Viva la diva: How divas are dominating Broadway
BY IRVIN K
AUGUST 24, 2017
There has been an interesting trend on Broadway of late: the rise of musicals that offer up a diva and not much else.
Amid the recent bloodbath on Broadway (RIP Groundhog Day!), the shows that seem impervious at the box office are those offering audiences a chance to see a diva doing her thing. Broadway audiences lucked out this year with quite a trifecta: Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close (a limited engagement that already closed), War Paintwith Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, and Hello Dolly with Bette Midler or Donna Murphy. Those five leading ladies have ten Tony Awards among them, with devoted fanbases who clamor for each of them.
And the marketing departments know it: these stars are the main focal point of the shows’ ad campaigns. Sunset Boulevard’s poster is an enormous image of Glenn Close, with her name as big as the title. War Paint’s poster has a stylized portrait of its leading ladies, with “LuPone” and “Ebersole” nearly the same size as the title. And Hello Dolly doesn’t even bother with images – just “Bette Midler” and “Hello Dolly” in huge letters against a red background, with Midler’s name actually larger than the title. In other words, the actresses are what these shows are selling.
Of course, having your show be all about a star is a double-edged sword of a business strategy. On the one hand, the right combination of star and show can rake in stupid amounts of money: witness Hello Dolly pulling in over two million dollars a week, neck-and-neck with Lion King for the #2 spot each week behind Hamilton. On the other hand, big stars tend to be busy and/or expensive, and don’t stay with a show indefinitely. That’s when shows usually struggle to sell themselves without their biggest selling point. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet attempted to replace Josh Groban… and is closing in a few weeks. If/Then didn’t even bother, and closed up shop as soon as Idina Menzel’s contract was up.
It’ll be curious to see how the producers of Hello Dolly will attempt to replace Bette Midler, and whether the folks behind War Paint will even bother keeping the show alive without its two stars. Considering we’re starting what seems to be the most abysmal Broadway season of the decade, Broadway’s producers would do well to keep the divas on Broadway, for folks who haven’t managed to see them yet.
It’s also interesting that the trend of focusing more and more on stars in shows is the exact opposite of what’s happening in Hollywood right now. Twenty years ago, slapping Will Smith’s or Julia Roberts’s face on a movie poster was pretty much all studios had to do to guarantee success. Nowadays, there are no such sure bets, as the likes of Tom Hanks and Will Smith are starting to see their movies bomb absent some other hook.
It’s hard to say why Hollywood is veering in that direction, but the thought behind Broadway’s star casting isn’t new. As prices keep going up and audiences have more and more to choose from, stars are an easy way to convince theatregoers to part with their hard-earned cash. It takes time for word of mouth to travel. The shows that are good enough and last long enough will probably be more profitable in the long run – Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away. But without the perfect storm of positive reception, they run the risk of bombing – Bandstand, In Transit. Whereas Hello Dollyis reliable and good for a quick buck.
And the success of divas on Broadway is nothing new, even if there’s more of it these days than there seemed to be before. After all, Glenn Close also sold the heck out of Sunset Boulevard twenty years ago, Patti LuPone elevated Evita to become one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s biggest hits, and every couple years audiences flock to see divas in Gypsy. These ladies are giving indelible performances that are not to be missed; all theatre lovers should get to see the like of Patti LuPone and Donna Murphy on stage at least once.
The experience of seeing this year’s three diva-led shows was remarkably similar: several minutes of entrance applause for the diva in question, rapturous responses every time the diva belted out a number, and relative indifference to whatever else is happening on stage. That last one is not strictly true for Hello Dolly, which is an ensemble piece featuring a who’s who of beloved Broadway actors having a good time. But it’s certainly true of Sunset Boulevard and War Paint, where it seemed like everyone was just waiting for the divas to return to the stage.
Another commonality is that none of the three shows are particularly strong pieces of theatre aside from being star vehicles. The only real point of Sunset Boulevard is to see Glenn Close sing “As If We Never Said Good-bye,” and judging by word of mouth, that’s worth the price of admission to most people. War Paint actually has an interesting historical story buried under one of the most forgettable scores ever committed to a Broadway stage, but the point of the show is to see the two leading ladies. Hello Dolly is more divisive: older audiences nostalgically love the show, young whipper-snappers (like this writer) are unimpressed by its shrillness and lack of substance.
Those who can’t make it to NYC can still listen to these divas belting their faces off. War Paint’s cast recording is out now, as is Hello Dolly’s. Sunset Boulevard didn’t make a cast recording of this production, though rumors are swirling about a movie adaptation. But of course, there’s no true replacement for seeing these forces of nature singing live on stage. Trust us, they’re worth seeing the show!