Do Broadway shows need ‘big names’ to survive and thrive?

What brings in the big bucks on Broadway?

New York, © Owen Barker
New York, © Owen Barker

As precarious as the theatre landscape is in the UK, Broadway is a whole other kettle of premium-priced kippers.

With the average costs of Great White Way productions pushing into the tens of millions, and greater transparency around box office income, the New York stage eco-system can be savage and charged – shows can sometimes close with days’ notice if the numbers don’t add up.

As such, some productions and investors seem to believe that a production needs a “star” to sell itself – either a big Hollywood name or a bona fide Broadway legend that can bring in the devotees or affluent locals.

The vast majority of Broadway plays (and a large wad of musicals) seem to rely on a “star” to sell themselves – in the 2023/2024 season audiences were treated to Rachel McAdams, Sarah Paulson, Leslie Odom Jr, Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, Kelli O’Hara Steve Carrell, William Jackson Harper, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Redmayne, Corey Stoll and more.

Next year, already in place are Nicole Scherzinger, Sutton Foster, Adrienne Warren, Audra McDonald, Denzel Washington, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr, Patti LuPone, Jim Parsons, Katie Holmes, Rachel Zegler, Kit Connor and George Clooney. Olivier winner Sarah Snook may also join the list soon.

The producers behind Operation Mincemeat, eyeing a transfer to New York, seem keenly aware of this trend towards the need for “star power”, polling their American fans with a question about the topic after hearing Broadway chatter. They say: “Some people in the industry are saying the show can only stand a real chance if the company is led by a Broadway star. We have backed the original cast since 2019 when we first saw them on the London fringe. We want to continue on this path and stick with the winning team.”

There are instances of shows landing with gusto without “big names”. The Play That Goes Wrong landed on Broadway with a whole brace of major awards wins and ended up becoming, at one point, the longest-running current play on the Great White Way. It still continues off-Broadway. Six, though casting Broadway regulars, didn’t have any names above its marquee – the material sold itself.

Our two cents: rather than a “star”, arguably a show simply needs to offer intrigue. This can either come through casting, awards, strong word-of-mouth – or all of the above. Without influencing the Mincemeat poll, I’d probably make the case that a show with a brace of major awards and swathes of audience clamour would probably be able to do fine without a big Broadway staple in tow.

What’s more, the theatre world loves a “star-making” turn. Look at Cynthia Erivo being catapulted to international fame after leading The Color Purple in New York. There’s very much a world where the Mincemeat crew’s trajectory is something similar.

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