How to Succeed on Broadway Without Really Trying

It all begins with a story. Last November, I was sitting in my dorm room, trying and failing to study for an Anatomy quiz I had that week. All of the sudden my phone buzzed with an incoming text. It was from Michelle, and while I can't remember the specific language of the text, the gist was something like this: OMG Chicago cast Ashlee Simpson in their show WHY???????

Suitably stunned, I immediately went searching on the internet, sure that Michelle was mistaken, because who would really put a girl who is most well known for lip-synching her performance on "Saturday Night Live" in a position where she had to sing live theater eight times a week? Well, as my internet search was quick to answer me, the casting directors of Chicago. That's who.

This was probably the first time that I was consciously aware of the phenomenon of stunt casting. We've all accused a show of it at some point or another; inevitably, they'll hire somebody and the first reaction when you hear it will be really? Are they that desperate to sell tickets that they hired [insert name here] to play [insert role here]? S/he is only moderately talented! We've all thought it. I can admit it. I'm usually more guilty of it than others. What can I say? I'm a little bit critical of traditionally "non-theater" people attempting to perform live eight times a week. If theater geeks can have pet peeves, stunt casting would probably be high on the list (probably below audience members who sing along with the show or talk during the show or people who have crinkly wrappers they just have to open at a critical moment of the show, but a pet peeve nonetheless).

The question, or rather the issue with so-called "stunt casting," is what actually constitutes stunt-casting. So after much conferring with Michelle, I have decided on the following definition. In our (very esteemed) opinion, stunt casting is the use of a celebrity or well-known name who has not done work in theater before and whose casting is partly driven by the increase in ticket sales that will result from the name recognition of the celebrity by the general public. In some cases, the talent and appropriateness of the celebrity in the role is questionable.

Working from that definition, there have been many people who could fit the bill for celebrity casting. Ashlee Simpson is a prime example. Chandra Wilson (Chicago seems to be a go-to show for celebrities who want to experience live theater), Clay Aiken, Corbin Bleu, Julia Roberts, and Catherine Zeta-Jones are all examples of traditional stunt casting. Having not seen all of their performances, I cannot comment with certainty about the quality of their performances, but based on what I've read and heard, some of these attempts at stunt casting were markedly more successful than others. Others, such as Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young, are not true stunt casting because, although they have been on "American Idol," their names aren't easily recognizable unless you closely followed the show (that, and they have true, legitimate talent). At the same time, of course, there are plenty of "A-listers" whose work on Broadway is not considered stunt casting due to their extensive work in theater. Denzel Washington, Jude Law, Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig, and Daniel Radcliffe are all bona fide thespians with the stage credits to prove it. However, it is indisputable that their star power sells tickets and fills seats on a nightly basis.

What is also pretty indisputable, though, is that the audience is getting a great performance out of the deal. With some of the more questionable fruits of stunt casting's labor, the quality of performance is questionable, but the seats still get filled. Why is it that a celebrity alone is enough to pique the average person's interest in seeing a show, but the quality and content of the show and its other stars itself is often not? This, I suppose, is my biggest qualm with the stunt casting phenomenon. My thought process and rationale of stunt casting, in all honesty, is perfectly mirrored in the hysterical lyrics of the brilliant [title of show]. In the immortal words of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, speaking about what it takes to get a musical on Broadway,

Player, I mean TV stars, pop stars, movie stars like Tony Braxton and Jenna Elfman.

But, I want our show to be good!

You want your ass to make some money!

But, I believe that a good product with talented people is the way to go! 
Hiring some talent-free celebrity just lowers the
bar and I think audiences deserve better!

Wee-waw, wee-waw, waw, waaaww… shit. 
Audiences want to see Paris Hilton in the Apple Tree.

Who wants to see Paris Hilton in the Apple Tree?

I don’t know, a lot of people. Fuck, your ass is crazy Mother Fucker.

As sad as it is, the words speak the truth. A lot of people would pay to see Paris Hilton star in The Apple Tree, just because it's Paris Hilton. Kristin Chenoweth, Brian D'Arcy James, and Marc Kudisch were able to keep the show open for three months, but I'm sure that had Paris Hilton been headlining, the show would have run longer. And that just boggles my mind. Why would people rather see Paris Hilton than Kristin Chenoweth? Granted, I'm a theater geek, so I would take Cheno over pretty much any Hollywood celebrity, but still. I guess seeing Paris Hilton would be entertaining in an "oh my goodness this is such an awful trainwreck" kind of way, but I would never pay good money to see it.

