The two huge Hollywood stars have grossed a combined total of close to $5 billion in the movie box-office, and producers are hoping they’ll transfer the big bucks to Broadway.
So far it’s working. Pacino’s show is getting a top ticket price of $350 and Willis’s just under $300. Shows are close to sold-out, with lines down the block.
Good news for everyone—except the audience.
When Willis opened in Misery on Sunday night, critical response ranged from “deadly dull” to “inert.” The New York Times suggested “you’re more likely to experience a chill sitting in a tepid bath at home” and said Willis seemed like he “would just as soon be taking a nap.”
The usually affable Daily News critic gave it two stars out of five, complaining that Willis “musters just enough emotion to stretch from A to B” and is “so bland it’s frightening.” Oh, that was just before he compared Willis to a block of wood.
What went wrong? Based on the book by Stephen King and the movie that won Kathy Bates an Academy Award, the show arrived with great credentials. Broadway favorite Laurie Metcalf (who also has TV credits that go back to Roseanne) delighted everyone as crazed fan Annie.
But as the BBC News politely explained about the action hero-turned-Broadway thespian: “Bruce Willis Fails to Impress.”
It’s hard to know if he really cares. A lot of stars come to Broadway to prove they’re serious stars (like Daniel Craig) or because they just can’t get enough of the stage (hello, Hugh Jackman).
But if Willis had either of those goals, he might have chosen a role other than the bed-bound author in Misery. According to scriptwriter William Goldman, numerous actors turned down the movie role before James Caan, whose career was flailing, agreed.
Pacino’s China Doll has been in previews since October 21, but there are no official reviews yet because the producers pushed the official opening night back two weeks to December 4.
“The move allows the creative team additional time to work on the play before its world premiere,” the producers from Jeffrey Richards Associates explained.
Taking extra time to get a play right is not a crime. But the motive here is pretty clear: The early buzz on Pacino’s China Doll has been dismal.
The New York Post says audience members are leaving the theater at intermission and not coming back. Opening night now falls on a Friday—an unusual time to open, since it means the reviews appear in the little-read Saturday newspapers.
Unread reviews could be exactly what the producers want. No reason to let critics chime in when audiences are already buying. And does it really matter, anyway?
Pacino fans want to see the Godfather in person. Hear that gravelly voice, see those piercing eyes, live on-stage. If the play (by much-admired David Mamet) is a dud, at least you’ve been in the presence of greatness.
But the greats may find Broadway a bigger challenge than they really want. Making movies is an art but appearing on Broadway a daily dare.
There are no retakes and you have to stay fully engaged. Rumors began circulating that 75-year old Pacino was stumbling over Mamet’s words and having trouble remembering his lines.
Teleprompters were then tucked around the stage at the Schoenfeld theater so Pacino could read the lines—or get them whispered through an earpiece. But it’s hard to be fully engaged with the audience when you’re struggling to know what to say.
There have also been reports that Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones use earpieces to remind them of lines in The Gin Game. But given that she’s 90 and he’s 84, there might be some excuse.
Actress Keira Knightley knows her lines perfectly well as the star of Broadway’s Therese Raquin (based on the novel by Zola). But that’s about all.
Knightley was exceptional in last year’s Academy Award-nominated The Imitation Game, and in movies like Pride and Prejudice and Pirates of the Caribbean, she has shown her charm and range.
On stage here, she is charmless and one-note. While some of the reviews were positive, others called her “bloodless,” and a “sexual bore.”
The Wall Street Journal said she gave “the kind of flat, underprojected performance you’d expect from an untrained Broadway debutante.” But it could be the director who missed the boat. (Though a rowboat does float on real water on the set.) If you can’t get any passion into a sex scene with Keira Knightley, you’re just not trying.
The melodrama opened a couple of weeks ago, and the negative hits have hurt. The theater where Knightley appears each night is taking in only about half as much in box-office grosses as it could.
So do these critical failures mean the wheels are off the Broadway celebrity bus? Probably not. Broadway is a risky investment, and having a celebrity gives a certain security to those putting up the money.
“I think the general consensus is that celebrity casting is still a big draw,” says Ruth Hendel, a producer behind several Tony-winning shows.
In the last few years, Hollywood stars including Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, Tom Hanks, and Denzel Washington have sold so many seats ahead of the opening that the reviews didn’t matter.
“People will come to watch Hugh Jackman even if he’s reading the telephone book,” says one producer who asked not to be named. (He’d like to be involved in Jackman’s next show, no doubt.)
Some of the biggest hits happen without any known stars at all.
The top earners currently on Broadway are Hamilton, Wicked, and The Book of Mormon. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, it was the show that made the star, rather than the other way around. Before Hamilton, Miranda wasn’t much known outside the small theater community—now he’s appeared on The Tonight Show and told Jimmy Fallon he thought they should be friends.
Producer Ken Davenport once analyzed twenty years of Broadway musicals and concluded that only 21 percent even recouped their costs. He compared investing in Broadway to drilling for oil—you drill a lot of holes, but sometimes you hit a gusher.
Ironically, the real gushers rarely rely on big names. A long-playing show has to hold up after the movie stars have gone back to their homes in Malibu. Both Pacino and Willis are in shows with limited runs. They’ll do just fine, but the blockbuster money is made with shows that go on and on.
Wicked has starred more witches than you can shake a broom at since it first opened in 2003 and has rewarded investors with returns of more than 1000 percent. Try doing that in the stock market.
The new musical On Your Feet could be another juggernaut with its energetic music and touching story. Big stars? They deserve to be, but unless you’re related to Anna Villafane and Josh Segarra (as Gloria and Emilio Estefan) you may not know their names yet.
Hendel thinks the best shows find a balance between celebrity and content. “Sometimes you need a lure to get the press and out-of-town audience,” she admits.
And people are still lining up for Pacino.