Music film, which helped solidify Andrews as a Hollywood sweetheart. And yet, she lost out on the role of Eliza Doolittle because the film producers didn’t think she was marketable as a film star. It just goes to show … no one knows anything. 

Let the Broadway-Hollywood ping pong continue, from stars to stories to songs. Broadway composers of the Golden Age (for example: Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Gershwin, to name a few) were writing radio hits that could be incorporated into Broadway shows in order to appeal to the masses and get them to the theater. One could argue this was the foundation for what is now known as the "jukebox musical;" can that reminder of history help alleviate the annoyance some felt at Green Day’s American Idiot a few years back?

The fact is, we not only like seeing familiar faces, we also like hearing songs we already know. Luckily, theatergoers can rest assured that as long as Disney owns and funds multiple theaters in Times Square that Disney film classics will continue to be adapted for the stage (Aladdin is next on the list) to the delight and dismay of the masses. The masses that can afford $100+ tickets, anyway. 

What needs to happen, however, is a reconciliation of ‘theater as appealing’ versus ‘theater as accessible.’ Why are these concepts so contrary? With astronomical budgets for widgets, wires, and ‘Wow!’ moments (including that moment where your favorite movie star appears a mere 50 ft away from you in the flesh), I think we have gotten a little off track of what a Broadway show need contain.

There seems to be a fear that waning theater patronage is a result of our over-stimulation from other mediums; how can theater compare, at least without the (astronomically expensive) special effect accoutrements in Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, to a 3D movie? No one will pay attention, we lament. No one will stay past intermission. Or maybe they will, if simply because staying for the full two hours means that you will only have spent around a dollar a minute (if you got the bargain seats).

Let’s start by making sure we’re putting good stories that are relevant and noteworthy and meaningful on stage. Let these stories be told by actors who are versatile, compelling, and full of craft. Put celebrities in your show, or don’t. Audiences want to be captivated, whether through cinema or theater, and it is possible to do so without much. Just look at what Eve Ensler did with the Vagina Monologues (off-Broadway, but still)

If we take a step back from marketing, reviews, and profits and instead focus on how to make amazing theater, then there won’t be any question of whether celebrities ‘belong’ on Broadway. They’ll be there if they can tell the best version of the story.

I am apprehensive given this upcoming season and its cast lists. But I am also hopeful, because who knows? Someone could blow me away. I’ll be the first to give Tom Hanks the benefit of the doubt (so be awesome, Tom!). Let the stories begin.