And yet, people do. All the time. Shows stay open off of the revenues generated from casting subpar talent in roles that require more. I'm not saying that all the Ashlee Simpson's of the world would suck live (except, of course, if the thing you were most well-known for was lip-synching what was supposed to be a live performance because you couldn't sing it well enough live). I'm just saying that the majority of them would, and it's a shame that such a person has and will continue to be cast in roles while other, more deserving talents are not. I may sound like a theater snob, but I'm really not. I can appreciate that big name celebrities can entice people who would not normally attend a Broadway show into doing so. I think it's great whenever Broadway and theater get mainstream exposure (it accounts for approximately 17.5% of why I love Glee), but at the same time, it frustrates me that there are so many deserving talents who do not get the chance to get on Broadway because the Ashlee Simpsons and Clay Aikens of the world would sell more tickets.

That's all I'm saying. Call me a snob. Call me a theater elitist. I don't care. I can handle it. I just don't want to show up to Next to Normal one day and find that the role of Diana is now being played by Kathy Lee Gifford. That, I could not handle.

The hidden gems of musical theater.

Hillary and I will be heading off to Joe's Pub this coming Wednesday to see Matt Doyle perform! While I would be happy to hear him singing from a Chinese take-out menu or my communication theories textbook, I'm even more thrilled that his show is featuring the work of several up-and-coming composers, including Kerrigan & Lowdermilk, Ryan Scott Oliver, Joe Iconis, Paul Scott Goodman, Chris Miller & Nathan Tysen, Will Van Dyke, Drew Gasparini, and more.

While I can't say that I've heard of all of these talented people, I could not be more excited to hear their work performed. Only in the past year have I really begun to take the time to discover some of the lesser-known, but just as important, components of the musical theater world. It definitely takes an investment of time and energy to really listen to the lyrics of something you've never heard before, especially when the song may not necessarily be in the context of an entire show. Even if a song stands alone, though, I find that it often captures the most intriguing part of what musical theater is in the first place - isolating a single moment, and expressing it in real, often humorous, and sometimes painful lyrics.

It helps that several of my favorite actors are attached to the projects of composers like Ryan Scott Oliver and Kerrigan & Lowdermilk. Although I did not attend the various Rated RSO concerts held over the past year, videos of the talented Matt Cavenaugh singing "Caralee" and Andrew Kober and Kacie Sheik singing "Hemming and Hawing" are what pulled me into RSO's work in the first place. And it's quite fitting for Matt Doyle to hold a concert featuring such songs, since he has been involved with so many of these different projects that it's his voice I've heard singing them for the first time.

In preparation for what is sure to be another incredible night at Joe's Pub, I thought I'd take the time to discuss just a few songs that you may or may not have heard of, but are sure to stick with you, just as they have stuck with me.

1. Ewalt and Walker's "Fat Old Men" - Part of a project entitled "Separate: Battle Songs of Youth," which I believe is based on the coming-of-age novel "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles. A beautiful song that fits Mr. Doyle's voice perfectly. I also love the image of the "fat old men on Capital Hill/with their own agendas, spinning around."

2. Scott Alan's "Never Neverland" - Having first heard it on the album "Dreaming Wide Awake," sung by Stephanie J. Block, I was privileged to hear Krystina Alabado, of the Spring Awakening national tour, add her interpretation and strong voice to the song at the cast's cabaret last summer in Washington DC. It reflects Peter Pan's desire to never grow up in all of us, and how we can retain our childhood even when we are grown.

3. Carner & Gregor's "After Hours" - A recent discovery via YouTube, I haven't been able to stop listening to Jay A. Johnson's gorgeous and somewhat vulnerable rendition. It takes a snapshot of the world and all the various people who inhabit it and cross paths at unexpected times. "And I can sleep tomorrow/So much to see tonight" resonates loudly in my life as well.

4. Ryan Scott Oliver's "The Ballad of Sara Berry" - Several of Mr. Oliver's songs differ from his peers in that they are absolutely rockin', and "Sara Berry" is certainly a standout. The lyrics are beyond clever, and Lindsay Mendez, soon to be seen on Broadway in "Everyday Rapture," uses her phenomenal voice to give an intensely awesome performance.

