Hollywood on the Hudson

Broadway is alive with the sounds of movie and TV actors

Horace Greeley once told young men to "Go West." Hollywood stars are reversing that advice and heading East. In the last couple of seasons, movie and TV actors have flocked to New York in seemingly record numbers.

Later this fall, "Baywatch" TV superstar David Hasselhoff will exchange his swim trunks for knee breeches for the title role in the long-running musical "Jekyll & Hyde"; Chris Noth of NBC's "Law & Order" (and HBO's "Sex and the City") already has shed his badge for delegate votes in Gore Vidal's "The Best Man;" and John Ritter ("Three's Company") and Henry Winkler ("Happy Days") are set to appear in Neil Simon's newest Broadway play, "The Dinner Party," opening Oct. 23. Other movie and TV stars who have appeared on Broadway recently include Patrick Stewart ("Star Trek - The Next Generation") in "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," Kevin Spacey ("American Beauty") in "The Iceman Cometh," and Kelsey Grammer ("Frasier") in "MacBeth."

The trend toward more film and TV stars appearing on stage has been propelled, says casting agent Leonard Finger, by the "McDonaldization" of Hollywood careers - meaning there's shorter shelf life for TV and film stars.

"Stars suddenly find themselves going from an A plus to a B minus [draw] in a matter of years instead of decades," Mr. Finger says. As a result, they're "looking to do theater much more than before."

Aaron Franklin, a Broadway director and retired Columbia University theater professor, says the trend is spurred by other factors too, including an actor's loyalty to a particular playwright or the desire for professional renewal. Financially, successful stars can afford to experiment with generally lower-paying theater roles.

Breaking artistic ground

Calista Flockhart's critically praised Off-Broadway appearance last year in "Bash," a gritty trio of one-act plays by Neil LaBute, may have jarred some of her "Ally McBeal" fans. But it broke new artistic ground for the actress that may have eluded her in TV roles. "In the case of Calista Flockhart and Kevin Spacey [who last season appeared in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh"], you are dealing with people who need new challenges," Finger says.

"When they're making mega-sums of money and have all the celebrity on earth, what other challenges are there for them? It's finally time to do something to make themselves happy.

"They started in the theater - and, for them at least, that's where there's unfinished business," Finger says. Ironically, "Bash" later aired on the Showtime cable network, thus completing a full circle for Flockhart from TV to stage and back to TV.

Even country singer Dolly Parton is interested in doing a semi-autobiographical stage musical. "Dolly is interested in doing Broadway, and she'll probably do it. She has a lot of original ideas for different things," says Teresa Hughes, Ms. Parton's personal assistant.

Says Ms. Parton's longtime friend and collaborator Robert Orman, "Dolly wants to do Broadway but she wants to do it on her own terms. She's been interested in doing a show called 'Wildflowers,' which has some old and some new songs."

But stars that haven't set foot on stage in years may be in for a tough time - especially if they are replacing someone who won a Tony Award or otherwise shone brightly in a role. Cheryl Ladd of "Charlie's Angels" TV fame is making her Broadway debut in "Annie Get Your Gun" as a replacement for Tony winner Bernadette Peters. She is pleasantly surprising some critics with her acting and singing abilities.

On the other hand, there are shows like "Kiss Me Kate" and "The Music Man," two revivals of classic Broadway musicals, in which the principals aren't known at all for movie or TV work. Yet it hasn't seemed to make any difference to Broadway audiences or critics, who have loved both shows.

Mr. Grammer bombed in a Broadway production of "Macbeth" this summer because neither he nor the production was very good. But he said he got immense personal satisfaction from taking on the challenging role. Likewise, star Morgan Fairchild from TV's "Falcon Crest" wasn't a big enough drawing card to overcome the devastating reviews of her off-Broadway comedy "High Infidelity."

Despite the steady stream of well-known talent from Hollywood to the Great White Way, there are impediments - such as the comparatively low salaries - which inevitably put brakes on this trend. Playwright and novelist Gore Vidal made such a point in his own inimitable way in an interview in the current issue of Playbill, the Broadway theater program, when he was asked about the casting for the revival of his 1960 political play "The Best Man."

"I think we have a very good cast," he told Playbill. "I'm amazed we did it. The villains were the Hollywood agents of actors. They will do anything to keep an actor from doing theater - anything! - because if he's at all salable, they've got movies, and they'd rather do a third-rate western so they can make their large commission - than be on Broadway, at risk, even though it's a limited run so it can't possibly do anybody any harm and could reveal facets of an actor that were not known before."

Star appeal

From a theater producer's point of view, Hollywood stars can garner much-needed publicity for a production. Sometimes, but not always, they can make it easier to sell tickets.

Getting Hollywood stars to do theater is "another example of producers going after a [new] audience for a show to keep it alive," says Ellis Nassour, associate editor of Show Business Weekly.

Daryl Roth, producer of "Snakebit," a hit off-Broadway play that recently starred Bill Brochtrup of ABC's "NYPD Blue," says, "There's a compelling reason for TV and film stars to come back to the theater.

"In the summer [production hiatus], stars know they'll have a set amount of time to do theater. And they are especially interested in doing it if they're offered a part they can really sink their teeth into...."

"Doing 'Death of a Salesman' enhanced [movie actor] Brian Dennehy's career enormously," says Broadway producer Michael Frazier. "He did great business, too. Great box office."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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