The lots have been cast for the two top musicals of the Broadway season. The operative word here is “cast.”
Over at “Hamilton,” which swept 11 Tony Awards just last month, near-hysteria has surrounded the recasting of creator/lead Lin-Manuel Miranda, along with Leslie Odom, Jr., who won a Tony for his portrayal of Aaron Burr, and Phillipa Soo, as Hamilton’s formidable wife. All three actors have been scheduled to play their last performance July 9 and, unless something radical happens between my press time and their curtain time, that chapter in the show’s astonishing adventure has come to an end.
Javier Muñoz, who has been the dashing alternate Hamilton for at least one performance a week since the smash began at the Public Theater in February 2015, will succeed the more charming but less romantic Miranda beginning July 11. Representatives for the show have been coy about other replacements, not to mention tour castings and other potential departures from the tight company that has been virtually intact from the start. Just this week, we learned that Brandon Victor Dixon, currently Eubie Blake until “Shuffle Along” closes, will morph into the new Aaron Burr in mid-August. Michael Luwoye will be Munoz’ alternate as of July 11, assuming the title role once a week, while Lexi Lawson, a veteran of Miranda’s “In the Heights,” succeeds Soo on the 11th. Even donors to Hillary Clinton’s presidential run are supposedly seeing new players at her fundraising benefit at “Hamilton” July 12.
Meanwhile, just around the corner, another major achievement of the season is enduring a very different finale.
“Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” which earned 10 Tony nominations and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best new musical, will abruptly close July 24.
This is an upsetting, even appalling surprise on so many levels. Created and directed by George C. Wolfe, the show set out — and, to my mind, boldly succeeded — to reclaim a milestone in black entertainment, a long-running Broadway hit that, despite its huge influence, had dropped completely off America’s cultural radar.
Besides its ambitious mission, the show is wonderful entertainment, with a thrilling A-list cast and a top creative team including the explosively rooted choreographer Savion Glover. When I left for vacation after the June 12 Tonys, this musical-about-a-musical seemed destined to make up for historical oversight by making significant new art.
So what happened? Less than two weeks after the show gave a dynamite performance on the Tony telecast but was shut out by the “Hamilton” sweep, the box office gross was 96.1 percent of capacity. This was down from 99.3 percent the previous week but still up there with the high-achievers not prepared for a closing notice.
What happened, at least according to lead producer Scott Rudin, goes back to that word. Cast. As just about everyone knows by now, Audra McDonald had originally been scheduled to leave the cast for three months this summer to reprise her Tony-winning performance in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” in London. Those plans were canceled when she got pregnant, and announced a July 24 maternity leave.
On June 23, Rudin, also the impeccably adventurous producer of this year’s “The Humans,” “Blackbird,” “A View from the Bridge” and “The Crucible,” said that the $12 million show will close when McDonald, leaves. “Audra McDonald is the biggest star on Broadway,” he said in a statement at the time, “and audiences have been clamoring to see her in this role since the first preview of ‘Shuffle Along’ in March of this year.” Advance sales were seen to drop-off significantly when audiences would not be able to see her.
Rudin, who chose not to comment beyond the statement, also wrote, “The need for Audra to take a prolonged and unexpected hiatus from the show has determined the unfortunate inevitability of our running at a loss for significantly longer than the show can responsibly absorb.”
This makes sense, from a distance, because McDonald is a very big star with a boggling six Tonys. But no matter what theatergoers thought they were buying, “Shuffle Along” is not a star vehicle. In fact, it has three other main characters — played by virtuosos Brian Stokes Mitchell, Joshua Henry and Brandon Victor Dixon — not to mention a big gifted company and a terrific dancing chorus.
The challenge, clearly, is to persuade audiences that a show itself is the star. Most likely, people will soon discover that “Hamilton” is “Hamilton,” so long as the recasting is as careful and creative as the original. “Cats” was able to run almost forever, no matter who sang “Memories,” while “Chicago” was built into its own phenomenon as a revolving door of stars, semistars and demi-stars since 1996.
“Motown the Musical” is back this summer with few, if any, of the actors who played Broadway in 2013. And have you ever heard anyone ask who’s playing Simba in “The Lion King” these days? As long as the quality stays high, Disney has a performer-proof star of a show.
Of course, this is seldom true with a star-driven show, as the producers of “The Producers” learned when Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick moved on. On the other hand, savvy producers were able to extend the excitement of the 2010 revival of “A Little Night Music” by succeeding Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury with no less than Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.
Producing on Broadway has always been a gamble, but the stakes have never been so high. This is especially true for plays which, unlike musicals, depend almost entirely on Broadway’s addiction to what amounts to casting crack — huge movie stars in limited runs. Nobody even tried to replace Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in “Fences” in 2010. That was also true in the same season with “View from the Bridge,” which closed when Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson left the building.
Rudin has been bucking the megastar, limited run formula all year, most brilliantly with “The Humans,” a Tony-winning hit with fantastic acting but no famous names. In time, would “Shuffle Along,” which opened without an out-of-town tryout in late spring, have been able to establish itself as its own star? It’s impossible to know.
Andre Bishop, producing artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater, tells me that he, too, was surprised at news of the premature closing. “I like the show very much,” he says, “but I also think Scott is a very smart producer. He’s a maverick, a real maverick. I respect him and I think one has to believe what he says.”
Bishop recently had to oversee the unexpected — at least to me — June 26 closing of the 2015 Tony-winning revival of “The King and I.” Despite glowing reviews for the latest Anna and the King — Marin Mazzie and Daniel Dae Kim — the running costs for the sumptuous production with its big cast and orchestra were just too high to continue through the summer. “We ran over a year,” he says philosophically. “Eventually, the costs of the play outpaced the weekly grosses.”
He denies speculation that the box office went down after Mazzie succeeded the Tony-winning Kelli O’Hara. “We’ve had up weeks and down weeks for a while,” he says, adding admiringly, “Marin was very different from Kelli. A little older, which made it quite poignant to see this woman with great authority really living a life.” He says Kim “was charming and scary. They were artistically so wonderful.” He sounds proud when he says “we had a good long run and it was thrilling to go out on a huge high.”
Some shows can be recast. Others cannot. But I think there is something new right here now. This obsession with the actors in “Hamilton,” the adoration of McDonald and the loyalty to O’Hara has nothing to do with twinkling short-term visitors from movies and television. The theater is making its own stars again. This is important — and pretty great.