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Why did stars lack luster this season?

Producer Colin Callender, actress Rita Wilson, director George

Producer Colin Callender, actress Rita Wilson, director George C. Wolfe and actor Tom Hanks at the "Lucky Guy" opening night on Broadway in Manhattan. Hanks and Bette Middler (not pictured) are the Broadway brand names for the Spring season. (April 1, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

The Broadway League announced this week that attendance went down 6.2 percent this season, to 11.6 million, after a 2 percent decline last year. Producers are pointing to the late arrival of blockbusters "Kinky Boots" and "Matilda," and the effects of superstorm Sandy. But save your tears for future accounting. Box-office revenues stayed virtually the same as last year, $1.14 billion, a paradox we can alarmingly explain by a 9 percent rise in the average ticket price.

The other big headline after the Tony nominations is the lack of big headliners. After years of stories about movie and TV stars dominating the commercial theater, the only hot-ticket brand names of the spring season are Tom Hanks and Bette Midler. And neither Midler nor her solo vehicle, "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers," was nominated last month to compete at the Tony Awards (to be televised on CBS next Sunday).

This is surprising news, and not just to Hollywood agents and the poor producers tasked with putting together a national Tony broadcast with talent largely unknown outside the New York theater. Let me list a few of the 2012-13 Broadway performers who, depending on one's perspective, were either grievously overlooked or conspicuously shunned by the nominators.

Al Pacino, Scarlett Johansson, Katie Holmes, Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Chastain, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Cumming, Debra Winger, Paul Rudd, Jim Parsons, Henry Winkler, Patti LuPone, Bobby Cannavale, Emilia Clarke, Vanessa Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael Shannon.

So, what happened? Is it possible, after all these boffo years of marquee marketing, that the stars are dimming on Broadway? Understandably, producers are reluctant to confirm that or to comment on one another's disappointments. Clearly, however, it may be harder to entice Hollywood if it feels unwelcome, or even humiliated, on Broadway.

In some cases, however, this may have been more a who-you-got? instead of a what-you-got? season. Rather than matching actors with projects that made both look good, a name itself was expected to carry the material -- no matter how unlikely the union. Katie Holmes was cast as a plain girl with self-esteem issues. Really? Henry Winkler was supposed to be an aging porn star? No joke.

"You have to put a star in a play that audiences want to see that star in, and there has to be a synergy with the character," says Jeffrey Richards, veteran producer responsible this season for Pacino in the box-office smash revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross," as well as Winger and LuPone in David Mamet's disastrous "The Anarchist" and the Steppenwolf Theatre's revelatory revival of "Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" The latter, despite a dazzling cast including Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, ran longer than any revival this season but -- no doubt because of lack of stars -- never attracted the audience it deserved.

"There's a difference between a star performance and being a star," he told me in a recent phone interview. This theory will be tested in the squeaky-tight competition for best actor, which pits Hanks in his Broadway debut in "Lucky Guy" against more-Broadway-than-Hollywood star Nathan Lane in "The Nance" and Letts, the Pulitzer-winning playwright of "August: Osage County," also in his Broadway acting debut.

Gregory Mosher, who directed Liev Schreiber and Johansson in a staggering revival of Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge" and Jessica Lange in her Broadway debut in "A Streetcar Named Desire," takes a longer, more ironic view of the dimming-star question. "The last years were an aberration," he told me, "when casting stars were believed to make a show good. I suppose economists would call this a correction."

The goal, he says, acknowledging the complexity of such simplicity, "is to put the right actors in the right parts and do the best production you can do. We have just confused the cause and the effect."

Lynne Meadow, veteran artistic director of Off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club and its Broadway venue, the Friedman, has known the plusses and minuses of star casting from all sides. Right now, her staging of Richard Greenberg's rich and subtle but not star-cast "The Assembled Parties" is up for best play against Hanks in "Lucky Guy" and David Hyde Pierce and Weaver in Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

"You can get cynical thinking that, just because you have a star, you've got to be good," she told me thoughtfully, noting how many of her theater's alumni -- including Mary Louise Parker, cast for the fall season -- did theater before Hollywood considered them stars. "But it is just really hard to do a good show. Doing any show is tough."

Incredibly, some audiences were even disappointed at seeing Pacino play Shelly Levine, the sad-sack loser in "Glengarry," rather than as the hotshot Ricky Roma they knew from the movie. Still, the production turned a profit, one of the relatively few to manage that this season. As Richards puts it, "Pacino is not some Hollywood star coming for a visit. He is one of the great stage artists who comes back to the stage regularly, the way Henry Fonda did."

Sure-things, however, are rare, as this season proves. As Mosher agrees, "Pacino is part of a very, very small group, on stage or film. But who else is on that list? Streep? Now Hanks? In 2013, when everything is available to audiences whenever they want, it's a mistake to confuse that next group of pretty famous movie actors as box-office powers onstage."

While some on Broadway debate the future of stars, this season highlighted a quieter, but no less valuable kind of acting dazzle -- the character actor.

Thanks, in part, for revivals of old-fashioned Clifford Odets melodramas with boldly defined supporting characters, we got to watch the amazing maturation of actors (alas, perhaps more right now than actresses) that theatergoers have enjoyed for years in less flashy parts.

We're speaking about Danny Burstein and Tony Shalhoub, both Tony nominated for "Golden Boy," and Richard Kind (nominated) and Chip Zien (criminally, not nominated) in "The Big Knife." I'm also talking about Mark Blum, not nominated, who turns a single scene in "Assembled Parties" into a pivotal moment.

André Bishop, whose Lincoln Center Theater produced "Golden Boy" but who has grown up alongside many of the nominees, agrees about the flourishing crop of character actors. "All these actors we've known as fine youngish actors," he explained. "But with many, many years of doing plays in the theater, this whole generation of stage actors has come into their own. They have been in training for 30 years, maturing and ripening, and we're reaping the benefits of it."

And that's a headline, too.

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