Whenever the longest-running shows on Broadway list is updated, I always am reminded that the totals don’t always tell the full story. Yes, obviously, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables have been major hits, which are indicated by their numbers. However, when looking at many of the longer runs of the past decade, we have to take into account the stunt-casting factor.
In the Golden Age, shows still needed big stars to sell—Gwen Verdon, Lucille Ball, Ray Bolger, Rosalind Russell, Ethel Merman, and many others. Some shows opened with big Broadway stars, while others required big film and television stars to get off the ground. Few of those shows relied heavily on replacement stars, though Hello, Dolly! is well-known for big-name replacements, as is Mame. I’m sure if I were more familiar with historical replacement casts, we’d find a few other long-running shows with stunt casting of various degrees.
However, there were many shows that didn’t call on big film, television, or pop recording names to sell tickets. When the producers of Damn Yankees needed to replace Gwen Verdon, they called on Gretchen Wyler. Julie Andrews was replaced by Sally Ann Howes. You never hear of big names being needed to replace performers in the long-running Rodgers and Hammerstein shows as well. So when you see the tally of performances of those grand old shows, the numbers seem less impressive; however, the feat is more remarkable.
So now we have musicals with great runs of 5+ years (in relation to many of the great shows of the past, that is a strong showing). But I do think we need to at least acknowledge that in comparing the runs of the past with today, it’s not an even playing field. For example, the revival of Cabaret far outran the original. But the original never used Maxine Andrews, Rose Marie, Anne Baxter, or Ella Fitzgerald the way the revival called on John Stamos, Molly Ringwald, Jon Secada, Joely Fischer, Gina Gershon, and many others. Similarly, the Chicago revival, Hairspray, Beauty and the Beast, Aida, Jekyll and Hyde, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Producers, and even Urinetown (and many others, of course) have resorted to stunt casting to run longer.
This is not a criticism against the shows themselves or the producers; it’s just a comment.
the Broadway Mouth
December 20, 2007