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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Joe Morton from ‘Scandal’ just one famous name trying out theater

Joe Morton, famed for TV's

Joe Morton, famed for TV's "Scandal," starred in a drama about comedian-activist Dick Gregory titled "Turn Me Loose." Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

Everyone knows that stars can be golden at the box office. Less obvious, however, is the impact of celebrities — or, more specifically, celebrity names — listed above the title as producers.

Increasingly, famous entertainers from movies, TV and pop music are attaching themselves to theater projects of all sizes. Since few things on Broadway and even fewer Off-Broadway make anything like real money, clearly something beyond riches is involved.

It would be lovely to conclude that cool and famous people are discovering a passion for live theater. In fact, I’ll go with that ingratiating thought until proved otherwise. The more cynical among us may perceive a less obviously tangible value — cachet. Even that, however, presupposes that theater is no longer that boring thing their grandparents — and Oprah — enjoy and is now worthy of close contact with a hip brand.

Last summer, John Legend was the high-visibility producer of “Turn Me Loose.” This biography of groundbreaking comedian-activist Dick Gregory seemed to come from nowhere in the doldrums of the season to be a surprise Off-Broadway smash — thanks to a magnificent star performance by Joe Morton and a wrenching, beautifully written story.

But before audiences could even discover its quality, there was Legend on nonstop TV ads and on morning shows, urging his fans to take notice of a play at a tiny theater in Hell’s Kitchen about a real legend they may not know. He was not merely the lead producer, he also wrote a song for it. (There’s no word about his involvement in a rumored Broadway transfer.)

Just as unexpected is the news that Judd Apatow is the lead producer of “Chris Gethard: Career Suicide,” which opens Oct. 13 at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker St. Written and performed by Gethard, the Off-Broadway play is described as a one-man comedy “about depression, alcoholism, suicide and the other funniest parts of life.”

Whatever one knows or does not know about Gethard, the attention-getting endorsement is Apatow. What’s the force behind some of the most successful comedy movies, arguably the inventor of the bromance and a producer of Lena Dunham’s “Girls” doing at a little theater in the East Village? And what could he possibly gain from it?

When asked, the former kid from Syosset sent me a thoughtful and oddly endearing response. First, he establishes his credentials: “I have been interested in theater for a long time. Seeing Neil Simon plays was part of what inspired me to do the type of work I do in film and television.” He says it has always been a “dream of mine to write a play.” Who knew?

Then he says all the right things about the project, which he calls “a hilarious, moving one-man show about comedy and mental health.” And he closes the deal with a disarmingly humble admission: “I thought producing this would be a great way for me to support an amazing project while learning about how this business works.”

I read this to veteran Broadway producer Nelle Nugent, who is also impressed by the tone. “There can be an attitude” — among the press, she says — that these visiting celebrities are “carpetbaggers in the theater.” She believes Apatow’s statement says “he’s not a carpetbagger. He’s smart and says he has a lot to learn.”

I called Nugent because she knows the territory. In 2011, she and R&B singer-songwriter Alicia Keys were co-producers of “Stick Fly,” Lydia Diamond’s play about the reunion of a prosperous black family. Keys also wrote the incidental music.

But Keys’ involvement didn’t work miracles at the box office. Despite strong reviews, the work ran just three months. “Alicia was so willing and helpful as a partner,” Nugent remembers fondly. “She showed up on the first day that tickets went on sale to sign autographs” for the people in line. “She met with the theater owners.

“But did it sell tickets?” Nugent asked and answered the big question. “I don’t know. It certainly did when we advertised that she would be in a talk back. It mattered that she was on stage. But the fact that she produced it did not seem to make a difference.”

Tituss Burgess, the breakout star of Netflix’s “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” is no stranger to Broadway, where he played Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid” and Nicely-Nicely Johnson in the 2009 revival of “Guys and Dolls.” According to Deadline.com, he was the power behind the backers’ audition of a musical adaptation of “The Preacher’s Wife” on Sept. 12.

Burgess not only bought the rights to the 1996 movie that starred Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, but he’s also written the music and lyrics. More than that, I do not know because his representatives turned down my request for comment.

Still, the effect of famous names behind the theater scene is mixed.

According to Variety, Oprah Winfrey, lead producer of the original 2005 production of “The Color Purple,” helped the show recoup its investment. (She is also one of the producers of the current revival.) But I remember theatergoers being disappointed that, despite her name on the marquee, she wasn’t in the show. On the other hand, the endorsement of Jay Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith couldn’t make the African-music biography “Fela!” turn a profit.

This is slightly off topic, but close enough to toss into the mix. Last week, Barbra Streisand agreed to be chair of the planned Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center, the latest incarnation of the long-delayed idea of putting a theater, dance and music venue at the World Trade Center. Theatergoers might prefer to have her on stage instead of in the boardroom, but this should be fun to watch.

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