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Hot Ticket: Nicole, Denzel and, Oh, a Play

Left, Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; Joan Marcus

Celebrities in stage hits: from left, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in “A Steady Rain”; Bradley Cooper and Julia Roberts in “Three Days of Rain.” More Photos >

Published: December 30, 2009

O COME, let us adore them.

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Joan Marcus/”The Blue Room”

Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen in “The Blue Room.” More Photos »

Let it be written that in the first decade of the second millennium a host of gods and goddesses descended on the mortal land of Broadway. Julia, Jude, Hugh, Denzel, Daniel the Elder, Daniel the Younger, Catherine, Katie and he who was called P. Diddy. For these deities, known to all the world from the writ of the tabloids, the people arrived in multitudes, among them heathens who had never set foot in a theater before. And so the Pharisees of Broadway rejoiced, for their coffers were full again and their other expenses were low.

Star worship reached unprecedented heights on Broadway during the past 10 years, when big names in little shows became the most reliable formula for making money. Theater producers — who had unhappily discovered that jukebox musicals and works adapted from popular movies did not, after all, guarantee financial success — learned what every televangelist knows: Religion sells. And in the United States, no religion is more pervasive than the cult of celebrity.

Stars like Julia Roberts may no longer ensure that any movie they appear in is a hit, but their in-the-flesh presences (and that of their peers in the recording industry) can still fill a theater to overflow, pack stage-door alleys with camera-toting acolytes of all ages and cause traffic jams in the streets off Times Square. (For the record, the phenomenon is just as strong in London, where Keira Knightley recently opened in “The Misanthrope.”)

The proficiency of their performances is not, ultimately, at issue. What counts far more is that strange, atavistic enactment of a holy communion between the adored and their adorers. Or as one infamous diva puts it, “I love the audience, and the audience loves me for loving them.”

Those words to live by are spoken eight times a week on Broadway by Roxie Hart, an aging chorine of the Jazz Age who achieved fame when she murdered her lover, a furniture salesman. Roxie is the main character in “Chicago,” a 1975 musical (based on a 1926 play), which was restaged in 1996 and became the longest-running revival in Broadway history. Though it opened four years before the new century began, this production may in retrospect be read as a bible for the Broadway to come, and its producers, Fran and Barry Weissler, as the prophets of the new age.

“Chicago,” you see, portrays a country in which fame has become the most valuable and versatile currency of the realm. (Though it was eclipsed by the confessional sentimentality of “A Chorus Line” in its first Broadway incarnation, the cynicism of “Chicago” fit the national mood perfectly 20 years later.) And no Broadway producers have been as enterprising as the Weisslers in manipulating that currency.

For once the original top-drawer cast of “Chicago” had departed, there followed a highly imaginative procession of headliners whose résumés often did not include work in Broadway musicals. (The Weisslers had pioneered the formula with their earlier revival of “Grease.”) There was Lynda Carter (television’s Wonder Woman), the R&B singer Usher, the pop star Huey Lewis, the professionally tan George Hamilton, the movie actress Melanie Griffith (oddly affecting as the minimally talented, narcissistic Roxie) and, most recently, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, a singer best known for having been outed as lip-syncher on “Saturday Night Live.” In a dizzyingly apt example of practicing literally what the show itself preaches satirically, the producers cast the tabloid talk-show host Jerry Springer as a disgusted, fame-exploiting lawyer who sings the lyrics, “Long as you keep ’em way off balance, how can they spot you got no talents?”

Known for frugality, the Weisslers offered a bargain-basement approach to selling stars. The Tiffany’s version of the same phenomenon — the model that Broadway producers have been emulating ever since — was the 1998 London-born production of “The Blue Room,” David Hare’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s erotic roundelay of play. It had minimal sets, a shortish and slightly salacious script and a cast of exactly two performers.

That one of them was Nicole Kidman, a rising film actress at that point most famous for being married to Tom Cruise, made all the difference. Once Ms. Kidman in “The Blue Room” appeared on the cover of Newsweek, tickets to the show’s limited run were nigh impossible to come by. Who cared that reviews were tepid, and that no one at the play seemed much impressed by it? Seeing Ms. Kidman in “The Blue Room” was something any truly urbane New Yorker was supposed to have done, and if you hadn’t, you lied.

