If you spent some of last spring watching the TV series Smash, you learned that Broadway producers look for talent whose names attract audiences. The series (set to return mid-season on NBC) is about the production of a musical about one of the most bankable of all stars, Marilyn Monroe. The drama of Smash focused on two rising actresses vying for the role: Megan Hilty, a legitimate Broadway performer (as Glinda in Wicked, for instance); and Katharine McPhee, who made her name as a runner-up on American Idol in 2006. Although both showed significant talent in each episode, neither was an assured box-office draw, so a movie star was hired, more for her name than her stage experience. Uma Thurman (who knew she could sing?) played the distracted and egocentric Rebecca Duvall who ultimately walked away from the challenge.
The commercial concerns of Broadway producers are surely a big factor in their decision-making, especially how much magnetism a star can bring. Matthew Broderick is in the current production of Nice Work If You Can Get It, and he and Nathan Lane were gigantic factors in the hit musical The Producers, which won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards in 2001.
How about Neil Patrick Harris? He first made his name on TV as Doogie Howser M.D. but he’s proved to be a charismatic stage star, too, especially roles in Sondheim musicals. His crossover power is evident in that he’s hosted three of the last four Tony Awards broadcasts, the biggest annual commercial for Broadway shows.
Bernadette Peters is a genuine Broadway diva. She’s made movies, to be sure, but she’s best known as a stage star, nominated seven times for Tony Awards. She originated roles in Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, and played iconic leads in revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy. The recent revival of Follies, which had sterling performers in every role, found her at the top of the billing. In a reminder of the crossover between life, theater and TV, she played Megan Hilty’s renowned musical theater-star mother in several episodes of Smash.
And so it goes. A “Shakespeare in the Park” production of Into the Woods this summer in New York City’s Central Park cast movie star Amy Adams (who actually began her career in regional musical theater productions) in a central role; the cast includes Donna Murphy, a Tony Award winner who’s done movies and TV, as well as Denis O’Hare, now more often on TV than the stage. Although the outdoor production has received middling notices, the cast is renowned enough to generate considerable buzz about the likely transfer of the production to Broadway this fall.
So this led me to speculate whether we have bankable stars in Cincinnati. Commercial success is not so much a factor, although theaters certainly want to sell tickets. But most of them don’t run a show for more than three weeks, maybe four. So casting choices tend to be more about an actor being right for a role than about his or her ability to sell tickets. The easiest one to point to is Bruce Cromer, who has played Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol annually at the Cincinnati Playhouse since 2005, as well as several years previously as Bob Cratchit. This past season Cromer — who teaches theater at Wright State University — appeared onstage in another Playhouse show (playing two roles in Speaking in Tongues) as well as with several other companies including Cincinnati Shakespeare (he was Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons) and twice at Ensemble Theatre (in Time Stands Still and the June revival of next to normal).
There’s also Dale Hodges, a member of the Cincinnati Entertainment Award Theater Hall of Fame, who has starred in award-winning Playhouse productions including Wit and The Piano Teacher and played roles as varied as the Fool in King Lear and a very funny Indian in The Fantasticks. This fall, she’ll be the title character at ETC in the irreverent comedy Mrs. Mannerly (which recently retired Playhouse artistic director Ed Stern will stage).
Although Giles Davies, a longtime regular at Cincinnati Shakespeare, no longer lives in Cincinnati, he returns frequently and certainly has a following. That company’s artistic director, Brian Isaac Phillips, has performed at ETC and Know Theatre in recent seasons with fine results. Corinne Mohlenhoff, another distinguished CSC veteran, did a great job at ETC in Collected Stories in 2011.
Other local performers whose appearances always generate high expectations include Michael Bath, Annie Fitzpatrick, Sherman Fracher, Deb G. Girdler, Nick Rose, Michael Shooner, Amy Warner and Kate Wilford. Do their names guarantee box-office success? I can’t say that, but I can assure you that you’ll see memorable work whenever they are onstage. You can bank on that.
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