When Hugh Jackman hits Broadway next season in Jez Butterworth’s play “The River,” it’ll mark his fourth stint on the Gotham boards in a dozen years. His return not only underscores his remarkable commitment to stage work for an in-demand thesp with a busy Hollywood sked, but it also serves to highlight a decade-long shift that’s resulted in the current boom of Broadway starpower, thanks to a combination of economic changes and a growing A-lister cache that Jackman himself helped burnish.
“The River,” a three-actor thriller that producers Sonia Friedman and the Royal Court are targeting for Broadway in early 2015, is exactly the kind of star-driven, limited run play production that has become so commonplace these days. This spring has a pileup of them, with high-profile screen stars such as Denzel Washington, Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Daniel Radcliffe and Toni Collette carving out enough time in their schedules for a limited-run stage stint. Earlier this season, the fall lineup featured Rialto turns by Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Zachary Quinto and Orlando Bloom.
Such celeb-heavy productions hit the boards with far less frequency back in 2003, when Jackman made his Broadway debut in “The Boy From Oz.” After establishing himself as the breakout star of the “X-Men” franchise in the series’ first two films, he made the rare choice to book an entire year on the Main Stem toplining “Oz,” a bio-musical about Peter Allen. During the course of that run he scored a Tony (in a ceremony that was the first of his two hosting gigs for the legit kudofest), locked down a rep as one of Broadway’s major B.O. powerhouses and became a favorite among industry denizens, power players and peons alike.
And far from stalling his Hollywood work, “Boy from Oz” fit comfortably into a film career that continued unabated with movies stretching from “Van Helsing” to the Wolverine pics to “Real Steel” to “Prisoners.” “Oz” made it clear, too, that Jackman was a song-and-dance man, which no doubt put him at the top of the list for his part in the 2012 film version of “Les Miserables.”
For other big-name stars weighing a visit to Broadway, Jackman’s stint in “Oz” not only highlighted the potential rewards of a stage engagement, but it proved that a legit pitstop doesn’t have to mean losing momentum in the film world. Washington, whose gig this spring in “A Raisin in the Sun” will be his third Broadway outing since he became a marquee name, first followed in Jackman’s footsteps with “Julius Caesar” in 2005, and the following year Julia Roberts hit the boards in “Three Days of Rain.”
Those box office successes paved the way for everyone from Scarlett Johansson (“A View from the Bridge,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) to Tom Hanks (“Lucky Guy”) to Craig (“Betrayal”), whose Broadway debut was with Jackman in the 2009 run of two-actor play “A Steady Rain.” (Jackman since returned to Gotham in 2011 revue “Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway,” and for a long time was attached to brewing musical “Houdini” before he recently chose to drop out of the project.)
The other, equally important contributor to the high frequency of star-driven plays is the rise of the premium-priced ticket, which can help producers and stars alike rake in cash far beyond the now-old-fashioned conception of the “gross potential,” the number that, calculated with top ticket prices but not premiums, used to indicated the upper limit of a show’s earning potential.
If a production catches fire with auds, a limited run can push up demand to the point where, these days, auds can pay close to $500 per ticket for the best seats in the house. For producers, that kind of potential bonanza makes it easier to envision recouping on a short run while shelling out for star salaries — Tom Hanks weighed in at 12.5% of the weekly gross with a $75,000 a week minimum, for instance, while Al Pacino got $125,000 a week for “The Merchant of Venice.”
Add in the right title, preferably a pre-existing one with a high familiarity quotient, and, on a Broadway landscape where only one in five shows even recoups much less turns a profit, you’ve got the closest thing to a surefire hit that you can get. Not every effort works out — the Bloom toplined “Romeo and Juliet” never made it into the black, nor did Johansson’s “Cat” last season — but the right match of actor and title can yield a big hit along the lines of Pacino’s “Merchant” outing in 2010. And a very few stars, Jackman among them, have a proven ability to sell any show they’re in, making an unfamiliar new play like “The River” less of a fiscal risk.
All of that helps account for the flood of star-driven plays on the boards these days. “The River” — which has yet to secure a theater, dates, a creative team or co-stars — is currently one of only a few marquee-actor play outings to declare its intentions for the 2014-15 season, with Ewan McGregor in “The Real Thing” among the only other examples on the slate. But as recent seasons illustrate, that likely won’t last, and Jackman and “The River” can expect to have competition soon.