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Why Are Movie Stars Struggling to Sell Broadway Tickets?

In the days leading up to Forest Whitaker’s Broadway debut in “Hughie,” people were nervous. Gossip columns picked up on rumors that Whitaker couldn’t remember his lines during preview performances. Word on the street was that the production had collected only the most piddling of advanced sales.

Reviews, it turned out, were largely admiring of Whitaker’s performance — but the sales question remains in serious doubt. During its preview period, the production’s weekly box office dipped below $300,000, and never managed to make 50% of its weekly gross potential. Which raises the question: What does a distinguished, Oscar-winning actor making his Broadway debut have to do to sell a ticket?

For a while there, movie stars looked like Broadway gifts from the Hollywood gods. Even celebrities who got scathing reviews could ensure major ticket sales: Sean Combs, the former P. Diddy, got a big thumbs-down for his performance in the 2004 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” but that didn’t stop it from becoming one of that season’s biggest hits. Critics mostly panned Julia Roberts for her tentative work in the 2006 production of “Three Days of Rain,” but sales were still stratospheric.

These days, star power isn’t what it used to be. Paul Rudd in “Grace” (2012), Scarlett Johansson in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (2013), Orlando Bloom in “Romeo and Juliet” (2013), Daniel Radcliffe in “The Cripple of Inishmaan” (2014), Bruce Willis in “Misery” (2015) — all of them closed in the red.

Chalk it up to a waning of star power in general, at a time when not even George Clooney or Sandra Bullock can guarantee a hit at the movies. And that’s just one of a number of factors at play on Broadway, where the presence of a movie star might bring a box office boost or, just as often, a collective shrug from playgoers now faced with a growing list of big names trying their hands at the stage.

Take a step back, and it’s clear that the most spectacularly profitable instances of star casting — Larry David’s box-office busting run in his comedy “Fish in the Dark,” for instance — are in works that feel on-brand with an actor’s screen work. So on one hand, you’ve got a screen actor wanting to stretch and try something new, and on the other you’ve got playgoers who’ll only turn out in droves for the kind of work they already know they want to see their favorite actor in.

It’s a tension most clearly illustrated in the Broadway track record of Radcliffe, who tends to choose Broadway projects as challenging as the edgy indie film work he’s favored in his post-Harry Potter years.

Even though he was the star of a tentpole film franchise with zillions of fans, his Broadway debut in a 2008 revival of “Equus” didn’t click — probably because his groupies weren’t interested in seeing Radcliffe in a dark, adult drama about a naked kid who blinds horses. Not even his well-reviewed performance in the lauded 2014 revival of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” made money. They both closed in the red.

Radcliffe’s most successful Broadway outing was his big-money run in the 2011 revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” a family-friendly, classic title that meshed well with the fans who knew him from the Potterverse.

That kind of canny casting can overcome any brickbats the critics might throw at a show — as was the case with David’s “Fish in the Dark,” which got mixed reviews in 2015 but sold like hotcakes on the strength of David’s fans and a play that fell right in line with the cringe-comedy fans love in his HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” For the whole time David appeared in the production, “Fish in the Dark” sold more than $1 million a week, a tally far more common for large-scale, mass-appeal musicals than plays — adding up to almost $21 million over David’s 18-week run.

Earlier that season, Bradley Cooper took “The Elephant Man” to Broadway at the precise moment when his Hollywood fame hit critical mass, and a concurrent Academy Award nomination confirmed him as an actor’s actor who could handle a challenge. That timing helped make “Elephant Man,” in which he made his 2014 Broadway debut as the title character, one of that year’s top-selling plays, racking up almost $15 million in less than 16 weeks.

Only a very elite group of big-name actors — Roberts, Hugh Jackman (“A Steady Rain,” “The River”), Denzel Washington (“Fences,” “A Raisin in the Sun”), Tom Hanks (“Lucky Guy”) — seem able to sell tickets solely by putting their names on the marquee. But even membership in that elite group isn’t permanent. The cautionary tale: Al Pacino’s recent experience with “China Doll.”

Pacino seemed like one of those stars who could make a Broadway hit of reading the phone book, as evidenced in boffo runs of “The Merchant of Venice” (2010) and “Glengarry Glen Ross” (2012). For the first several weeks of “China Doll” this fall, the David Mamet play posted huge sales.

But then something funny happened: The negative buzz on both the play and on Pacino’s performance became so deafening that, after those initial weeks powered by explosive advance sales, box office slumped. The actor’s longstanding appeal got the production to recoupment — but in order for Pacino to get his Broadway groove back, he’ll need to pick his next project very carefully.

He’ll need something as clearly on-brand as two upcoming star-driven offerings seem to be. “Blackbird,” the drama (opening March 10) starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, looks promising, since Daniels contributed to the star power that helped make 2009 play “God of Carnage” a hit, and the intense, intimate story of “Blackbird” fits right in alongside the edgy independent films in which Williams has given acclaimed performances on the big screen.

Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong’o is making her Broadway debut at a peak in her movie career. The March 6 opening of “Eclipsed” comes hot on the heels of her role in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and two years after her Oscar for “12 Years a Slave.”

Early sales numbers for both shows have been solid, particularly for titles that will be unfamiliar to anyone but the most avid theater fans, and over weeks when much of Broadway was suffering a winter lull. But still, neither show is posting the kind of numbers right out of that gate that would guarantee a profit. That’s a sign of a challenging, competitive market, especially since Williams, Nyong’o and Daniels — Whitaker too — are exactly the kind of prestige names that the older, affluent demographic of playgoers would presumably want to see on stage.

Just as the clique of star actors who can reliably open a film is diminishing, so is the pool of celebrities who can turn the stage door into a rock concert with screaming groupies lined up on 45th Street. In the world of Instagram and Twitter, why pay $120 for a theater ticket when you can stalk a star online for free?

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