Friday, January 26, 2007

The Empire Strikes Back!

The Empire Strikes Back!

In a most stinging of rebukes, acclaimed British playwright and two-time Tony nominee Sir Alan Ayckbourn has lashed out at all those supposedly glorious Hollywood stars desperately hoping to prove they have the necessary chops for live theatre.

Flat-out declaring that they're "ruining the theatre," Ayckbourn takes no prisoners in an interview reported in today's issue of London's venerable The Times.

Bitterly complaining that many of these glitterati could barely be heard beyond the third row (Kevin Spacey was singled out as the notable exception), Ayckbourn believes that the West End producers are single-handedly turning off potential audiences:
What is happening is that the theatre is being stuffed with the stars’ fans. What they experience in the theatre is a poor performance, and they go out profoundly disappointed and disenchanted. That is another blow for the theatre. You’ve emptied the theatre for a whole load of people who will never go again....We have tremendous talent in this country. Young actors have never been better, but they are fed up with seeing their jobs whipped away by people who’ve chanced by a TV camera or stood in a field taking off their clothes.

So who are the worst offenders? According to Times arts correspondent Dalya Alberge, they include:

The remaining "misses" identified ironically included the aforementioned Spacey (although he was dual listed on the "hit" list for his role in 1998's The Iceman Cometh), along with Jerry Hall (sure, she regularly slept with Mick Jagger once upon a time, but big Hollywood star???), Glenn Close ("about 25 years too old to be playing Blanche DuBois"), Gillian Anderson (aside from landing a role in "The Last King Of Scotland," has anyone really seen her since "The X-Files" was canceled??) and Stephen Gately (since when is this Irish boy-band member of Boyzone a Hollywood name???).

To be fair, neither Spacey or Close really belong on a list of "Hollywood" types ruining theatre. Both of them are clearly accomplished on the stage and have been lauded for their remarkable contributions to it. For some unknown reason, the online version of The Times story carries a photo of Spacey from his acclaimed turn in The Iceman Cometh -- hardly seems apropos given the story.

And while I've done plenty of thumping about the ongoing unfortunate use of stunt-casting to keep formerly great shows alive that were nearly dead -- I haven't even mentioned the ridiculous things they're saying about Don Johnson in London's Guys And Dolls or Tony Danza in Broadway's The Producers -- I'm left with a "Is that all there is?" feeling when reading through The Times' list of offenders.

Sure, the spectacle outside the theatre each night after Julia Roberts performed on Broadway had to be seen to be believed, even if many thought her performance inside the theatre left something to be desired. I, for one, actually enjoyed Three Days Of Rain.

Sure, the performance of Sean Combs or Puff Daddy or P. Diddy or whatever he's calling himself was largely considered to be underwhelming, but look at how many fans he single-handedly brought into the theatre to see acting at its best by his Tony-winning Raisin In The Sun co-stars Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad.

Sure, television star Christina Applegate was a novice to the Great White Way before pluckily showing yeoman's determination and sheer grit in keeping the 2005 revival of Sweet Charity alive, even after it had been pronounced dead. Heck, she even nabbed a Tony nod as her reward.

Thankfully, as this morning's positive reviews of Translations demonstrated, a great piece of theatre need not have a well-known cast in order to captivate critics. Just look at the success of no-name shows like Avenue Q and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

So while on the surface, Sir Alan's comments make for great copy, I just don't buy that the relatively few Hollywood names surfacing on Broadway or in London are going to be the end of great theatre as we know it.

I'll be very interested in hearing what you think.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 26 January, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Post Script: I should note that I was in the audience for Madonna's Up For Grabs back in 2002. While her performance left a lot to be desired, her castmates were stellar. I believe that audiences who went simply to see Madonna may have been disappointed by her but are probably savvy enough to distinguish between one actor's capabilities and another's.

At 26 January, 2007, Anonymous Esther said...

It's funny that Alan Ayckbourn should have mentioned Kevin Spacey as a notable exception, because Kevin announced last spring that The Old Vic would be putting on The Norman Conquests. So Ayckbourn obviously has respect for him.

I can understand some of where he's coming from. It must be disheartening for talented up-and-coming young stage actors to be cast aside so that a movie star or TV star or singer can get the leading role.

On the other hand, look at Kevin's costar in "A Moon for the Misbegotten," Eve Best, who will be making her Broadway debut. I don't think she's very well known to American audiences. (Some people may have seen her in a very small role in the last "Prime Suspect" on PBS). But she's won acclaim in Britain. And she's getting an opportunity she might not have had otherwise.

And certainly, if a performer doesn't have the skill to project his or her voice past the third row, if they end up turning people off from the theater rather than turning them on to it, that's not good.

I have to wonder, though, how Ayckbourn knows that audiences "go out profoundly disappointed and disenchanted." Maybe the critics were disappointed and disenchanted, but it's entirely possible that many people enjoyed the show.

The relationship between an artist and audience is a very personal one. I don't know firsthand, but perhaps for some people, it was enough just to see Madonna or Matt Damon or Julia Roberts. Their experience is just as valid. And who's to say that they didn't go to the theater again?

At 26 January, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I don't know, Esther. If you take a closer look at all the major productions that have featured "Hollywood" actors over the last five years, I would dare say that the majority of them got their start on the stage. Many of the so-called Hollywood stars actually hail from the U.K. or Australia.

And who could resist a play or musical that featured the likes of a Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, etc., etc., etc.?

The number of those who have never before appeared on the stage who are suddenly trying to get a new level of added credibility and respect are few and far between. But they have my respect for trying.

At 27 January, 2007, Blogger Peter Rivendell said...

I was under the impression that TV stars were actors - well, the ones in acting rather than presenting roles anyway. Chicago in London has been scattered with some very odd casting from the worlds of pop music and TV - Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley starts as Billy Flynn on Monday for example. But Denise van Outen was essentially from TV and went on to acquit herself well on Broadway. Brenda Edwards from The X Factor is enjoying a long run as Mama Morton. Inevitably some people are going to work and some aren't but that's true enough of 'straight' theatre actors. Film and TV has always borrowed actors from the stage anyway - the cross-polination between film, TV, theatre and music is as old as those media.

At 27 January, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Peter - I appreciate your comments and couldn't agree with you more.

Indeed, I've frequently commented on Chicago's often unwieldy use of stunt-casting through the years just to keep the show alive with choices ranging from Melanie Griffith to Usher brought on board(although, more recently, the show has gone back to its roots by bringing the sensational Bebe Neuwirth back to the Broadway incarnation).

As for the story that started this discussion, I found it very odd that The Times story centered on many celebrities whose roots are far from Hollywood.


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