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.


Dylan said...

Amen! Great writing, and I agree with everything you said. :D

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