Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Back in Action, and Buzz in DramaBiz

Sorry I haven't posted in a few days. I had a bit of a stomach issue over the weekend and also had to finish up a 3,000-word historical analysis of West Side Story for the next issue of the Sondheim Review. (You got it: "Something's coming, something very long.")

Anyway, my colleague Larry Getlen has quoted me wonderfully (and surprisingly extensively) in a new DramaBiz piece on Broadway stunt casting.

Here are some quotes, though, that I'm thrilled to see in cyber print:

Are celebrities such as Lawrence, Parker Angel, Barrino and Combs on the right side of that balance? Keeping in mind that another “American Idol” winner, Jennifer Hudson, just won an Academy Award, it’s notable that Combs, who played Walter Lee Younger in the Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” was nowhere near the disaster that some feared. His presence did nothing to diminish the magnificent performances of co-stars Rashad and McDonald, both of whom won Tonys for their roles, nor did it stop the play itself from garnering Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for best revival.

Roth, who was quite taken with Combs’ performance, notes that you “can’t separate the actor from the vehicle” in that if everything else in a production soars, one less-than-stellar performance won’t ruin the entire experience. According to Roth, “They’ve gotta be really horrible to pull the whole thing down the tubes, right?”

That certainly proved true in the case of “Raisin,” which, in addition to its accolades, sold tickets like gangbusters. But that’s not to say that these castings happen without artistic sacrifice.

“There’s a scene were Walter Lee Younger has to cry,” recalls Jacobs of the “Raisin” revival, “and Kenny Leon, the director, had Combs turn his back to the audience, because he understood that there is no way Sean Combs can believably fall into a crying jag and sustain it within the dramatic veracity of the play. Is that something you have to observe, note, criticize? Absolutely. Do you then say he should never be on a Broadway stage? Well, no. Because then there are other moments where he was very interesting to watch.”

Thinking about the long-term effect of these sorts of castings, then, raises the question of whether producers risk indoctrinating new audiences into theatre by diminishing their expectations for great acting. “We have a bit of a conundrum,” admits Jacobs. “What you have to wonder is, do you take a position as a cultural critic that these things are bad, and therefore not incentivize hundreds or thousands of young people from going to the theatre at all? Is it healthy to have an Ashley Parker Angel in ‘Hairspray,’ and Vanessa Redgrave in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking,’ and Christopher Plummer in ‘Inherit The Wind,’ and a cute teenybopper du jour in ‘Rent’? I would argue yes, because I believe that if you can get someone to go see Ashley Parker Angel in the one, perhaps you can get them to go see the other. You’ve got to inculcate theatre-going onto a young person’s cultural diet, and at the end of the day, I don’t know if I care how it’s done, or with whom.”

But also, when casting people from Combs or Lawrence to Moore or Roberts, one can argue that it serves everyone’s purposes to give talented performers a chance to grow, especially if that person is a box-office draw.

“Julia Roberts was trying to stretch and learn,” says Jacobs of the megastar’s Broadway turn in Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain,” “and because of who she is, she can’t come to New York and do an off-off-Broadway equity showcase at a black box theatre.” “Just because somebody doesn’t have a lot of stage experience, you can’t punish them for that,” adds Mosher. “They come, they work for no money, and they do it because they care. That, to me, is a generous impulse.”>>

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