It seems like just a few months ago -- all right, it was just a few months ago -- when many of the most praised, most exciting and distinguished star performances were not merely omitted from last June's Tony Awards telecast. They were even shut out of the nominations.
When, for starters, wonderful work by Denzel Washington, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Daniel Radcliffe and Michael C. Hall was not included in the celebratory finale of the year, it seemed ominously clear that the biggest and best movie stars (and the agents who protect and live off them) might think again before subjecting reputations to such a major public (and undeserved) dis.
This was, after all, the third year that Hollywood luminaries got slapped for even presuming to sweat on a Broadway stage. The list of slights runs longer than this column, but at least remember that, the previous year, Bette Midler, Al Pacino, Jim Parsons and Sigourney Weaver were ignored. And the year before that, the unfairly forgotten included Samuel L. Jackson, Alan Rickman and Kim Cattrall.
But look at this autumn of 16 offerings (17 if you count the magicians called "The Illusionists") and pack away the theories with the summer clothes. Big stars are not just back on Broadway this season. They are its biggest news.
What's more, after a year dominated by British actors and classics, the headline now is American stars go American -- in plays and revivals. Sure, contrarians may point to Hugh Jackman in "The River," a drama by British provocateur Jez Butterworth, a star-driven vehicle of a New York premiere from London.
But that is the exception. Almost all the others are star-encrusted ensemble plays that don't put the weight of success on a single glittery pair of shoulders. Look at the updated revival of Terrence McNally's "It's Only a Play," which surrounds Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick with, count off, F. Murray Abraham, Stockard Channing and Megan Mullally.
Also in the running for dream-cast consideration is the revival of Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," with Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Martha Plimpton and Bob Balaban, plus delicious British actresses Lindsay Duncan and Clare Higgins. A sentimental favorite is bound to be the 1936 comedy "You Can't Take It With You," with James Earl Jones as Grandpa Vanderhof, a parlor bustling with madcaps played by Rose Byrne, Elizabeth Ashley, Mark Linn-Baker and a bucket of comic theater expertise including Kristine Nielsen, Annaleigh Ashford, Reg Rogers and Julie Halston.
Forgive the lists, but the trend is most impressive in bulk. Brit heartthrob Ewan McGregor makes his Broadway debut in "The Real Thing" with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon and Josh Hamilton. Bradley Cooper stars in "The Elephant Man," along with Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola. Kieran Culkin, Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson star in a revival of "This Is Our Youth."
Blythe Danner leads a family of artists in "The Country House." Gretchen Mol is a new addition to the Pulitzer-winning "Disgraced." And since we're counting work that begins previews in December but doesn't open until January (a clever new producing trick to get the holiday crowd and avoid the critics), we also have Jake Gyllenhaal in his Broadway debut in "Constellations" by British playwright Nick Payne, and Tony Danza in the musical version of "Honeymoon in Vegas."
Finally, to kick the star theme over the top, we have a revival of "Love Letters," A.R. Gurney's two-character play in which actors sit at a table and read letters from a 50-year relationship. The production changes casts every few weeks. Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow begin, followed by Dennehy and Carol Burnett, Alan Alda and Candice Bergen, Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg and Martin Sheen with Angelica Houston. The director is Gregory Mosher.
Before the 2013 Tonys, I asked Mosher if Broadway's heyday of movie and TV stars was over. He said we had finally learned that star casting did not "make a show good." He said the goal is "to put the right actors in the right parts and do the best production you can do." At this moment in the new season, it is hard to argue with that.
17 shows to see
This Is Our Youth (Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., Sept. 11) With this breakthrough serious comedy in 1996, Kenneth Lonergan established himself as the master of sophisticated lost-boy storytelling -- funny/sad tales of alienated kids of successful New Yorkers. The theater lost this quietly marvelous playwright to Hollywood for too long after the success of "You Can Count on Me," but we are catapulted back to his beginning in this revival starring Kieran Culkin, Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson. Anna D. Shapiro ("August: Osage County") directs the production that started at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
Love Letters (Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., Sept. 18) While Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company devotes this season to some of A.R. Gurney's lesser-known plays, Broadway takes another look at the prolific playwright's most produced work. From Broadway to Moscow, on cruise ships and in community playhouses, this remarkably resilient duet has seen countless pairs of actors sit at a table and read the 50-year correspondence between a high-society man and a woman. The revival, directed by Gregory Mosher, changes casts every few weeks after Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow kick things off.
