Theatre Yesterday and Today, January 28, 2023, by Ron Fassler.
When an original cast member of a Broadway show exits a production, the term "replacement" is applied to the actor or actress who takes over. When a run is as long as the record-breaking Phantom of the Opera (thirty-five years this week, including the eighteen-month Covid gap), those who've come and gone number into the hundreds. Most of the time this is done with little in the way of advertising with a formal announcement such as "so-and-so is now playing the role of Raoul," though there are occasions where a star replacement requires enormous billboards to sell it. Sometimes critics get invited back to reassess how new casting has impacted a play or musical, with one such example being the recent addition of Lea Michele and Tovah Feldshuh to the 2022 revival of Funny Girl. Not only did the critics return, but the new stars got better reviews, a slightly embarrassing situation for the departed individuals who originally opened it. The attendant publicity generated by the early withdrawals of Beanie Feldstein as Fanny and Jane Lynch as Mrs. Brice made for a lot of ink (as it once used to be called). Struggling under the weight of disappointing first night reviews and poor word of mouth made for dwindling audiences. But Michele and Feldshuh have now turned Funny Girl into a bona fide hit, not only selling out regularly at full prices, but even generating the unique occasion of a cast album recorded with its replacements instead of its original stars.
The technique once employed by producers of old to go after a major star to replace at the end of an initial star's contract (usually a year), has pretty recently gone the way of the Dodo. No need to do it for shows like The Lion King, which never had stars to begin with, or Hamilton, which didn't seek name actors to replace Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr., as it simply doesn't require anything but its title and reputation to sell out, which it's proven weekly since 2016. A few names were probably short-listed to find a new Harold Hill in The Music Man, with "feelers" sent out to high-powered agents, which I'm sure came up empty. The decision to quit while they were ahead, prompted the producing team to distribute profits from a highly successful year-long run which made their investors happy, especially as they wouldn't have to reinvest in advertising a new Music Man. I remember being slightly stunned when John Logan's Red, after winning the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, closed as scheduled two weeks later due to prior commitments from its leads, Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. With the small profit it earned courtesy of a two-person cast and one set, the producers chose to close Red after a mere 101 performances. So, instead of finding new names to inhabit the juicy roles of modern artist Mark Rothko and his apprentice, everyone packed up and went home, something bullheaded producers in the Golden Age of Broadway, like David Merrick or Alexander Cohen, would never have done.
The producers of The Producers were faced with a major problem when it came time for Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to leave that once-in-a-generation juggernaut. Big names wouldn't touch it as personified by Billy Crystal when, on a 2022 Jimmy Kimmel Live!, he recalled his conversation with Mel Brooks, phoning Crystal when The Producers was already three years into its Broadway run:
"The phone rings and it’s Mel, who is like an uncle to me. ‘Billy, hi, it’s Mel. Listen, I have two things I want to talk to you about. First, I’d love you to come to do The Producers. You could play Max Bialystock, you do six months, it would be fantastic.’ I say, ‘Mel, I love you so much, I’ve been waiting for a call from you for my entire life, it seems like, to work with you. But I really don’t want to be the fifth guy to play Max Bialystock.’ He said, ‘You won’t be! You’ll be the 12th!'”
Over the years, whoever Mel phoned weren't interested. The choice of Richard Dreyfus (a name) to debut the musical on the West End in 2004 was both embarrassing and costly. An actor not exactly known for his song and dance skills, Dreyfuss exited by mutual agreement before critics were scheduled to see it in previews. Its press release stated it was due to physical injuries that made it "increasingly difficult for Mr. Dreyfuss to fulfil the rigours of the role," which you gotta love with the British spelling of 'fulfill' and 'rigors.' But in truth, he just couldn't cut it, which even he has admitted to in later interviews. At great expense, the cash register drawer was punched open and many dollars were thrown at Nathan Lane to cross the pond and save the production. The whole situation echoed a similar one when, in 2002, Lane first left the Broadway production and British actor Henry Goodman, relatively unknown in America, had been chosen to play Max. Goodman was flagrantly fired after performing the show for a short time due to its creative team's fear that when critics returned he was going to get panned (it wasn't a very likable performance—a respectable choice as the character is a charlatan—but in the end not a smart one). When the biggest name to play Max during its six-year run winds up being Tony Danza, with all due respect, you know a lot of other guys refused it.
