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'It's Only a Play' replaces Broadway star: Will audiences accept?

Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane in a scene

Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane in a scene from Broadway's "It's Only a Play" at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

When Terrence McNally's hilarious and vicious backstage comedy, "It's Only a Play," opened in early October, the updated revival was announced as an absolutely, positively, undeniably, strictly limited run.

The dazzling all-star cast, we were told, had commitments beyond the Jan. 4 closing, most conspicuously Nathan Lane's date with Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" at BAM in February. And, after all, who could replace Nathan Lane?

Of course, the production turned out to be one of the few runaway hits of the fall season. So now the strictly-limited run has been extended through the end of March. And the irreplaceable Nathan Lane will be replaced by Martin Short.

I'm glad the play, which has been deliriously staged by director Jack O'Brien, won't disappear so soon into the memories of the few who got to see it.

But the replacement is just one of several that are challenging and changing today's star-driven marketplace, which sells exclusivity and singularity and the once-in-a-lifetime allure of being able to say you saw what few else could.

Not so long ago, stars wouldn't dream of taking a replacement gig -- even if they were said to "succeed" rather than merely "replace" someone else. In 1976, when Richard Burton followed Anthony Perkins, who had followed Anthony Hopkins in "Equus," the entertainment world was giddy with what appeared to be a comedown for Burton.

By the time Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch succeeded Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in the 2010 revival of "A Little Night Music," however, any stigma at all seemed quaint. After all, hadn't stars, semistars and demi-stars been zipping through the revolving door of "Chicago" since 1996?

Now we have Emma Stone, the movie actress from "Spider-Man" and "Birdman," making her Broadway and musical debut as Sally Bowles in "Cabaret," starring Alan Cumming through -- at last extension -- March. She replaces -- and I think that's the right word here -- Michelle Williams, whose Broadway and musical debut when the revival opened last April was so timid and bland I'm impressed that she stuck it out this long.

Discretely, Stone mentions only Natasha Richardson's Broadway and musical debut in the 1998 revival when asked about taking on Sally Bowles. "I saw 'Cabaret' when I was 9," Stone said in an email response to Newsday. "It is truly the one musical that made me want to sing on stage. Seeing Natasha portray Sally was so incredibly inspiring that it ultimately became my dream to get to play her, too.

"The fact that I can say I'm currently living my dream shocks me every day," she added. "I feel extremely lucky to get to join such a talented and special cast."

Coincidentally, Cumming first appeared on Broadway in that dark and delectably dirty 1998 revival, which has returned now with him starring again as the dazzling pansexual Emcee. And he was succeeded by both Michael C. Hall and Neil Patrick Harris. This is fun because Hall ("Dexter," "Six Feet Under") is now replacing Harris in his Tony- winning star turn in the Tony-winning Broadway revival of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

And Jan. 18, when Hall ends what is marketed as his "strictly limited eight-week engagement" as the transgender rock singer with the notorious backstory, he will be replaced by John Cameron Mitchell. This may not be a big name to people outside the "Hedwig" universe, but it is very big indeed to the 1998 show's many fans.

You see, Mitchell not only co-created the rock musical about a singer from East Berlin and his botched sex-change operation. Mitchell was Hedwig from the start, when the 1998 show first became an Off-Broadway hit in the seedy theater of a downtown hotel where survivors of the Titanic once stayed. Mitchell also directed and starred in the 2001 movie.

In press material, Mitchell describes himself as being "equal parts thrilled and terrified to be returning Hedwig. ... Like an expertly face-lifted ex-wife, she's lured me back. ... Here's hoping I don't need a walker by the end of the run."

And this, oddly enough, brings us to the season's newsiest replacement so far. Sting, who did not appear in "The Last Ship" when his first Broadway musical opened to mostly lukewarm reviews in October, will join the production Tuesday for four weeks.

Unlike Mitchell, Sting is not jumping onstage because he can't resist it. He is doing it in an effort to save the struggling $15 million show he spent the past five years writing and that has been sinking at the box office since it opened. The rock star, who made his debut as a Broadway performer in the short-lived 1989 production of "3 Penny Opera," will replace his longtime pal, actor Jimmy Nail, as the foreman of the depressed shipbuilding town very much like the one in Northern England where Sting grew up.

Will his fans show up? Will they continue to come after Sting leaves? Star casting, even when the star is yourself, is a dangerous system on Broadway. Even such a smash as "The Producers" suffered when Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick left the show. Tom Kirdahy, producer of "It's Only a Play," surely knows this when he responded to an email saying, "If we were going to extend, we knew we needed a comic genius, otherwise we would have closed the show and been grateful for the run. All roads led to Martin Short. ... As soon as he signed on, we made the decision to continue."

Nobody cares who performs in "Mamma Mia!" and even in "The Book of Mormon." But casting a star can be a pact with the box-office devil. Will Hugh Jackman be replaced in "The River"? Or Idina Menzel in "If/Then"? Or, looking ahead, Larry David in his own Broadway writing and acting debut, "A Fish in the Dark"? Don't bet your advance tickets on it.

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