In move to expand auds, shows tune in stars from music biz
NEW YORK — When “Monty Python’s Spamalot” debuted on Broadway last spring, the Lady of the Lake, in her act two show-stopper “Diva’s Lament,” complained: “I am sick of my career/Always starting second gear … I’m constantly replaced with Britney Spears.”
The line played as satire. Since then, however, reality has caught up, and Spears ranks as the latest star from the music world to be wooed by Broadway. Producer Barry Weissler ultimately failed, after much-discussed negotiations, to net his projected new “Sweet Charity” star, but other recent courtships have been more successful.
Jazz crooner Harry Connick Jr. will headline Kathleen Marshall’s revival of “The Pajama Game” at the Roundabout Theater Company; eclectic tyro singer-songwriter Nellie McKay will play Polly Peachum in this spring’s “The Threepenny Opera,” also at the Roundabout; and comic singer-songwriter Stephen Lynch will essay the title role in Broadway-bound “The Wedding Singer.” Weissler even lured Huey Lewis to the 10-year-old “Chicago.”
“We’re constantly reaching out to that music world,” says casting director Bernard Telsey, who has placed ‘N Sync’s Joey Fatone and Spice Girl Melanie Brown in “Rent” and Toni Braxton and Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams in “Aida.”
“There were times when it helped ticket sales, but it was less about that than it was that we needed great singers and great performers. So why shouldn’t we go down that avenue? That’s just as valuable as going after the graduating class of Carnegie Mellon.”
Broadway’s lust for film and TV luminaries is an old obsession. But the current interest in chart-scalers is of a newer vintage. Weissler can be credited as a trailblazer, having lured Chubby Checker, Jon Secada and Al Jarreau to the mid-’90s revival of “Grease” and Angie Stone and former Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson to “Chicago.”
Country music star Reba McEntire, meanwhile, made headlines by breathing new life into Weissler’s 1999 revival of “Annie Get Your Gun.”
Since then, producers have tapped the disparate musical worlds of R&B (Braxton, Williams), jazz (Connick) and hip-hop (Mos Def in “Topdog/Underdog” and Sean Combs in “A Raisin in the Sun”).
For “Raisin” producer David Binder, the reasons for casting music stars are self-evident. “The traditional theater audience is quite limited,” Binder says. “You go to a music star, and their audience is truly endless. How many albums has Britney Spears sold?”
And, in Binder’s opinion, it isn’t only the box office that benefits.
“A film star has more opportunities within the film world to legitimize themselves as a serious actor,” he hypothesizes. “Music stars are not given that opportunity. They can do that in the theater. Sean Combs had two small roles in films, but he had not been offered the lead in a movie. This was a big opportunity for him, and he really seized it.”
According to Binder, Combs has fielded screen offers a-plenty since his moment in the “Sun.”
Casting directors cite other forces behind these new forays into the music world. For “Rent” — which in many ways birthed the idea of casting out of clubs (aspiring rock singers were among its original stars) — the impetus is the show’s unusually taxing vocal requirements.
“All those roles are about through-the-roof singing,” Telsey explains. “You can take a music performer and put them in that show because there are not a lot of book scenes.”
For “Chicago” casting agent Howie Cherpakov, ongoing necessity is the mother of inventive thinking. “When you’re trying to maintain a show for as long as we’ve been running, you start to run out of the obvious options,” explains Cherpakov, who once sounded out Ricky Martin.
Martin also was famously sought for “Nine” and was rumored to be considered to replace Hugh Jackman when the latter left “The Boy From Oz” (the show eventually shuttered without a recast).
“You have to be creative, because everyone goes after the same handful of people who don’t want to do it. One thing that seems to work in the favor of certain music performers in ‘Chicago’ is the show is presentational. Music performers are used to performing that way.”
In the title role of its upcoming “Tarzan” musical, Disney recently cast Josh Strickland, a finalist on “American Idol,” the contestant ranks of which already have fed the Broadway casts of shows including “Rent” and “Bombay Dreams.”
Critics of the trend espy the same bottom-line cynicism often associated with Times Square dalliances with Hollywood royalty, and few professionals deny that a pop name on the marquee can stir up a dusty box office.
Still, director Scott Elliott, who drafted McKay for “Threepenny,” sees the marriage as natural. “It’s musicals. Why not, if a person can sing and act? They’re an obvious connection between music stars and musicals.”
“It’s a more natural crossover for a singer to do a stage show than a movie,” agrees Telsey. “We welcome it because it brings a freshness and excitement to the theater.”
Broadway’s supply of Grammy winners will not run dry for some time to come. “If Usher wanted to come do something, I’m sure we’d find something,” Cherpakov says. “Or Beyonce.”
Telsey, too, has his eye on the future.
“There are roles in ‘The Color Purple’ that can easily be performed by some R&B person. The composers have all written top-10 hit songs; you don’t have to explain who they are to an R&B performer. So you can maybe go to Patti LaBelle and say, ‘Hey, you want to do the part of Sofia for a year?’ ”
(Robert Simonson is the editor of Playbill.com.)