Jessica Chastain’s name has been everywhere this year. Not only did she receive an Oscar nomination for Zero Dark Thirty and star in successful thriller Mama, the actress also saw her name in lights on Broadway, where she headlined in The Heiress. But Chastain is certainly not the only celebrated film actor to take to the stage as of late. Numerous Hollywood greats — Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, and Katie Holmes, to name a few — have headlined on Broadway in the past couple of years, often to wide praise.
Yet there are many who believe that the foray of Hollywood into Broadway is taking away from the main purpose of theater; that, namely, being the exposure of fresh, raw talent that does not require the attachment of a widely-known name to be great. In response to the recent influx, Broadway has gotten plenty of flak for casting Hollywood stars as headliners. But despite perhaps a couple of minor negative aspects this pilgrimage inevitably brings into the theater business, the presence of Hollywood actors in the Broadway community has been a vital component in the survival of theater.
It is true that a negative side effect of Hollywood actors headlining Broadway shows is that they can often edge out fresh talent, whether that be of other lesser-known stage actors, of even new plays. Because big-name actors and actresses are in such high demand for stage roles, they often play a major role in deciding which plays are produced as well, and most opt for revivals rather than creative originals. This past year, for example, Scarlett Johansson expressed her interest in playing Maggie in Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and producers made it happen, sure that it would be a box office hit with her name headlining. It was. Other original plays scheduled for production on Broadway during the same time were either shelved, or pushed onto Off-Broadway stages.
But this unfortunate overlooking of fresh, unknown talent is certainly not exclusive to theater; star power is a very real thing in Hollywood as well, and plenty of talented unknowns are sidelined for big name actors and actresses. And Hollywood star power has played a huge, positive, role in theater’s revival as well. First of all, many film actors got their start in theater and are very talented stage actors. Even those who did not start on the stage have proved to be successful at it. Seasoned Hollywood actress Kathleen Turner made her Broadway debut in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1990, and won a Tony for her performance. Since, she has starred in numerous successful plays. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Scarlett Johansson, and Denzel Washington are other Hollywood heavyweights who have brought home a Tony. These actors are both talented on screen and on stage, making for beautiful theatrical performances.
Fact of the matter is, Hollywood actors are, perhaps in large part, to thank for the reemerging interest in theater in a time (and economy) when the big screen is often more appealing to the masses. Even with the inclusion of Hollywood actors in theater, only 25 percent of Broadway shows make a profit; many of the shows that do succeed are headlined by a Hollywood actor. Though the Book of Mormon did not have a major Hollywood headliner and nonetheless was a huge success, it had the draw of the recognizable South Park team to its advantage. Plays with popular film actors attached have a much easier time of getting investors, as well as getting an audience, so without them, many plays wouldn’t even be produced. And though a play may be headlined by a Hollywood actor, it is likely to employ plenty of unknowns who then may be recognized and have the play to thank for a successful future career.
Some see the entrance of Hollywood actors into Broadway as a sullying of the lofty art of theater. But talented film actors should not be denied their time on stage, especially when many of them got their start in theater. Furthermore, without them, it is unclear if Broadway would survive. So a round of applause must be given to them for keeping theater relevant in today’s age of movies and video games.