NEW YORK - Cliched notions about what constitutes “a Broadway show” — sequins, wigs, tapping feet — have never painted the full picture.
It’s undeniable, though, that there’s always been a prominent place within that teeming picture for bona fide stars, whether freshly minted on Broadway or imported from Hollywood.
Yet if starlight can illuminate, it can also distort. Stardom giveth, sure, but it also taketh away. Current Broadway productions of “The Music Man,” “Company,” “MJ,” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” illustrate the obvious upside, the less obvious downside, and the general complications of several different brands of stardom.
Big-name-on-the-marquee stardom. The pitfalls of this kind of stardom are epitomized by the splashy but uninspired revival of “The Music Man,” which banks too heavily on the proven charms of Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.
That’s one of the risks of having major stars in a cast: It can lead to an absence of rigor on the part of the creative team. A director can be tempted to reason, hey, why not let the charisma of my headliners carry the show?
Sure enough, “Music Man” director Jerry Zaks seems to have used the megawatt presence of Jackman and Foster as a license to stage a by-the-numbers production of Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical rather than infuse it with fresh energy or take it in any surprising directions — the way, say, Daniel Fish did with his provocative 2019 Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!”
Jackman portrays the slick-talking Professor Harold Hill, intent on bamboozling the residents of River City into buying musical instruments for their kids by promising to form a marching band. Foster plays town librarian Marian Paroo, who’s on to Hill from the start yet not immune to his roguish appeal.
Now, any star worth his or her salt has an amply-stocked toolkit of audience-ingratiation techniques. Jackman, in particular, dips into that toolkit often enough in “The Music Man” to satisfy a crowd already inclined to give him the benefit of any doubt. At the performance I saw, the audience loved it when Jackman cracked up in one scene while Foster struggled to keep a straight face. “The Music Man” is not shy about trading on Jackman’s matinee-idol magnetism, showing us, for instance, how the female residents of River City swoon over his Harold Hill.
Engaging though Jackman is, however, he falls short in certain key respects, especially when it comes to what should be a show-stopping number, “Ya Got Trouble,” when Hill invokes the dread specter of a pool table to induce moral panic among the townspeople. Jackman’s performance of the song is disappointingly pedestrian. Crucially, it lacks the air of winking rascality — and complicity with the audience — brought to it by Robert Preston, who originated the role of Harold Hill and played him in the 1962 film.
Do the revival’s shortcomings matter a whit at the box office? They do not. During the week ending March 20, “The Music Man” brought in nearly $3.5 million, making it the highest-grossing production on Broadway. Star vehicles will continue to roll on. A few days ago, in fact, Deadline reported that Ben Stiller is in talks to headline a stage adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining” that’s expected to move to Broadway, with Stiller playing the deranged Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson in the movie).
For an example of star power strategically and successfully deployed, check out the gender-flipped, wittily insouciant production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” directed by Marianne Elliott (”War Horse”).
Since its 1970 premiere, the problem with “Company” has been George Furth’s fragmentary script — it’s certainly not Sondheim’s score, glittering with gem after gem — but Elliott overcomes the thin book by mining every ounce of humor from the musical’s examination of marriage and its discontents.
Commitment-phobic Bobby is now Bobbie and played by Katrina Lenk (”Indecent,” “The Band’s Visit”). On her 35th birthday, Bobbie is taking stock. Is it time to leave her freewheeling single life behind? Complicating matters, Bobbie finds precious little in the unions of her friends to make that seem like a good move.
Lenk is OK without ever quite taking ownership of the part — words that have never, ever been applied to Patti LuPone, who is the single best reason to see this “Company.”
The peerless and fearless LuPone seizes a supporting role (Joanne, a jaded socialite) and a song (”The Ladies Who Lunch”) that were immortalized half a century ago by Elaine Stritch. And LuPone does something that few other performers could do: She strides right out of Stritch’s legendary shadow.