5. Kerrigan & Lowdermilk's "My Party Dress" - A perfect example of a song performed as a solo number, Celia Keenan-Bolger does a fantastic job of creating a full-fledged character in her four minutes on stage.

Most likely, those of you reading our blog have heard of at least a few of these composers, but if you haven't, I'd encourage you to take the time to sit down and give them each a listen. Some of the best and most relevant work in the world of musical theater takes a little digging to find, but the reward at the end is more than worth the search.

Again and again - the art of seeing a show multiple times.

From the very beginning of my time at college, I've made it a habit to call my parents every Sunday. And lately, the conversation always ends up leading in the same direction, which goes something like this:

Mom: So, what do you have coming up this week?
Me: Well...we're going to New York again on Friday/Saturday/Sunday/DEFINITELY NOT Wednesday.
Mom: What are you seeing this time?

My answer to this question almost always consists of the same answers. It seems that Hillary and I can never make a trip to the city that doesn't include Next to Normal. Hair is another favorite. Once Catch Me If You Can opens, I'm pretty sure that it will become another staple. (And by "pretty sure," I mean "187.63% positive.")

Don't get me wrong - there are many, many shows currently running on Broadway that I'd love to see. I've never seen Wicked in New York, and now that Mandy Gonzalez is defying gravity as the production's newest Elphaba, I'd love to catch her in the show. I've heard great things about Memphis. The Addams Family has an incredible cast, and while reviews thus far haven't been outstanding, Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Wesley Taylor, and Krysta Rodriguez are enough to override the quality of the show. And it almost seems that Avenue Q's move off-Broadway was a sign that I should finally see one of 2003's biggest hits.

And then there are plays. One of my New Year's resolutions for 2010 was to expand my repertoire into the arena of straight plays. I would love to see Next Fall, which seems to have gotten fantastic reviews across the board. And down the road, I think I'll be kicking myself for skipping Hamlet (and not just for Jude Law...although he would have been a nice bonus).

But the thing is, when you fall head over heels in love with something, or someone, you want to spend as much time as possible with that thing, or person, right?

When I fall for a show, I want to go back - to see what I missed the first (or second, or third) time around, to pay attention to the smaller details (a spreadsheet outlining the use of colors in Next to Normal...I mean, what?), to see how interpretations of certain characters change over time. And the appeal of catching that understudy you've wanted to see since forever is, well, enough to cause spontaneous decisions, and something we've already covered in previous posts.

But even if all of those things are ignored, theater is always changing, every night. And that's why we love it. According to Hillary, "It's like that song from Pocohantas: "the thing I love most about rivers is, you can't step in the same river twice; the water's always changing always flowing" except for theater. I don't know if that makes sense, but it's a metaphor, and metaphors are important. So there." (I can't say I am familiar with the song, but I do agree with the metaphor.)

The top three shows on my "most seen" list are, in order, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, and Hair. Added together, I have seen these three shows 28 times. (No, you don't get the individual breakdown of numbers...that would be embarrassing.) Some might call that ridiculous. But the thing is, I could tell you details from nearly every single performance. I could tell you about the very first time I saw Spring Awakening, on Broadway, and the feeling I had as I put my coat into the locker and walked to my seat on-stage in BB5, next to Jenna Ushkowitz, who was a swing that day because Eryn Murman was on for Martha. I could tell you about my sixth trip to Next to Normal, when I made a solo visit to the Booth to see Aaron Tveit as Gabe one last time, and ended up sitting in the front row of the mezzanine for the second act. I could tell you about my second time at Hair, when Hillary and I were lucky enough to get in, thanks to a friend's lotto luck, see Jackie Burns as Sheila, and laugh when Will Swenson accidentally called Gavin Creel by his first name instead of Claude.

Seeing the same show over and over again is definitely not for everyone. When I took my mother to see Spring Awakening on tour last May, she told me afterwards that she understood my love for the show, but not my uncontrollable impulse to see it time after time after time.

But for me, creating a love affair with a show requires going beyond love at first sight, the initial giddiness I get after seeing a show that I know is going to change my life, and returning to forge a deeper and stronger bond with the characters, lyrics, score, and overall experience of being inside the theater.

So the next time I set foot in the Booth, the Hirschfeld, or any theater where Spring Awakening is playing, it won't be because I want to top some mythical record, or because I don't want to put a whole lot of thought into what I'm about to see. Instead, I will fondly remember all the times before, and prepare myself to add another incredible experience to the list.