David Merrick, Hello, Dolly!'s singular producer (in more ways than one), made sure to populate his prized production with a succession of great ladies in its title role. He never allowed for anyone who wasn't a name to have billing above the title at the St. James, where the musical spent its entire seven-year run. Carol Channing was followed by a genuine movie star Ginger Rogers, who had first begun her career on the New York stage. Though by 1965 she was not the film star she once was, her fans had hardly forgotten her. She was followed by Martha Raye, well known at the time for appearing on just about every one of the voluminous musical variety programs of the 50s and 60s, then Betty Grable, the 40s film star (and WWII's #1 pin-up with the gorgeous gams). If neither especially lit up the box office, they were respectable and well-cast choices to allow the show to stay strong and bring back audiences eager to see what each would do with the role. Then, in what was one of the greatest stunts in a long line of David Merrick gambits, he brought in his Dolly road company in 1967 to replace the entire Broadway cast. This was due to the sensation caused when Pearl Bailey opened the show in an all-Black production in Washington, D.C.. Leading the Broadway company, her undeniable charisma made the show a sellout all over again (a rare feat for a replacement) and she was awarded a special Tony, presented to her by none other than Carol Channing, the originator of Dolly. If you'd like to see what made Pearlie Mae so special (and such an inspired choice), here she is performing on that 1968 broadcast:
After Bailey, Merrick turned to comedienne Phyllis Diller for a brief three months in the role. Known for her one-of-a-kind standup characterization as a cackling ugly duckling, audiences were surprised that her Dolly was played completely straight (and well sung). She had a bit of trouble bringing audiences in who were now getting tired of the show, but Merrick had one final ace up his sleeve. In its waning days and determined for Dolly to beat My Fair Lady's record as the longest running musical in Broadway history, he convinced Ethel Merman to return to the New York stage for the first time in a decade. The Merm had actually turned the show down back in 1963, and composer Jerry Herman had to remove two songs from the score he'd written specifically with her very specific voice in mind. Those two songs were reinstated when she played Dolly, which made the show a little longer, but I didn't care. As a thirteen-year-old way up in the Second Balcony, Merman singing "World Take Me Back" and "Love, Look in My Window" still rings in my ears with total clarity (which is not to say my ears are still ringing, though with Ethel, there was always that possibility).
And a special shout out to producers Fran and Barry Weissler (experts when it comes to this sort of thing), having proved over and over again their ability to keep the revival of Chicago alive for more than two decades, a lot of the time through stunt casting. In 2002, when they presented a revival of Annie Get Your Gun, they reached into their innovative (though sometimes bizarre) creative cast lists and came up with the notion of bringing in recording superstar Reba McEntire to replace Bernadette Peters as Annie Oakley. McEntire’s name value in her first Broadway musical made the show a sellout (which it hadn't been with Peters), and the Country Music star's reviews were so good it made critics call into question why she wasn't chosen to begin with. Her speaking voice slipped into a singing one so effortlessly it almost made you unaware the orchestra had already crept in. McEntire only did the part for six months before having to fulfill prior commitments but could easily have continued packing them in for another six. Barbara Cook, who went to see McEntire play the part many times, called it "one of the five greatest musical comedy performances I have ever seen." See for yourself what a natural she is.
And sometimes being a replacement pays off unexpected dividends. The upcoming film version of the musical version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple will star Fantasia, eighteen years after she replaced LaChanze in the original Broadway production. No psychic could have predicted that unless they added a "wait for it."
It's true that in the course of a long running show that your mileage may vary in terms of feeling the energy or imagination of actors who follow in the footsteps of the original creators by what they bring to the stage. And as I've been going to the theatre for more than fifty years, I've seen my fair share of replacements good, bad and indifferent. During my time as a teenager in the late 1960s, when I first began going to Broadway plays and musicals, my first order of business was to catch up with long running shows, which means I saw replacements for Joel Grey in Cabaret, Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha and Angela Lansbury as Mame, even though I caught up with all three of those Tony winners in subsequent revivals. But in the case of Mame, I feel privileged to have experienced the fourth great lady sing and dance her way through the role on Broadway — Ann Miller. They even figured out a way to work in her signature tap in the second act's “That’s How Young I Feel.” No way you could feel cheated by that.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org.