Broadway bends to film stars as they give box office a boost


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NEW YORK -- Scarlett Johansson knew there had been other Broadway revivals of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," in 2008 and in 2003, but so what? She wanted to play Tennessee Williams' famed Maggie the Cat on Broadway. Her only worry about timing, she recalled, was a tight window between wrapping movies in 2012 and filming a "Captain America" sequel in 2013.

Broadway was happy to accommodate.

"There is no such thing as a slam dunk on Broadway, but certain actors -- Scarlett is one of them -- add a great deal of attractiveness to a project," said the show's producer, Stuart Thompson, too much the gentleman to talk about a great deal of profit, too.

With Ms. Johansson on board, Mr. Thompson raised $3.6 million in a snap, and the third "Cat" in a decade opened in January -- to strong box office sales, if mixed reviews.

Hollywood stars like Ms. Johansson and Al Pacino have become so essential to Broadway -- both for attracting investors and selling tickets -- that they are calling the shots as never before, bringing back plays that were seen on Broadway only a few years earlier and sometimes edging out new works.

These actors and their agents increasingly dictate terms about the number of performance weeks (usually just 14 or so), salaries ($100,000 a week is no longer unheard of) and days off (in case they need to promote a film or attend an awards ceremony).

Next up: "Waiting for Godot," starring the "X-Men" pair Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, which will be back on Broadway this fall after just four years.

"The thing that slightly depresses me is the resulting and consequent lack of brave, new work appearing seasonably on the Broadway stages," said Jack O'Brien, a Tony-winning director of plays and musicals. "It's all or nothing at the box office, making the surefire star name into the only game."

Mr. O'Brien himself directed a Hollywood actress, Katie Holmes, in "Dead Accounts" on Broadway last fall, but that was a new play rather than a revival -- and it flopped at the box office, highlighting the risks for stars taking on untested works. By contrast, Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain is now in a revival of the classic play "The Heiress" -- and it turned a profit just this week.

Like "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which was the highest-grossing play at the box office last week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Glengarry Glen Ross" was also on Broadway recently, in 2005. But it returned last fall because Mr. Pacino wanted to play one of the key roles, the aging salesman Shelly Levene, and had time in his schedule for a 14-week run.

The lead producer, Jeffrey Richards, happily obliged and agreed to pay Mr. Pacino about $120,000 a week -- one of the highest salaries ever for a play.

Broadway producers used to pick the shows and casts, but productions are now more often generated by actors like Mr. Pacino and their agents, Mr. Richards said, because ever-higher tickets prices put Broadway at the mercy of the stars.

"But they have to be the right stars in great plays," Mr. Richards said. "In this case Al felt he was at the right point in his life to play Shelly, so we moved on it."

While many critics were lukewarm on Mr. Pacino, the $3.3 million production was a hit with audiences and quickly turned a profit.

As producers choose to do star-driven revivals, some are invariably passing up new plays. Mr. Richards, for instance, brought back "Glengarry" in the same season he was supposed to do a new play on Broadway, the Pulitzer finalist "Detroit," which ended up running off-Broadway.

Mr. Richards said he was able to attract investors far more easily for "Glengarry." He also noted that he was busy this season with another Broadway revival, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- itself back after just seven years, although this one does not have name actors (and has been struggling at the box office as a result).

One play revival this season, "Picnic," nearly didn't make it to Broadway because Darren Bagert, its initial lead producer, couldn't get enough stars on board. He offered one role to Ms. Johansson, who declined, and talked to movie stars Chris Evans and Jake Gyllenhaal about the male lead. He finally opted to produce the show with the nonprofit Roundabout Theater Company with lesser-known stars like Maggie Grace and Sebastian Stan in the lead roles.

Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, a nonprofit that, like Roundabout, mounts Broadway shows, avoided the fad by producing the recent revival of "Golden Boy" without stars. He said he felt the play, by Clifford Odets, was an underappreciated classic -- its last Broadway revival was in 1952 -- and the only casting consideration was to have "great" actors.

"Star casting is totally understandable and can even be exciting, but it is most effective if the stars in question are good actors, are well or creatively cast, and their names actually help in the raising of money and selling of tickets," Mr. Bishop said. "In the old days there were 'theater' stars who were and did all that."

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