When your Broadway musical is doing less than well financially, your options to pump up the box office and avoid closing are limited. But if you can lure a major celebrity to join the cast, that ought to work. The long-running Broadway revival of Chicago is built around a model of actors constantly coming and going, some of whom have included Sandy Duncan, Melanie Griffith, Brooke Shields, Ashley Simpson, Usher and Bebe Neuwirth (who’s now played three different roles in the production).
Back in April, Broadway’s omnipresent Roundabout Theatre Company brought its Tony-winning revival of the hard-edged Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret back to Studio 54, where it had closed 10 years earlier, with Alan Cumming recreating his eroticized performance as the Emcee. Film actress Michelle Williams co-starred as the careless and self-centered English singer Sally Bowles.
Although many (myself included) looked cynically upon this revival (or should I say revival of a revival?), it did not feel quite ready eight months ago, as if the cast was still finding its way into the dark and decedent atmosphere of Weimar Germany, on the brink of Hitler’s rise to power. Williams was particularly underwhelming as Bowles, lacking stage presence and vocal ability.
With the show doing only so-so business at the box office, people were already starting to wonder how long it would last. But in a surprise coup, the Roundabout announced that film actress Emma Stone, who was originally expected to play Sally Bowles instead of Williams, would succeed Williams for a short run.
As the notorious nightclub singer, Stone effectively combines brashness and verve with vulnerability. Her raw, strident singing voice perfectly matches her character, who is not supposed to be a great performer herself – a fact that has been obscured by Liza’s blockbuster performance in the much-reworked film version. Moreover, the entire production feels considerably revitalized. And as expected, the show has been consistently selling out.
Those who enjoyed the revival years ago might consider giving it another go. The same goes for anyone who saw the production after Cumming had left the cast, as he is giving one of the most haunting performances in modern musical theater history. Plus, who knows what will happen to the production once Stone departs.
And then there’s The Last Ship, the new musical with Celtic-style songs by Sting, and a plot inspired by the artist’s upbringing in a blue-collar shipbuilding town in Northern England, which opened on Broadway earlier in the fall to mixed reviews and disappointing box office returns.
It didn’t take long for rumors to surface that Sting might enter the cast in order to drum up business, just as Billie Joe Armstrong did when American Idiot was on Broadway. Sting has temporarily taken over for Jimmy Nail (also an English singer-songwriter) in the supporting role of Jackie White, a former shipyard foreman who is now out of work along with the rest of the men in town.
While Emma Stone brought new life to Cabaret, Sting, sporting a beard, just blends in with the rest of the cast without making much of an impact. After all, he took over a supporting role that plays second fiddle to the main romance plot. His performance is also less gripping than that of Nail, who brought a formidable presence and passion. You often get the impression that Sting is purposely trying to not take attention away from everyone else, as if to say, “I may be a rock star, but I’m not the star of this show.” Or, “Please pay no attention. I’m just here to sell tickets.”
Of course, Sting deserves a great deal of credit – first for bringing a heartfelt, wholly original musical to Broadway, and then for stepping up when called for double duty. But the musical’s shortcomings as a piece of drama (undeveloped characters, slight plot) remain the same. Unless the producers can get Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen, both buddies of Sting who apparently love the musical, to step in, its days might be numbered once Sting leaves in January.