Movie stars packing 'em in -- on Broadway


Movie stars aren't worth their weight in boxoffice gold today, but suddenly they're the hottest thing on Broadway.

Crowding the top seat? Jude Law, Julia Stiles, Daniel Craig, Sienna Miller, James Spader, Rupert Everett, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Jane Fonda and Katie Holmes all have hit the Broadway boards this season.

Icing on the cake: Anne Hathaway, who just finished a month in Shakespeare in the Park's "Twelfth Night."

Years ago Hollywood went after legit stars to topline movies. Now it's the reverse. Broadway producers realize the play's no longer the only thing. To sell tickets today you also need a marketing hook, a la a movie star.

Adding to the Hollywoodization of Broadway are a half-dozen current shows that don't boast movie stars but do have the advantage of being based on brand name films: "Shrek the Musical," "Mary Poppins," "Billy Elliot," "The Little Mermaid," Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" and the long running "The Lion King."

On the way: "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark," opening Feb. 18, 2010. Directed by Julie Taymor with music and lyrics by Bono & The Edge. Spidey will also be packing some movie star power with Evan Rachel Wood.

To make sense of all this, I caught up with Gunnar Larson, president & CEO of, whose covers all things theater. The site features celebrity interviews shot on opening night red carpets -- just like the media cover movie premieres.

"Stars coming to Broadway definitely give shows added marketing appeal," Larson explained. "It's a lot easier to market a show with a huge name the public already knows than to market a cast that nobody knows."

For instance: Katie Holmes just starred in the revival of "All My Sons." As soon as word got out that Holmes was coming to Broadway, the media was all over the story. "That's free publicity and free promotion for a show," Larson emphasized.

To be sure, not every movie star has the acting chops to do theater. "When a Hollywood star does a movie there's 15 takes to get a scene right. But when they're on a stage in front of a live audience, they have to get it the first time."

As for Holmes: "Broadway audiences are a lot less forgiving than Hollywood audiences. You have to pull your weight -- and she did."

Casting movie stars gives Broadway producers something new to promote and they're starting to make the most of it by changing how they market shows. Until now Broadway marketing was all about buying full page ads in the Sunday N.Y. Times.

Now producers are also using Web sites like that reach theatergoers not only in the New York area but worldwide. And that's giving them much greater reach. And unlike newspaper ads, Larson reminds, "You can attach a video in an ad with us" and let people see what a show looks like.

Considering the far-flung audience that's buying tickets, using the Internet to market plays makes sense: "In the 2008 season approximately 65% of Broadway tickets were purchased by tourists."

While movie stars boost a show's boxoffice potential, they also increase budgets even though they're paid much less money than they get from Hollywood.

"Let's be honest. I don't sit there and ask Anne Hathaway, 'Hey, how much are you getting paid?'" Larson replied when I asked about star salaries.

"She is not getting as much for a Broadway show as she is for a movie," he observed. "It does run up the budget, but they're also getting a lot more publicity for free."

So what's in it for the movie stars? "An actor can look at this and say, 'I'm going to go to Broadway and I'm going to refine my skills.'"

On the other hand, not every show needs movie stars. Those based on hit movies can market their brand name titles and elaborate sets -- like "Shrek the Musical."

"One of the most amazing sets on Broadway right now is 'Shrek,'" Larson told me. "And there are no Hollywood star. Sutton Foster and Brian D'Arcy James are phenomenal" and no one cares that they're not Hollywood names.

Of course, hiring movie stars does not necessarily guarantee a hit show. "New York audiences are tough. You can have a star, but if it's not a good story, it's not going to matter."

Larson points to "Hair:" "There's no big Hollywood name, but it's one of the most successful shows on Broadway right now because of that story. They were having trouble raising the money to bring that show to Broadway." He credits producer Jeffrey Richards with finally putting together the financing to mount the revival.

Between movie star names and increasingly sophisticated marketing, Broadway's doing pretty well despite the recession. Official statistics for the season aren't out yet, but Larson said business has improved significantly from earlier this year when shows were closing and people believed "a cold, cold winter" was on the way.

"And then, all of a sudden, Broadway numbers were up. Business, I think, is better than what people were expecting. These stars coming to Broadway and doing a good show and telling a good story are helping for sure."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on