By Ilana Bernstein
It’s been a little over a week since “American Idol” winner David Cook took his first bow as Charlie Price in Broadway’s “Kinky Boots.” He joined Wayne Brady of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and Kirstin Maldonado of the famed acapella group Pentatonix, rounding out a trio of performers with built-in fan bases.
The story follows Charlie, a struggling factory owner, and Lola, a fabulous drag queen, who work together to create an exciting new shoe that could save the company. The six-time Tony winning production, which opened in 2013, boasts a score by Cyndi Lauper, a book by Harvey Fierstein and choreography by Jerry Mitchell. April 4 marked the show’s five-year anniversary.
This isn’t the first time “Kinky Boots” utilized “celebrity casting.” Recently, Panic! at the Disco’s, Brendon Urie completed his Broadway debut in the production.
Celebrity casting has been used for years. With some shows, it defines the productions. For others, it is used sporadically to generate buzz.
“Chicago,” the second longest running Broadway musical, uses what some call “stunt-casting” or as the casting directors like to call “star-casting” to fill the production. Notable names include Billy Ray Cyrus, Brooke Shields, Usher and Sofia Vergara. Casting choices aren’t exclusive to musicians and Hollywood actors. Even former NFL running back Eddie George completed a stint in the show.
The casting directors of “Chicago” have a specific process to go about finding celebrities. According to Playbill, “Three or four times a year, the casting directors create a list of hundreds of names for potential celebrities. Then they decide — with the producers, creatives and marketing team — which stars they want to audition based on box-office appeal and skill set.”
After the audition process, maybe two or three make it to the stage.
The Broadway revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” originally casted Daniel Radcliffe as main character J. Pierrepont Finch. When Radcliffe finished his run, he was replaced by Glee star Darren Criss. The third and final replacement was Nick Jonas who ended the run of the production. The production chose to exclusively cast men with star power rather than lesser-known actors.
This is a concept that Marley Kabin, a freelance actor currently working in D.C., is familiar with.
“Many casting directors for bigger projects now look to actors’ social medias and see how many followers they have before deciding whether to cast them or not,” said Kabin. “The more followers you have, the more sellable you are.”
When asked about her feelings surrounding celebrity casting on Broadway, Kabin says she isn’t the biggest fan.
“Some celebrities are amazing, don’t get me wrong – Viola Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Dan Radcliffe, even Daniel Craig – but these are also classically trained actors,” she said. “Then you’ve got disasters like Julia Roberts, Wendy Williams, Fran Drescher and Ricky Martin – all total stunt casting, and all flops. It’s a shame when the huge pool of talent that surrounds Broadway is overlooked for celebrities that can barely act in the best of circumstances. It’s a cheap way to make money if you’re casting a non-actor or a film actor as a lead.”
The recent trend of network television musicals also emphasizes the casting of celebrities in title roles, a direction that Kabin said believes will further fuel celebrity casting.
“With the rise of television musicals on NBC, I feel like more and more roles live roles are going to go to celebrities,” Kabin said.
However, she said she hopes that the most recent NBC musical will create a shift.
“Hopefully this year’s Jesus Christ Superstar will be a turning point for casting directors to realize Broadway talent like Brandon Victor Dixon should be equally considered alongside the likes of John Legend,” Kabin said, who noted that Legend is incredible.
With celebrity casting, it seems to come down to who will sell the most tickets. The right celebrity cast in a show can drive ticket sales through the roof.
For example, when Bradley Cooper stepped into the title role of “The Elephant Man,” the production became one of the top selling plays of that year and earned almost $15 million in under 16 weeks, according to Variety. Although this combination proved successful, not every show finds its savior in a celebrity. It can be a difficult recipe to perfectly create.
As of April 11, it was announced that lead singer of the band Neon Trees, Tyler Glenn, will make his Broadway debut at Charlie starting May 6, furthering the celebrity trend.
As “Kinky Boots” continues to entertain audiences, it will be interesting to see who they cast next.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kinky Boots on Broadway’s Facebook page.
Ilana Bernstein is a junior journalism and theatre double major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.