OnStage Washington D.C. Columnist
It was announced in the last few days that Sara Bareilles will be replacing Jesse Mueller in Waitress on Broadway. This was followed up by what has become a very predictable set of reactions from 4 mainstream groups. Group #1 rolls their eyes. Group #2 consists of the celebrity fans who are ecstatic for their idol. Group #3 contains the angry aspiring musical theatre performers who are ticked off that yet another not-necessarily-a-good-performer-star has “stolen” a role from one of them. And Group #4 consists of the Broadway businessmen who could each buy a Central Park West Penthouse with the money this will make them. I’m going to speak mainly to Groups 1 and 3, and give you the reasons we should celebrate celebrities on Broadway.
Let me begin with stating what I’m sure you’re all ready to scream at me: “BUT THESE CELEBRITIES USUALLY SUCK.” Yes. I know. I am a proud eye-roller from Group #1. Every male, and those females not infatuated, was ready to break their televisions when they heard Nick Jonas open his mouth in the Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Concert. We have all seen/heard a butchering of a dream role by one of these people who only bring their name on stage with them, and thought “I could do better than that.” And you probably could. My toddler daughter would have made a better Marius than Nick Jonas. That being said, let’s do our very best to put our feelings aside and look at some unfortunate realities of our world.
We live in a culture that is obsessed with celebrities. Even the most famous Broadway star can’t touch a Hollywood celebrity. Lin Manuel said it best when he hosted SNL: “I’m fresh off a long run performing in my musical Hamilton, which fortunately is one of the biggest hits ever on Broadway, so that means most of you at home have no idea who I am.” While I’m sure many of you reading this have your favorite Broadway people over whom you “fan girl” (I personally would plane/train/automobile to see Norm Lewis recite the phone book) the majority of Americans wouldn’t know their names or faces, and certainly would not come to see a show just for them.
Whether we like it or not, a lot of people will come see a show for the sole purpose of seeing Sara Bareilles. They will come see a show to see Nick Jonas. They will come see a show to see Carly Rae Jepsen. They would even come to a show to see Snooki. This is an entire sect of the population who would never go to a Broadway show otherwise. Do we really care why a person who is new to the theatre comes in the door? They may very well come to see their celebrity idol crush, and leave with, at the very least, a whole lot of questions. Where might those questions lead them? Youtube. Where will Youtube lead them? 6 hours of “Defying Gravity” comparison videos trying to decide which is the best. (Julia Murney is the best acted and Carrie Manolakos is the best sung. Fight me.)
There’s another aspect of Broadway that no one ever wants to talk about: money. The aforementioned Group #4 needs to make money. The celebrity-worshiping non-theatre folk are spending an insane amount of money on over-priced tickets. Sara’s first 3 performances are already sold out, and the 4th has tickets running at about 350 bucks. A ticket for tomorrow’s show is about $170, and prices have shot up since the announcement of Mueller’s departure. This money is not just funding the evil, greedy Capitalists’ Scrooge McDuck-style piles of gold. This is the same money that will be funneled into the next show they can open, which will give new opportunity for audiences, as well as provide hundreds of jobs.
The money issue is one of the most serious facing the theatre community. Many people won’t go see a Broadway show because of the ticket prices. Ticket prices are shooting up because the theatres can’t afford to stay open. The theatres can’t afford to stay open because they’re paying their celebrity cast members too much and the production value of their shows is way over the top and unnecessary. They’re paying their celebrity cast members too much and the production value of their shows is way over the top and unnecessary because many people won’t go see a Broadway show.
Broadway and its producers are participants in the Free Market just like everyone else. They need to supply what the market demands, or they will go under. We don’t have to like it, but this is the reality. Theatres need money. Lion King has been on Broadway for twenty years and Mamma Mia! ran for nearly fourteen. Next to Normal didn’t even make it two years (and lost the Tony Award to a silly dancing boy. Don’t even get me started), Bridges of Madison County didn’t get three full months, and Lippa’s Wild Party ran fifty-four performances Off-Broadway. We don’t have to like it, but big, flashy, easy, bright shows make money. In a perfect world, I’d never have to make this choice, but I would personally rather see a mediocre celebrity performer in an incredible show than a full cast of incredible performers in a mediocre show.
So, here’s my question for those of us who loudly protest when these realities show their ugly heads, and I’m not going to beat around the bush: Are we such snobs that we’re willing to let our perfectionist desires for how it’s “supposed to be” shut out a potential new generation of theatre geeks and run Broadway out of business?
Luke Garrison is currently studying Criminal Law and Constitutional Theory at Seattle University Law School, and is a graduate of The Catholic University of America. For Questions or Comments, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To hear more from Luke, follow him on Twitter: @_lukegarrison