Star Power and Awards Attention: It Helps to Have Both on Broadway
“The identification with the play, I think, is about family and what home means to you,” says producer Nelle Nugent. She’s talking about her Tony-nommed revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” but she could be describing pretty much any nominee in the play or play revival categories, all of which grapple with the dynamics of the bonds of family, be they biological or makeshift.
Those themes, of course, aren’t the only thing playgoers can identify with. Also familiar are many of the big-name thesps who crowded the boards this spring in a play lineup that proved unusually crowded with star attractions.
The upshot? Tony competition is fierce, leaving some shows to struggle even with a star on the marquee, while others managed to find audiences with or without the help of the noms.
For instance, John Logan’s “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” was locked out of the Tony noms but it’s still a boffo seller thanks to Bette Midler. Similarly, Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy” seems like the surest of Broadway bets even without its six Tony noms (including one for new play). It stars Tom Hanks. Even though the production’s topped the $1 million mark every week it’s been on the boards, producer Colin Callender wasn’t so sanguine heading into previews.
“Opening a brand new play on Broadway with a cast this size is a big risky affair,” he says. “People say we’ve negated the risk with Tom Hanks, but look, there was no guarantee at the time that it would succeed commercially. There are other big stars who didn’t make the box office work.” (See: Alec Baldwin in Orphans, which scored three Tony noms but still shuttered May 19 due to disappointing B.O.)
“Trip to Bountiful” benefits from Cicely Tyson returning to the Rialto for the first time in 30 years alongside Vanessa Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr. in a play that’s most often performed by a predominantly white cast. That was enough to garner press coverage, as was Tyson’s trip to Foote’s hometown for research, the subject of a feature in the New York Times. “I knew we had a backstory that could garner a lot of press interest,” Nugent says.
Christopher Durang’s horse in the new play race, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” had recognizable faces in David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver, but perhaps more important, it also had a well-received Off Broadway run that proved a success for Lincoln Center Theater.
“It was the best-attended, biggest-grossing run at LCT’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater ever,” says Joey Parnes, the commercial producer behind the Broadway transfer. “People would say to me, ‘Well, I just don’t think it’s commercial,’ but one of the reasons I thought we would be OK is the word-of-mouth at the Mitzi was so good, all we had to do was get the word out that it was coming to Broadway.”
There’s also one sleeper in the Tony mix: Manhattan Theater Club’s “The Assembled Parties,” the nominated new play by Richard Greenberg starring Jessica Hecht and Judith Light. There was very little advance publicity on the show, but that didn’t seem to stop critics from adoring it or auds from finding it.
“The box office keeps going up and up, and that’s word-of-mouth,” says MTC a.d. Lynne Meadow, who also helmed the production.
The awards race, of course, gives all the nominees a publicity boost — but the season was so competitive that only half of the major play nominees are still around to enjoy it. Along with “Orphans,” Tony-nommed revivals of “Golden Boy” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” have already shuttered, as has new play “The Testament of Mary.”