Broadway Returns To Its Star-Driven Roots

I wanted to say something quickly about the news that the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises, a very successful and profitable production that was bringing in lots of money every week, will close in January after running only 291 performances. The revival was built around two major stars, Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth; their contracts are up, and the producers decided to close the show because its success was completely dependent on them.

As the linked article notes, this is something that’s happening all over Broadway, though this is a pretty extreme case. Producers know, more than ever, that they need to have stars to keep a show running. But what interests me is that — especially when it comes to musicals — this is both a reversal and a reversion. It’s a reversal because it’s very different from the way we’re used to thinking of musicals. In most of the biggest hit musicals of the ’40s through the ’90s, the show was the star. The original Promises, Promises ran for 1,200 performances with a leading man (Jerry Orbach) who wasn’t at all well-known outside of New York at the time, and a leading lady (Jill O’Hara) nobody had heard of before the show, and who didn’t do much afterward.They were replaceable, and the show could go on without them.

Even shows that had a clear star part, dominating the evening, could run forever by putting relative unknowns into that part, as long as they were up to the challenge. Fiddler On the Roof is an example: it’s a star vehicle, but once Zero Mostel had it up and running, he could be replaced by an assortment of people, including Herschel Bernardi, who was extremely successful in the part even though he wasn’t anything like a star at the time. Phantom of the Opera is another show with a star part that doesn’t require a star name every time. There are a few hit shows that can’t survive without a “name” in the lead role — Hello, Dolly!, which kept itself running with old movie stars that the audience might have heard of, is one — but usually, a hit musical is a bigger name than anyone in it. That’s why these hit shows become international money-spinners: you can take them anywhere, open multiple companies, and they will all be successful whether or not the performers are big stars.

What signaled the change to the current situation, as the article notes, was The Producers. The, well, producers of that show clearly thought it was a hit in the sense of those other musicals, one that would run forever on the strength of its brand name as long as they delivered good-quality performances. Instead, it turned out it was a star-dependent show, which never achieved anything like the success it had with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. The producers of The Addams Family are trying to prevent this from happening by emphasizing the cartoon family rather than the names of the stars, and yet it sure does seem like the stars are the key to the show’s current profitability. There are still recent musicals and plays that are not star-dependent, like Avenue Q. But for a big-budget Broadway production, the ticket sales often depend on stars to an extent that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.

However, as I said, it’s also a reversion, because this kind of star-dependence is a familiar part of Broadway history. If you go back to, say, the ’30s, most Broadway musicals were star vehicles — and most of them were not expected to run very long. Back then, a 290-performance run like the Promises, Promises revival would have been fine, as long as the house was full for that run and the investors made back their money. Ethel Merman or Bert Lahr (or both together, as in Dubarry Was a Lady from 1939) would star in a show, and if the show was a success, it would run as long as the star was able to stay with it. Foreign productions were rarer and multiple touring companies not usually an option. A musical was a production for that season, often full of topical references that weren’t supposed to last beyond the year. Long runs were more common with nonmusical plays.

What changed everything was Oklahoma!, a musical with no stars (though two of its leads, Alfred Drake and Celeste Holm, became stars on the strength of the show) and ran not for a season, not for a year, but for several years, an unprecedented run for a book musical. Because it had no stars, it could be re-cast over and over without hurting it; it could be, and was, toured all over the country and the world without much reduction in its value, because its value — its brand — came from the script, the score, the staging and the choreography. That ushered in the modern era where musicals are associated more with those who write and stage them than with the people who star in them. But that may be coming to an end. Maybe because the writing and staging aren’t strong enough, maybe because the economics of Broadway are closer to what they were during the (previous) Depression.