Thursday, December 20, 2007

About the Longest-Running Shows List

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


JWA said...

I think the major factor is that people are more mobile now than they were in the 50s and 60s. The tourist business is what's keeping those shows open, whereas in the Golden Age, I believe New York audiences were the primary targets, and once that had dried up, there just wasn't as much business. I believe outside NY there was more reliance on tours to be able to see the big hits.

Tourism certainly feeds into the stunt casting today, because tourists know the movie and TV stars, but not the Gretchen Wylers (or the Stephanie J. Blocks). I guarantee 'Chicago' audiences are not filled with New Yorkers seeing the show for the 100th time so they can catch Lisa Rinna. There's some of that, but not much. (Last time I saw it was for Sandy Duncan in 1999, and that gave me my fill of the show.)

Broadway Blog said...

Very good points! It's interesting when I go to NYC and see shows, the perspective of an "average" theatregoer who sits next to me is very different. I'm talking about the normal Joe or Jane who doesn't eagerly follow theatre. They are much more interested in getting an experience from it rather than just being entertained.

BigM said...

What you call "stunt casting" has another name: "stars." And stars have been a part of theatre since theatre began.

Certainly, there have been shows that could run without stars, as PHANTOM, LES MIZ, THE PRODUCERS and CHORUS LINE have done recently. But there used to be theatre stars, now in short supply, so stars have to be imported form other media. The old shows were not completely free of this; the movie star George Sanders came close to replacing Ezio Pinza in SOUTH PACIFIC, and Richard Rodgers personally supervised revivals of his shows featuring such TV luminaries as Darren McGavin and Florence Henderson. Lerner and Loewe got a lot of mileage out of such non-musical-theatre leading men as Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. But as our culture becomes more fragmented and theatre becomes more of a fringe interest, star wattage will have to come from elsewhere.

StageDoorJohnny said...

Sally Ann Howes had more of a resume than Julie Andrews--tho' to be fair, she was much better known in Britain. The truer test would be to see who replaced Rex Harrison, because that was the 'star'part.
As to BigM's comments about McGavin and Henderson--both were Broadway stars before their TV fame, and Henderson had a R&H relationship going back to Oklahoma!

Broadway Blog said...

Good points all. I think we would all agree, though, that there is a big difference between a star performance (Eric McCormack in THE MUSIC MAN) and star casting (Jerry Mathers in HAIRSRPAY).