Broadway banks on star power

For Broadway, attaching big names to a production during a recession is turning out to be a safe bet.

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Whether considered as a by-product of the recession or the target audience's satisfaction with flat-screen, high-definition television and motion picture spectacles such as Avatar, the fact remains that only about 30 per cent of Broadway shows turn a profit. Prudence breeds conservatism, and in 2010, Broadway producers are seeking new ways to play it safe. As a starting point, even the most ambitious musicals have scaled down their set design, with revivals such as Ragtime and Finian's Rainbow attempting to wow audiences with exquisite choreography in place of expensive facades. But the most efficient economic model, especially when catering to the masses, is to pack your show with the biggest stars money can buy. Backed into a corner, producers now realise that proximity to celebrities is, for the average theatregoer, as big a thrill as a last-minute plot twist.

There's no point in pretending otherwise: if a show isn't already a brand-name revival, it needs star power to justify its existence. A Steady Rain and Hamlet, two of last fall's biggest hits, were bolstered by the blockbuster clout of Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig and Jude Law, respectively. The former production, which opened to mixed reviews, set a Broadway sales record by grossing more than $1 million (Dh3.67m) in a single week. This despite the fact that A Steady Rain is a two-character melodrama set on a dark, bare-bones stage. The critic Ben Brantley cleverly outlined the play's most obvious appeal, saying the show is "probably best regarded as a small, wobbly pedestal on which two gods of the screen may stand in order to be worshipped".

The current Broadway season has brought out impressive names to uphold this new order. A revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge brings the big-screen goddess Scarlett Johansson to the stage, where she tangles with Liev Schreiber. In A Behanding in Spokane, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell and the contemporary Hollywood It-girl Zoe Kazan perform in the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's first United States-set production. That movie audiences now know McDonagh as the writer/director of the Colin Farrell vehicle In Bruges shouldn't hurt ticket sales one bit.

Even musicals are attempting to woo the celebrity seekers: A Little Night Music, which might have been expected to coast on the composer Stephen Sondheim's name recognition, has been revived with the added reinforcement of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. Another contemporary trend recently reported in The New York Times finds pop-culture icons "presenting" Broadway shows that lack big-name performers. Elton John has invested in Geoffrey Naufft's play Next Fall, and Oprah Winfrey received top billing on The Color Purple after donating $1 million. For Fela!, a well-received new musical based on the life of the Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith cobbled together $3 million of start-up funds, and now their names adorn the marquee.

As an added draw, recognisable figures are increasingly calling the shots behind the scenes. Off-Broadway, Ethan Hawke has reunited with his buddies from the Malaparte Theater Company to stage Sam Shepard's family drama A Lie of the Mind. The play features Alessandro Nivola and Josh Hamilton, but Hawke, as director, provides the most marketable name. Across the river in Brooklyn, one can find Shakespeare's The Tempest directed by the American Beauty auteur Sam Mendes - in case the Bard's imprimatur is no longer glitzy enough.