You Can't Take It With You (Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., Sept. 28) This is the sixth time that the lovably eccentric Sycamore family has taken over a Broadway stage since George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote this Pulitzer-winning sentimental favorite in 1936. James Earl Jones stars as the grandfather, with a big-name cast that includes Rose Byrne in her Broadway debut and stage veteran Elizabeth Ashley.
The Country House (Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., Oct. 2) Blythe Danner makes an always- welcome return to the stage in this new Chekhov-inspired play by Pulitzer-winner Donald Margulies ("Dinner With Friends") about a pivotal weekend in the Berkshires with an artistic family. Daniel Sullivan is directing his fourth Margulies play, the most recent being "Time Stands Still" at this same theater.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Barrymore, 243 W. 47th St., Oct. 5) This is one of the most intriguing events of the season -- an adaptation of Mark Haddon's fascinating novel written from the point of view of an autistic boy. I cannot imagine how anyone could stage it, but the National Theatre did it two years ago to much success and now it is coming here.
It's Only a Play (Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., Oct. 9) Terrence McNally has revised and updated his 1986 backstage comedy about the chaos surrounding a playwright's opening night. The unreasonably versatile Jack O'Brien is directing an ensemble that includes Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and many, many others.
On the Town (Lyric Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St., Oct. 16) The 1944 musical comedy about sailors in Manhattan ran only a couple of months in George Wolfe's 1998 revival, but here comes another try. John Rando ("Urinetown") directs this new version of Jerome Robbins' classic production, with irresistible music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Joshua Bergasse, who made the dances for "Smash," dares take on Robbins' choreographic legacy with a cast that includes Tony Yazbeck, Jackie Hoffman and Michael Rupert.
Disgraced (Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., Oct. 23) At last, Ayad Akhtar's brilliant American drama gets to Broadway, two years after its New York premiere at Lincoln Center Theater's tiny LCT3 series, after which it won the Pulitzer and went to London in a different production. Aasif Mandvi, so powerful as the conflicted Pakistani-American hotshot lawyer, will not be in the Broadway version, but Kimberly Senior, who staged the original, will direct a cast that now includes Hari Dhillon and Gretchen Mol.
The Last Ship (Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., Oct. 26) Who would have imagined, not so long ago, that the only new musical of Broadway's fall season would be written by Sting and based on the English seafaring town where he grew up? John Logan ("Red") has written the book and Joe Mantello ("Wicked") directs. Word from the Chicago tryout was very good.
The Real Thing (American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., Oct. 30) You may think, what?, another revival of Tom Stoppard's 1984 masterly dissection of marriage? And then you look at the cast -- Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton and Cynthia Nixon -- and the pulse races again. Also, the sensitive and exhilarating young Sam Gold is the director.
The River (Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St., Nov. 16) Hugh Jackman, of course, could have returned to Broadway in any trifle that caught his fancy. But here he is in the American premiere of what sounds like a gripping drama by provocative British playwright Jez Butterworth ("Jerusalem"). Jackman and Laura Donnelly play a couple in what's described as a remote cabin on a moonless night. As far as we know, he doesn't sing or flex Wolverine claws.
Side Show (St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., Nov. 17) This 1997 musical about real-life conjoined twins -- Violet and Daisy Hilton -- in the '30s was adored by some, dismissed by others and considered too dark by the rest. The show, with music by Henry Krieger and lyrics/book by Bill Russell, ran less than four months. But the incoming revival was acclaimed last summer at the Kennedy Center in a revised production directed by Bill Condon.
Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., Nov. 20) Albee's scintillating and terrifying family drama was grudgingly admired when it won the Pulitzer in 1967 and, until Gerald Gutierrez's blazing revival in 1996 changed opinions of the work, it was considered a lesser sibling of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Now Pam MacKinnon, who directed the revelatory recent revival of "Virginia Woolf," stages a new production with an irresistible cast including Glenn Close and John Lithgow.
The Illusionists -- Witness the Impossible (Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, Dec. 4) Seven magicians -- sorry, illusionists -- do their thing in the theater in the Marriott over the holidays.
The Elephant Man (Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., Dec. 7) When Julia Roberts made her high-profile Broadway debut in "Three Days of Rain" in 2006, hardly anyone noticed that one of her co-stars was a fine actor named Bradley Cooper. But everyone will notice him now, as he takes deformed John Merrick's journey from freak-show exploitation to London society exploitation in this revival of Bernard Pomerance's 1979 drama.
