Tony nominations 2010: angst over nods to Hollywood stars

The American Theatre Wing's 2010 Tony nominations list, released Tuesday morning, includes Hollywood heavy-hitters like Denzel Washington and Scarlett Johannson.

Jason DeCrow/AP
Actors Jeff Daniels and Lea Michele announce the nominees for the 64th annual Tony Awards during a news conference Tuesday morning. The 2010 Tony nominations included a wealth of Hollywood A-listers.

Nominations for the 64th annual Tony Awards came out this morning, and supporters and critics alike are pointing to the high number of red-carpet, Hollywood names on the list: Denzel Washington, Scarlett Johansson, Jude Law, Kelsey Grammer, and Christopher Walken among them. The program has been nationally televised since 1967 but, say theater professionals and longtime observers, the trend toward big-name movie stars sends a dire message about the future of legitimate theater.

“It’s sad,” says Howard Suber, professor emeritus of the UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television.

“The film industry used to be a parasite on theater,” he says, hearkening back to the early days when only those who failed on the legitimate stage would go to work in Hollywood. “But now theater is a parasite on the film industry, a trend that is being accelerated by the demands of the TV show that needs a red carpet.” Mr. Suber, who has taught for 45 years and regularly flies to New York to attend the theater, points out that the Tonys telecast is modeled on the Academy Awards show, and says that as all awards shows have been doing well lately in the ratings, “why shouldn’t the theater try for the same thing?”

Beyond the television show, big names help sell tickets, says Christopher Presley, director of professional development for The Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York.

“In these times, Broadway producers are striving to create ‘must-see’ events. Hollywood star casting has become one of the ways they try to meet this need,” he says in an email.

“Unfortunately, in some cases the Hollywood stars are not able to deliver on-stage, eight shows a week.”

Broadway relies more and more on Hollywood stars to sell tickets, says Catherine Rodgers, Professor of Theatre, Meredith College in Raleigh, NC, especially for non-musicals. “As brilliant as Jude Law's "Hamlet" and Denzel Washington's portrayal in “Fences” are, they are cast to fill the seats at a time when Broadway ticket prices are soaring. This is more and more the trend of the London stage, also, particularly on the West End where Law originated his leading role in Hamlet last year,” she says by email.

When Broadway uses Hollywood stars in stunt casting, as it has with with musicals like Grease, where now even reality stars are getting plucked to appear, that's one thing,” says playwright Charles Evered, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside. But, he writes in an email, “when theatre actors who happened to have become movie stars come back to the great white way, that is a good thing."

While many of the big-name stars that now grace Broadway marquees are well known to movie audiences – think Daniel Craig of the James Bond franchise and Hugh Jackman of the X-Men series – the stage novice is more of an exception than the rule, says Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, founder of the Tonys.

He ticks off the credentials of many of the high-profile nominees: Denzel Washington began his career in New York’s Negro Ensemble Company. Mr. Jackman started on the stage, as did Mr. Craig and Mr. Walken. Mr. Sherman vigorously defends their presence on the Great White Way.

“It is insulting to all these artist to suggest this is something they do when they have nothing else going on,” says Sherman. “They have to carve time from their schedule to do live theater, but that shows a commitment.”

In contrast to many who question the health of the Broadway scene, Sherman says that much to everyone’s surprise, “Broadway has held up strikingly well at a time of great economic challenge.” Indeed, Broadway box office receipts totaled about $1 billion for last year, according Elisa Shevitz of The Broadway League.

He adds, that if one was to read what was being written about live theater back in 2008, “they were predicting disaster , but the fact is that theater-going has held steady.” He points out that the number of productions has remained at the same level. “People are still willing to invest in work on Broadway,” he says, adding that no matter how dire the predictions, live theater will not go away.

“The very thing that makes theater chalenging to produce, and succeed economically is what makes it unique and special. It can only be done for a finite number of people, but for people who crave the live experience, there is nothing that can replace it.”

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