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Richard Jordan: Star-led flops give Broadway producers pause for thought

Frank Wood and Forest Whitaker in Hughie on Broadway. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Has the film-star bubble burst on Broadway? Or have audiences just realised that paying $161 dollars for 55 minutes of entertainment is not a great night out?

That is the fate that has befallen the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie starring Academy award-winner Forest Whitaker – a surprising flop for British director Michael Grandage.

With losses of more than $3 million, Hughie ended its run at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on Easter Sunday more than two months early.

Why? Hughie isn’t a bad play, and Whitaker scored some decent reviews and a New York Times critics’ choice. Yet it follows a string of lacklustre star-led productions on Broadway: Al Pacino in China Doll and Bruce Willis in Misery charged top dollar and were poorly received. The productions had decent advances but audiences were left feeling ripped off.

A good review in The New York Times used to be all you needed to secure a healthy run for even the shortest play. It now makes little impact at the box office. The days of Frank ‘the butcher of Broadway’ Rich, who could close a show with one bad review, are well and truly over.

Audiences these days want value for money. Producers cannot assume that flying in a Hollywood star is enough. Waiting outside the stage door for a photo and autograph may be a cheaper and more enjoyable night out than watching said star mumble his or her way through a performance.

And they are quick to judge – in Hughie’s case the words ‘55 minutes’ glared out in almost every article or review. If dinner is longer than the show, you will have a problem in a commercial theatre.

Hollywood stars may want to show off their acting spurs by playing Broadway, but picking a play that may not appeal to a mainstream cinema audience, or departing their known genre, will interest only the more serious theatregoer. Placement is everything. Knowing your target market is crucial: an audience’s judgements are different between commercial and subsidised theatre.

If Hughie had instead played the Public Theater, Atlantic or any of the smaller classy Off-Broadway spaces, it probably would have sold every ticket. But Off-Broadway houses offer a smaller return and many Broadway producers have less interest in placing work there. If you have a film star, goes the thinking, you should get them to Broadway as quickly as possible – and that makes stars with less stage experience vulnerable. Credibility does not need to come from Broadway, as Anne Hathaway demonstrated in her 2015 solo performance in Grounded by George Brant at the Public.

Broadway and the West End are not the same. Hughie, starring Whitaker and with Grandage directing, may have been a hit in London, with fewer A-list film stars on its stages.

Whitaker’s failure is unlikely to stop the slew of film stars on Broadway, but it may make producers stop to think about the perception of delivering value for money through casting and play choices.