From Slave Play to Wicked: is star power a blessing or a curse?

July 8, 2024

Hollywood actors are employed to promote virtually everything and anything nowadays, from perfumes to insurance, and food-delivery services to TV packages. A famous face – more often than not – will grab a viewer’s attention because of their fame and familiarity.

When it comes to theatre, however, the parameters change, because acting and the art of performance are what these professionals are known for and, for the most part, skilled at – so it’s second nature, unlike showcasing a beauty range or smartphone for instance. 

Theatre offers silver screen actors the chance to undergo the ultimate challenge of live performance, night after night. For some, it also offers the opportunity to return home to their passion of stage acting, away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and back into a raw, more exciting, purer form of their job.

But in the age of celebrity endorsements and general cynicism towards advertising, one could be forgiven for expressing caution when it comes to big names appearing on the West End stage. It may have been happening for decades (notably when Richard Burton took on Hamlet in the 1960s, while at the peak of his powers), but it hasn’t always been a winning formula. Suffice to say, securing a globally known name for your play won’t guarantee riches – but it sure does help.

Stars, huh, what are they good for?

The question we should ask is whether one needs a global name to sell a show? While this may be a sound strategy for television or film – in fact, for the latter, it’s virtually essential – theatre feels like a different ball game altogether. For every play that incorporates a star name, such as Player Kings (Sir Ian McKellen, until he sadly pulled out after his on-stage accident), Slave Play (currently starring Game of Thrones alumni Kit Harington) or Dear England (Joseph Fiennes), there are plenty that do not rely on them, such as Les Misérables, The Book of Mormon, MAMMA MIA! and even Hamilton. Instead, these titles tend to employ respected names within theatre (which carry weight in the industry, but are not as high-profile as a Hollywood A-lister) and rely on reputation, production quality and word of mouth. 

It’s a fascinating industry, but that is the type of sway the theatre world has had for years. For every John Malkovich there’s an Alfie Boe. For every Imelda Staunton there’s a Lea Salonga. 

If we look at some of the numbers for shows that have and have not had movie stars in them, the results are interesting. For example, The Lion King – one of the most successful shows in history – surpassed The Phantom of the Opera in 2014 to become the biggest earner for stage and film ever, with musical grossings standing at an incredible £6.3 billion. With an unquestionably talented cast, it wasn’t packed with known names and movie stars, yet went on to dominate the theatre scene.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Wicked, which has a two-part movie on the way and has always been a mega-hit in theatres, was originally cast with Tony Award winners before Idina Menzel stepped into the lead role in 2002. Menzel wasn’t a household name, yet the production soared to success.

On the other side of the coin, a big name being attached to something doesn’t always bring in crowds – even out of loyalty or curiosity. Take the recent run of Opening Night, starring Sheridan Smith – a famous name, fondly thought of among British audiences – which was pulled early (with the aftermath of the Covid pandemic cited as a factor). Likewise, huge titles, such as 2013’s Viva Forever – a story about the Spice Girls – should have been a popular hit with the audience that the group has, but it failed spectacularly, losing £5 million in the process.

The Mousetrap is a great example of how a top-quality production can triumph on its own merit, without relying on a roster of famous names to sell out shows. That’s no disrespect to the wonderful casts who have engrossed audiences over the years in what is the world’s longest-running play. The point is that decades of success can amass as long as you have strength in your casting, regardless of whether that is made up of Hollywood royalty or a collective of relative unknowns.

On  reflection

It seems that, unlike the film world, theatreland doesn’t conform to any particular ‘winning formula’, other than high quality attracting ticket sales. Sure, big names can help a show gain more publicity and hype (when Tom Holland announced he was appearing in Romeo & Juliet, for example, his fans went into a frenzy), but it doesn’t always guarantee success. 

In truth, a combination of all these factors would be a nice mix. As many a theatregoer (including the one writing this) may attest, however, tickets aren’t purchased purely for who is in the show, but rather based on reception, critical acclaim and, importantly, any reputation it already commands.

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