Wanna hear something amusingly ironic about the stateside star system? Just as the Hollywood Powers That Be are being forced to consider the lessening impact of box-office stars, the Broadway Powers That Be are concluding the only box-office sure-things are star names.
Think about, for instance, the box office weakness of Tom Cruise's Valkyrie or the so-so results for Jim Carrey's A Christmas Carol. Consider the humongous success of the Twilight series, which has made stars of Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart but maybe only for sequels and not when they appear in anything else. Now ruminate at what fortunes are likely to be reaped by star-name-less special-effects spectacles like James Cameron's long-awaited Avatar, despite its blizzard-plagued opening week. (Is Cameron a box-office name? -- the jury's still out.)
Notice that the biggest star in Hollywood at the moment is last week's Entertainment Weekly cover girl, Sandra Bullock, whose recent films, The Proposal and The Blind Side, have made fortunes but, pertinently, only while she also showed up in a dud like the excoriated All About Steve. Also, wonder whether Bullock will keep it up or will commit another All About Steve and turn into what used to be known as "box-office poison."
On the other hand -- the East Coast hand -- glimpse the crowd response to Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in their joint Great White Way appearance, A Steady Rain. Not to mention, Jude Law's appeal in Hamlet. Then there's Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Lansbury in A Little Night Music. How about James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels and Marcia Gay Harden in God of Carnage and Cate Blanchett in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire? (Okay, that one's at BAM in Brooklyn, but still.) There's also the impending revival of the Arthur Miller A View From the Bridge with Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson, making her Broadway debut.
But not pulling them in was -- forget his surname -- Bill Pullman or Julia Stiles in David Mamet's Oleanna or James Spader in Mamet's Race. Are the last few named only questionable stars? Is Laurie Metcalf, who was in the quickly-shuttered revival of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs? Although her television Q-rating must have been high when she was still in the now-long-departed Roseanne, it must have fallen severely since, as perhaps has Neil Simon's recognition with the public.
It's the fast closing of Brighton Beach Memoirs that's finally shocked Broadway moguls into deciding the formula to which they'd best adhere requires stars. The disillusionment the Hollywood nabobs have undergone looks to have been longer in coming--or at least longer in being acknowledged.
(That slowness to wake up and smell -- mixing metaphors here -- which way the wind is blowing has, of course, redounded to the good of actors demanding $20 million salaries.)
The upshot is that the deciders on both coasts are running scared -- whether they admit it or don't. The main problem for them is that notion of formula. They believe there is one, and that all they need do to succeed is figure out what the elusive formula is.
At the moment, it looks as if the H'wood contingent isn't quite sure what it is -- not when something like The Hangover (starring, uh, who, who and who?) comes from nowhere and rakes in shekels like so many autumn leaves. In Gotham, however, the planners are giving off the impression they've mustered a certain confidence in the star-name requirement as a vital part of the equation.
But are any of these frantic formula-seekers (who could give history's Holy Grail seekers a run for their money) on the right path? You have to say, no, they aren't, because the obvious answer is this: There is no formula. Wait, maybe the obvious is, more precisely: The formula is there is no formula. Maybe that non-formula means each production -- no matter if it's being prepped in Hollywood or New York -- must be the result of producers trusting their own tastes, believing in their own idea of quality, jettisoning their foolish convictions that all they must do is follow the currently-working formula.
They can't just mindlessly repeat the jargon and say -- as are the producers of some shows currently on the boards -- that "The show is the star." Too many other factors figure in. What? -- a New York production needs stars?! Quick, who are the stars in Wicked-- now or when it opened? Yes, Wicked is a star name now, but it wasn't when it premiered. Yes, Hair is a star-show name, but that didn't suffice for the dud 1977 revival. Memphis is doing well not because it has ready-made stars but because, in part, it's potentially making stars of Chad Kimball and Montego Glover.
What's gotta be understood is this: Formulas (formulae?) are for Julia Child recipes and hair-coloring, but never for Hollywood or Broadway fare.