That Ms. Kidman acquired new artistic cachet (and an Oscar) after “The Blue Room” may have encouraged her peers in celebrity to take similar steps. There had been previous instances of similar event casting — including Elizabeth Taylor in “The Little Foxes” (1981) and Madonna in “Speed-the-Plow” (1988) — but nothing like the spate of boldface names that have adorned marquees during the past decade, particularly in its second half.

They include Sean Combs, known as Diddy, in "A Raisin in the Sun" (2004); Denzel Washington in "Julius Caesar" (2005); Ms. Roberts in “Three Days of Rain” (2006); Daniel Radcliffe (of the “Harry Potter” movies) in “Equus” (2008); and Katie Holmes (another Mrs. Tom Cruise) in “All My Sons” (2008). This season has seen Jude Law in “Hamlet,” Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in “A Steady Rain,” Sienna Miller in “After Miss Julie” and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “A Little Night Music.” Scarlett Johansson appears in “A View From the Bridge” this month. (I am excluding eminent performers, like Paul Newman, Jane Fonda and Susan Sarandon, who had passed their peak of Hollywood-generated fame, or Ms. Zeta-Jones’s co-star, Angela Lansbury, who became a star of musicals in the 1960s and ’70s.)

Let me say that none of these performers were embarrassing in their parts, though a few were initially stiffened by self-consciousness. On the other hand, none of them were really right for their parts, either, and I can’t think of a single case in which they left me with fresh insights into their plays (all but two, for the record, revivals). And that’s because the play was not the thing, even when it was “Hamlet.”

For these productions the theater becomes its own hybrid institution: part temple and part freak-show tent, wherein paying customers can see a living, breathing member of the breed that has been cursed and blessed by incredible fame — and preferably incredible physical beauty as well. Never mind that many theatergoers can (and most likely do) read about these stars’ lives, in detail lurid and quotidian, on the Web every day. They are propelled by the same primitive impulse that drove New Yorkers of a century ago to queue up to see Lillie Langtry, a professional beauty (and former mistress of the king of England) who occasionally appeared in plays.

So I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when I hear people defending these stars’ performances on the basis of their looks. “But he’s so adorable,” my sister said to me, after seeing Mr. Law’s bizarrely extroverted rendering of the introspective Hamlet. “But she’s so beautiful,” more than one well-educated, well-versed theatergoer has said to me about Ms. Zeta-Jones in “A Little Night Music.”

It’s all the more galling that, properly cast, such actors, many of whom are genuinely talented, might shine in unexpected ways. Why give Ms. Roberts, a natural romantic heroine, not one but two quirky character roles in “Three Days of Rain”? Or cast the charismatic Mr. Jackman and Mr. Craig, who both proved their stage mettle years ago, as the standard-issue Chicago cops in “A Steady Rain”?

It’s as if complex interpretation might get in the way of these productions’ true raison d’être, which is to serve as an inconspicuous setting for a multicarat jewel. As heartening as it was to see so many teenage girls at the Jude Law “Hamlet,” or to have Ms. Roberts introduce a whole new audience to Mr. Greenberg’s elegant 1997 drama “Three Days of Rain,” I don’t know how many people actually saw the plays behind the starlight.

And you can’t help lamenting the more complete shows that might have been, with different performers in their parts. (There are, of course, instances where a big star meets a big role and sparks fly. Witness Cate Blanchett’s scalding turn as Blanche DuBois in the Sydney Theater Company’s “Streetcar Named Desire,” recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

It seems curmudgeonly — and too easy — to dismiss celebrity-driven productions on Broadway. They inspire people to keep buying increasingly expensive tickets, even in a recession, and they allow an institution too often perceived as culturally marginal these days to bask in an international spotlight from time to time. I suppose what most rankles is how most of us are transformed into awe-struck gogglers in the presence of a majesty so fleeting, so illusory, so factory-made.

People say stars imported from other constellations are easy targets when they appear on Broadway, but I have found that reviewers, myself included, go out of their way to be respectful. It’s difficult, after all, to escape the reflexes bred by your culture. As hard as we may try to resist it, when visitors arrive from even an ersatz Olympus, our first instinct is to take off our hats.

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