Constellations (Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., previews start Dec. 16, opens Jan. 13) Jake Gyllenhaal made a powerful Off-Broadway debut in 2012 in British playwright Nick Payne's "If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet." As his sister Maggie makes her Broadway debut in "The Real Thing," he also tries Broadway for the first time. He stars in a Payne drama about the mysterious on-and-offs of a relationship.
Honeymoon in Vegas (Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., previews start Nov. 18, opens Jan. 15). Tony Danza and Rob McClure co-star in the musical adaptation of the 1992 Nicolas Cage film that was written and directed by Andrew Bergman. Gary Griffin directs this time, but the book is by Bergman and the score is by Jason Robert Brown, his first work since his music for "The Bridges of Madison County" won the Tony.
And keep in mind ...
Bootycandy (Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., Sept. 10) Robert O'Hara directs his own anthology of sex-ed sketches about growing up black and gay.
Rock Bottom (Public Theater, Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette St., Sept. 17) New musical about a woman in free fall with such a-list contributors as Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman ("Hairspray") and Adam Horovitz (Beastie Boys).
Embers (BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Sept. 17-20) Ireland Pan Pan Theatre's adaptation of a Beckett radio play kicks off Brooklyn Academy of Music's exceptionally adventurous Next Wave Festival.
The Valley of Astonishment (Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, Sept. 18) American premiere by iconic director Peter Brook about a surreal universe.
Scenes From a Marriage (New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., Sept. 22) Fascinating avant-garde director Ivo van Hove directs Emily Mann's stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's intense film.
The Money Shot (MCC Theater, Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., Sept. 22) Neil LaBute explores the seemingly infinite dark limits of Hollywood ambition.
Indian Ink (Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., Sept. 30) The astonishing veteran actress Rosemary Harris stars in the New York premiere of Tom Stoppard's 1995 play about two sisters and 50 years.
While I Yet Live (Primary Stages, 229 W. 42nd St., Oct. 12) S. Epatha Merkerson and Lillias White are some of the strong women of Pittsburgh in this new play by Billy Porter (Tony-winning star of "Kinky Boots").
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) (Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Ave., Oct. 28) Three-part Civil War exploration by Pulitzer- winning Suzan-Lori Parks.
4:48 Psychosis (St. Ann's Warehouse, 29 Jay St., Brooklyn, Oct. 16-26) The late Sarah Kane's shattering last play is performed by Magdalena Cielecka as part of St. Ann's ambitious final season before moving to its new home in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The Belle of Amherst (Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St., Oct. 19) Joely Richardson takes on the Emily Dickinson monodrama made famous by the late Julie Harris.
Billy & Ray (Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., Oct. 20) Hollywood directing legend Garry Marshall stages this new play about movie censorship in the '40s.
Sticks and Bones (New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., Nov. 6) Holly Hunter, Bill Pullman and Richard Chamberlain star in this revival of David Rabe's 1972 Tony-winning drama.
Allegro (Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., Nov. 1) John Doyle directs a rare revival of the 1947 musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein about a young doctor learning about life.
The Oldest Boy (Lincoln Center Theater, Newhouse, Nov. 3) Sarah Ruhl's latest play involves the fate of an American-born boy recognized as a high Buddhist teacher.
Lips Together, Teeth Apart (Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., Nov. 5) Tracee Chimo and America Ferrera are half of the foursome that spends a summer weekend in this revival of Terrence McNally's serious comedy.
A Particle of Dread (Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St, Nov. 23) Irish actor Stephen Rea stars in the American premiere of Sam Shepard's modern spin on Oedipus Rex.
The Invisible Hand (New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., Dec. 8) Ayad Akhtar, whose Pulitzer- winning "Disgraced" opens this fall on Broadway, explores the nightmare journey of an American stockbroker in Pakistan.
Pocatello (Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., Dec. 15) TR Knight stars in this story of strip-mall America by rising playwright star Samuel D. Hunter.
Radio City Christmas Spectacular (Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Sixth Ave., Nov. 7-Dec. 31) Rockettes, tin soldiers and all the trimmings in this annual treat.
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical (Theater at Madison Square Garden, 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, Dec. 5-28) Return of the popular musical about a creature whose shrunken heart gets big with holiday revelations.