Big Names on Broadway: Productive or Problematic?

Adriana Nocco

On July 31st, I had the immense pleasure of attending an evening performance of Hand to God on Broadway. The play centers around a character named Jason’s time at the Christian Puppet Ministry in the extremely religious town of Cypress, Texas. The hand puppet he has made in class, Tyrone, takes on a hilarious yet terrifying personality of its own and takes over Jason’s life and psyche completely; Jason is seemingly powerless to stop “him.” I found Hand to God to be fascinating, thought provoking, AND sidesplitting hilarious all at the same time.

Although The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q have similar comedic styles to that of Hand to God, Hand to God manages to differentiate itself in its own right, and in my opinion, its five-person cast is flawless. Steven Boyer’s performance as Jason/Tyrone is masterful and triumphant, and the four other cast members (Geneva Carr as Margery, Sarah Stiles as Jessica, Marc Kudisch as Pastor Greg, and Michael Oberholtzer as Timothy) each brought something wonderful and clever to the table. However, even though Hand to God is an amazing show, possesses an amazing cast, and also happens to have been nominated for five 2015 Tony Awards (including Best Play), there had been multiple empty seats in the house that night.

Upon noticing this, I was astonished. 

After curtain call, I was incredibly excited to hopefully have the chance to meet Hand to God’s phenomenal actors and get their autographs at the stage door. My boyfriend and I ran to the stage door and awaited their arrival, but we were shocked when we noticed that only ten other audience members besides ourselves had decided to stick around and seek out the Hand to God actors.

Meanwhile, around the corner, dozens upon dozens of people were waiting outside to catch a glimpse of Taye Diggs exiting Hedwig and the Angry Inch, many of whom, I bet, had not seen the show that night.

Yes, Taye Diggs is an exceptionally talented man, but the Hand to God cast is also exceptionally talented…and yet almost no one had chosen to stay and shower them with the acclaim they so deserve. The unimpressive audience turnout at Hand to God that night and meager presence of audience members at the Hand to God stage door, which contrasted starkly against the huge audience turnout and presence at the Hedwig and the Angry Inch stage door, come down to one crucial difference: although both shows are terrific, Taye Diggs is a celebrity, a big name star, and the Hand to God cast members are not. 

To be totally honest, I am not quite sure how I feel about the fact that big names have been taking over Broadway in recent years. On one hand, I can understand why this has been happening. Nowadays, theatre is far from a dominant art form in our society due to the fact that movies and television have astronomically increased in popularity, and as a result, ticket sales have been down; without those ticket sales, Broadway cannot function. Period. With A-list film and television stars headlining Broadway shows, demographics that would never normally buy Broadway tickets buy said tickets in order to have a chance to see their favorite stars of the big and little screens in person. As a result, ticket sales increase dramatically, which helps Broadway dramatically. Also, I must admit, it IS pretty cool to have the opportunity to see talented celebrities such as Emma Stone (an otherwise seemingly “untouchable” A-lister), for instance, performing in Cabaret right before our very eyes. 

However, on the other hand, I often feel that having big names take over the Broadway stage is unfair and almost degrading for those who aspire to have successful, Broadway-oriented careers. Many of the Broadway’s brightest stars, “big names” in the eyes of a small community, have worked their fingers to the bone for years in order to earn their share of the Broadway spotlight. It sometimes seems as if A-listers feel as if they can waltz in whenever they wish, whenever they feel like being in a Broadway show, and steal that spotlight away from those who have spent their entire lives taking acting/singing/dancing lessons, spending thousands of dollars and countless hours on improving themselves, waiting for the right opportunity and the right role to come along. (Additionally, these A-listers, although this is not always the case, aren’t always skilled enough, prepared enough, or right enough for the Broadway roles they are granted.) It annoys and frustrates me that film and television celebrities have the power to effortlessly conquer a domain that is not theirs.

It also makes me feel hopeless and, frankly, a little terrified, about the field I wish to pursue. What if I spend my life working towards achieving my Broadway dreams, only to have them stolen from me by someone whose agent made a five-minute phone call to earn them my role?

When I went to see the recent Broadway revival of Cabaret (starring Emma Stone and Alan Cumming) this past January, I was incredibly disappointed in the theatergoing public that night. I walked into the theatre lobby with my ticket, and prior to the start of the show, the ushers announced that Emma Stone would not be going on as Sally Bowles that night; an understudy would be going on instead. They also said that anyone who wanted to opt out of seeing the show that night, return their tickets, and get a refund as a result could line up on the left side of the lobby. For me, staying to see the show regardless was a no-brainer.

Understudies are some of the hardest working people on Broadway, I have a huge amount of respect for them, and I knew that the person playing Sally that night would be wonderful. (She was.) I also was excited beyond belief to see Alan Cumming’s infamous portrayal of the Emcee. (He was outstanding.) However, roughly half of that night’s planned audience of Cabaret lined up for refunds, and I was truly astounded by their lack of respect for the rest of Cabaret’s cast, creative team, and for the theatrical world in general. I also felt sorry for them after the show had ended; they missed out on a spectacular night of live theatre simply because they did not feel like sticking around to see someone other than Emma Stone perform the leading role. 

Additionally, when the show ended, my boyfriend and I saw a man carrying around a stack of at least twenty Playbills, mistook him for an usher, and we asked him if we could each have one (Playbills were being handed out after the show had ended in order to preserve Cabaret’s shock value). The man was not an usher, but rather happened to be the father of the understudy I had seen playing Sally Bowles that night, and was collecting Playbills from that specific performance for their entire family to keep. He excitedly told us that she had been striving to play a leading role on Broadway for the longest time, and that this was the first time she had ever gone on as Sally. My heart melted, and we told him that he should be proud, for she had done a fantastic job. It is so unfortunate that half of that night’s anticipated audience had deemed her performance unworthy of their time without having born witness to it.     

At the stage door immediately after Hand to God had ended, when I asked Michael Oberholtzer (aka Timmy) for his autograph, he said to me jokingly: “You want my autograph? Okay, but it ain’t worth nothin’.” But the thing is, as an aspiring stage actress, it IS worth something to me.

It commemorates the occasion during which I had the privilege of meeting people who, although they might not possess names that draw in gigantic crowds, are unbelievably good at what they do, at what I hope to have the chance to do professionally and half as well as they do someday. It commemorates the occasion during which I was able to meet extraordinary actors regardless of whether or not they have achieved celebrity status yet, actors like the ones in the cast of Hand to God (a show which, if you can, you should without a doubt purchase tickets to see). For me, that is what Broadway is all about: the talent, the professionalism, and above all, the artistic integrity, all three of which contribute to the true meaning of theatre. It is a place where the people who are the masters of my craft, the people I idolize, are able to dominate and shine; it feels like home for me, and it IS home for them.

Hopefully, when visiting stars with big names enter our sanctuary, they will remember to step inside gently and share the Broadway spotlight rather than shoving Broadway’s full-time inhabitants aside in order to bask in it themselves. As long as they (and the fans who have followed these newcomers to Broadway) respect the craft and the community that was well established before their arrival, I am sure that both Broadway performers and devotees (such as myself) will make some room and welcome them. After all, nothing is more strongly associated with community than theatre.

What do you think of the recent “big names on Broadway” phenomenon? Please feel free to share your opinion below