The most shocking stage news of the week was that Angela Lansbury is getting her Noel Coward act together and taking it on the road. Having filled theaters on Broadway and the West End over the decades, the soon-to-turn-89-year-old will re-create her role as Mme. Arcati in Blithe Spirit, beginning December 9 at the Ahmanson Theatre in LA and ending in March on the other side of the continent at the National Theatre in Washington. She’s been playing the eccentric spirit guide off and on since a 2009 Broadway revival.
Talk about bucking the trend. In ye olde olden days, a star like Mary Martin or Ethel Merman might stay with a show for two years and more – first on Broadway, then in London, then on the road in the U.S. That tradition is gone with Sunshine Raisin Biscuits.
With the new season building up steam, Times Square soon will be awash in big-name stars with commitment issues. (Apparently, no amount of disrespect from the Tony nominating committee can keep them away.) The three most popular words in the Broadway lexicon these days are “Strictly Limited Run.”
And the economic model is the extremely non-artsy-fartsy double-punch of scarcity marketing and “dynamic pricing.” Translation: Tell the consumer your product will be gone in a flash and then hike prices as they walk through the door and amble over to the box office.
So: There are 17 shows opening in the coming weeks. “Big stars are not just back on Broadway this season,” wrote critic Linda Winer in Newsday. “They are its biggest news.”
Michael Cera is making his Broadway debut in This Is Our Youth. You have about 12 weeks left to catch him.
On Halloween, Hugh Jackman, the biggest star Broadway has produced in a generation, opens in Jez Butterworth’s The River at the Circle In The Square — with under 800 seats, one of Broadway’s smallest houses — for 13 weeks. That’s about 83,200 people, many of them likely to pay $1,000 or more to impress a date. Even when he doesn’t sing, Wolverine goes clean, as they say in the business.
A week later, Bradley Cooper begins performances in a revival of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man. This one’s at the Booth, a beautiful, intimate theater with 766 seats. You have 14 weeks to see him.
Beginning this month, Glenn Close and John Lithgow will headline a revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, the cast superbly rounded out by the evanescent Lindsay Duncan, Claire Higgins, Bob Balaban and Martha Plimpton. They’re here for four-and-a-half months, including previews.
Two star-packed comedy revivals – Terrence McNally’s It’s Only A Play and George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You – are running for 18 and 17 weeks, respectively.
Tickets to the McNally show have been going faster than they can print them, for people willing to bet top dollar on a cast that includes Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, F. Murray Abraham, Megan Mullally and, in his Broadway debut, Harry Potter alum Rupert Grint.
The Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing has Maggie Gyllenhaal for 14 weeks including previews. (Brother Jake Gyllenhaal will also be on Broadway this season, in Constellations, courtesy of the Manhattan Theatre Club.)
The door is revolving practically nonstop with stars for the revival of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, which just opened to glowing notices for Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy. With couples committing to just 31 to 43 performances, the roster includes Carol Burnett, Diana Rigg, Alan Alda, Martin Sheen, Stacy Keach and Anjelica Huston. Blink and they’re gone.
This is a very good deal for the stars, who only have to sign on for a few months and walk away with a not inconsiderable amount of cash (two years ago, Al Pacino earned $1.25 million during a 10-week run of Glengarry Glen Ross; Tom Hanks earned $150,000 for each of the 15 weeks he headlined Lucky Guy, not shabby for an actor making his Broadway debut).
And it’s a great deal for Broadway’s landlords, who have sexy bold-face names on their marquees and outta-sight rental income in the till as customers pay through the nose for seats, the frenzy rising as that final curtain approaches.
“Broadway is all about creating have-to-be-there live experiences,” says Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, of whose five Broadway houses, four are booked with with non-star-driven, long-running shows including The Book Of Mormon, Kinky Boots, A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder and Jersey Boys. “A great star live on stage is certainly one way to create that, as is a unique director’s vision or author’s voice.”
Is it good for Broadway? Yes. I mean, No. Well, of course it depends on your point of view. Typically, hit shows produce a spillover effect that is good for the industry: If you can’t get into one show, you may well spring for another. A star-driven hit, however, isn’t the same thing. The season Pacino and Hanks and Bette Midler were putting couture-sheathed rears in seats, Broadway registered its worst attendance in eight years. More important, the star phenomenon and the consequent real-world disconnect in ticket prices leaves a monochrome audience, the color being green.
I asked Lansbury why on earth she was subjecting herself to the outré grind of a tour.
“As my career in the theater has been a succession of long runs over a number of years, taking a show on the road was the normal thing to do,” she said, nonplussed. “It is only now that it has been brought to my attention that this is not necessarily the thing to do. Having been in the business as long as I have, and having built an audience both young and old, I get a terrific kick out of their reaction to seeing me in the flesh.
“In London this past winter I appeared in Blithe Spirit, audiences hailed me like a rock star!” she added. “Why? Because they are still watching Murder She Wrote, Bedknobs And Broomsticks, Beauty And The Beast — every day all over the world.”
Not to mention The Manchurian Candidate. Neither trouper nor star could have said it better.