Will Beanie Feldstein be able to do the same with an even bigger, even more long-lasting shadow? Starting this weekend, Feldstein is tackling the role of Fanny Brice in the first Broadway production of “Funny Girl” since 1964, when it launched a certain Barbra Streisand into superstardom.
Challenges don’t come much more daunting than the one Feldstein faces. Sometimes, the aura of stardom can linger over a role, a neon light blazing in the faces of would-be successors. How would you like to have been the first actor to play Stanley Kowalski after Brando? (That unlucky fellow was Anthony Quinn, in a 1950 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that closed in three weeks.)
When the story is the star. This category features productions in which the cast is devoid of boldface names but the story or characters are well-known, exemplified by the newly condensed “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
Because the story is the star, this production doesn’t rely on any single cast member, even the one playing the title figure. So “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” was able to maintain its footing even after James Snyder, the actor who previously played Harry Potter, was fired in January. The dismissal was triggered by what The New York Times called “unspecified concerns about his conduct” following a complaint by Diane Davis, who played Harry’s wife, Ginny.
I saw the nearly $70 million production in its original two-part, five-hour-plus incarnation, and I can report that the magic is still intact in the current version, pared down with surgical skill to a mere (!) 3½ hours. Pottermaniacs, an exacting bunch, need not fear.
Indeed, the young Potter fans inside the Lyric Theatre virtually palpitated with glee at every reference to a character or story line in J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster book series, no matter how obscure. (If you don’t know the books, you may feel lost at certain points in “Cursed Child.”) The airborne appearance high above the stage and audience of the wraithlike Dementors still elicits chills, and the onstage transfigurations of one character into another still elicit astonishment.
When the subject is the star. Partly dazzled, partly troubled: That was the state of split consciousness with which I watched “MJ,” an arrestingly kinetic but highly problematic jukebox musical about Michael Jackson.
In the moment, it’s very easy to get swept up in “MJ.” For one thing, you feel the excitement of discovery — one of the reasons we go to the theater — as you watch the electrifying Broadway debut by Myles Frost as Jackson. Frost’s moon-walking rivals the original, and he channels Jackson’s voice, too, while performing numbers like “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “Human Nature,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and “Thriller.”
Nor is Frost alone in his virtuosity. The celerity of his dancing is nearly equaled by the show’s dynamic ensemble as they execute moves created by director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. (Wheeldon was also the creative force behind one of the best dance musicals of recent years, “An American in Paris,” presented six years ago in Boston.)
But it’s impossible to watch “MJ” without thinking of the multiple child-molestation accusations made against Jackson — which he denied before dying at age 50 in 2009, and his estate has continued to deny since then — including alleged incidents of abuse that were the focus of the 2019 HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland.”
The musical largely evades that issue, apart from a couple of vague allusions, as when one of his assistants asks his tour manager: “Can you tell me who the hell this family is that he wants to take on the tour? That’s going to raise a lot of questions.” At a press conference, a reporter yells out: “What do you have to say about the latest allegations?”
But that scene is constructed in a way that depicts Jackson as under siege by a media mob, which is in keeping with the overwhelming emphasis in “MJ” on building an exculpatory portrait of him as a quirky but harmless genius, a saintly humanitarian, a victim himself.
An overall air of defensive image-polishing suffuses “MJ.” It was scripted by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, whose work I’ve admired for years. But the musical labors within a clumsy and contrived structure, which involves a documentary filmmaker — let’s just say she’s no Errol Morris — who lobs softball questions at Jackson in a Los Angeles rehearsal studio in 1992, where he is preparing for his “Dangerous” tour. The musical flashes back and forth in time, from Jackson’s youth to the pressure-cooker rehearsals. At every turn, “MJ’' strains to lionize its subject. “No matter what I do, it always gets twisted,” Jackson tells the filmmaker early on. “I’ve been burned in the past. I want to keep this about the music.”
“MJ” tries to do the same, but at the cost of leaving a key part of the story untold. A note in the Playbill informs us that “MJ” was created “By special arrangement with the estate of Michael Jackson.” Yes, that’s all too clear.