Silver Screen Stars on the Great White Way

When I first saw Adam Driver would be coming to Broadway in Burn This, I immediately assumed he would have the Tony Award in the bag.

Maybe that says more about me than it does about theatre, but it was a thought I carried with me for several months. That is, until I saw the name Bryan Cranston popping up next to the play Network. Armie Hammer in Straight White Men. Oh, and Daniel Radcliffe in a new play. And apparently the starry revival of The Boys in the Band completely slipped my mind, too.

What led me to really taking notice of this pattern was the recent announcement that Arthur Miller's All My Sons would be returning to Broadway, starring Annette Bening and Tracy Letts. It felt like the millionth huge announcement about a play production coming to Broadway - and, specifically, about the headliners cast in that play production coming to Broadway.

So many stars of film and television were now packed into a single Broadway season, concentrated in plays. And, though actors like Keri Russell (Burn This) and Tatiana Maslany (Network) and Jim Parsons (The Boys in the Band) are big, big names, they also have immense talent and skill. This is no simple stunt casting fad sweeping through Broadway. It is a parade of celebrated television and film actors, dedicating themselves to performing live on Broadway for weeks on end.

Certainly screen stars are no stranger to the stage. Many of the major screen actors coming to Broadway plays this coming season have been in plenty of stage performances prior. Daniel Radcliffe, for one, has been on stage consistently throughout his acting career, in everything from Equus to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In the 2010 Signature Theatre production of Angels in America, Adam Driver replaced Zachary Quinto as Louis Ironson. Annette Bening started her acting career on the stage, notably receiving a Tony nomination for her work in Coastal Disturbances in 1986.

In addition, major screen stars in Broadway plays is not new to this season. Last season had Andrew Garfield in his Tony Award-winning turn as Prior Walter in Angels in America. 2014 had Bryan Cranston, fresh from his work on Breaking Bad, in All The Way. Long before the 2016 film, Fences starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis back in 2010. And those are just some examples from the top of my head.

My question, then, is why are there so many screen stars coming to Broadway this season in particular? I can't say for sure, but I can guess.

One factor that is consistent across time is that plays are almost always less popular than musicals when it comes to Broadway. Why that is might be the subject for another article. But there are a few solutions when it comes to making sure seats are filled. One is word of mouth. But producers don't really have control over that. Another is putting a big name in a leading role can boost ticket sales substantially. And should that actor truly be great, and they rack up some awards...hello, box office success!

This Broadway season is also looking quite exciting for plays, especially when compared to last year where almost everything fizzled except for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which could coast by on brand recognition and production value alone. But this season promises excitement by reinvigorating plays from the past and taking new risky adventures. Big stars only add to that momentum.

With so many of those stars having roots in theatre, it isn't hard to see why so many of them want to be a part of this season's energy. Some, despite their high status in television and film, even prefer theatre.  "I feel like it's just easier to get momentum on stage," explains Michael Shannon (in an excellent "Actors on Actors" interview with, guess who, Adam Driver). "I never really intended to be a movie actor, really," he says, "I just started out doing plays and I wound up being here in the first place because of a play I did.

Though it can be a little shocking to see so many famous actors coming to Broadway all at once, overall I'm thrilled to see the trend. Actors and audiences alike are embracing the experience of theatre, of coming together to share an experience. So many great performers are coming to the Great White Way - that's a wonderful thing.

I guess all I can say now is good luck, American Theatre Wing. These coming Tony Awards are really going to be something.

(Photo by Joan Marcus.)