Hit tuner bets on low-profile thesp to fill mad Max role

NEW YORK — Henry who?

That was probably the popular reaction to the news that Henry Goodman would take over as Max Bialystock in “The Producers” following the mid-March exit of Tony winner Nathan Lane.

In choosing an actor without much of a New York profile to take over the role (Goodman has only been seen on Broadway as a replacement in “Art”), the producers of “The Producers” were signaling it’s the show that makes the stars, and not the stars that make the show. (Matthew Broderick is being replaced by a somewhat more familiar face, TV star Steven Weber.)

As evidence, they pointed to the show’s whopping advance of more than $25 million going beyond March 17, when the new actors take over.

“Given that figure,” says producer Tom Viertel, “we don’t feel we’re particularly vulnerable in any sense. We do believe the show has become the star. And we’ve seen, from the many performances with understudies, that the show really cooks as long as you’ve got great actors in these great roles.”

Viertel says the producers decided early on in the run to concentrate on finding not a starry replacement for Lane, but an actor who could meet the challenges of the role.

Considering the increasing proliferation of TV and movie names on Broadway, the thinking might seem to be going against the grain. Are they taking a risk of tarnishing their hot product by decreasing the star wattage?

A look at Broadway history reveals several factors working in the favor of the “Producers’ ” producers.

The hits of the past decade, to begin with, have rarely relied on stars for their longevity. The tourist auds that will keep a show running for years have become accustomed to focusing on hit titles, not name players.

“Beginning with ‘Cats’ and continuing with the other Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh shows, the title itself became the star,” says Steven Suskin, a producer and Broadway historian. “It never mattered who was in these shows. And this isn’t only the big British ones: Look at ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or ‘Lion King.’ You can’t even tell who it is under those costumes.”

(The one Lloyd Webber show that relied on star power for its appeal, “Sunset Boulevard,” was a flop that lost altitude after Glenn Close exited.)

In this respect, and considering the acclaim that has come to stars Broderick and Lane, “Producers” might seem to be a throwback to a distant era, when audiences flocked to theaters to see a performer, not a spectacular piece of staging.

And Viertel is the first to admit Lane and Broderick were central to the process of creating “The Producers.”

“Sure, Nathan’s had a lot to do with the way ‘The Producers’ is on the stage,” he says. “And certainly the fact that Nathan and Matthew were in it to begin with gave the show a gloss that it couldn’t have otherwise achieved.”

Broadway history does contain a few corpses of shows that lost altitude quickly once a marquee name exited: the Chanel bio-musical “Coco,” which flopped quickly after Katharine Hepburn left nine months into the run, for example. “Sweet Charity” closed a few weeks after Helen Gallagher took over for ailing star Gwen Verdon.

But Viertel and others point out that for the most part those were shows of middling or poor quality, as critics noted — a category into which “Producers” certainly doesn’t fall.

First-rate musicals — even ones strongly associated with their original performers — have generally run long after those performers were replaced.

Think “Funny Girl” and you think Barbra Streisand, but the show ran for 1,348 performances, and Streisand was in only a little more than half of them. When Mimi Hines took over, the weekly gross quickly dropped from an SRO $86,000 to the $40,000s and $50,000s, but the show continued to run and even moved from the Winter Garden to the Majestic.

“My Fair Lady” was built to suit Rex Harrison and made a star of Julie Andrews, but, as Variety noted in a February 1958 followup review, “As it nears the two-year mark on Broadway, even with replacements in every leading part, ‘My Fair Lady’ remains one of the top musicals of showbiz history.” It ran for more than four years after that review.

And everyone points to one of the most famous replacement stories in Broadway history. Zero Mostel (speaking of “Producers”!) was so confident that he was integral to the success of “Fiddler on the Roof” that he signed only a six-month contract.

“He assumed they would rehire him for more money, with those reviews; but he was also giving his own version of the show and they didn’t hire him back,” Suskin recalls. The musical ran for 3,242 performances nonetheless; it’s been touring the country again this season.

Of course, the most popular model for replacement casting is finding a star of at least vaguely equivalent stature, the way David Merrick put Ginger Rogers, Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman in “Hello, Dolly!” after Carol Channing went on the road.

This theory paid off handsomely for the Weisslers when they got the best grosses in the show’s run for Reba McEntire, one of Bernadette Peters’ replacements in “Annie Get Your Gun.”

Henry Goodman is not, of course, a cute-as-a-button country singer with a massive American following. But who knows?

Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, observes that it all comes down to the performances.

“If the reviews for the replacements are good, the lack of a major name in it will in no way impair that show,” he says. He also observes that with long-running shows that spin off numerous companies, it’s impossible to lock in enough major names for significant periods of time; TV and film always pay better, so it always pays to “make the show look like the star.” (Another starless hit: “Mamma Mia!”)

Schoenfeld, who has no connection to “Producers,” waxes enthusiastic about the potential of Goodman: “I would think that Henry Goodman would really be terrific in the role. I’ve never seen him be anything other than terrific.”

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