On Broadway, The Play's Still The Thing While Broadway audiences dwindle, even for typically popular musicals, some exciting straight plays are still being produced — and drawing star power.
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On Broadway, The Play's Still The Thing

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On Broadway, The Play's Still The Thing

On Broadway, The Play's Still The Thing

On Broadway, The Play's Still The Thing

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Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush in Exit The King at New York's Barrymore Theatre. Joan Marcus hide caption

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Joan Marcus

Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush in Exit The King at New York's Barrymore Theatre.

Joan Marcus

Watch A Clip: From Exit The King

Watch A Clip: From 33 Variations

Watch A Clip: From God Of Carnage

Zach Grenier (in shadow) and Jane Fonda star in 33 Variations at New York's Eugene O'Neill Theater. hide caption

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Zach Grenier (in shadow) and Jane Fonda star in 33 Variations at New York's Eugene O'Neill Theater.

In The Actors' Words

Geoffrey Rush On The Relevance Of 'Exit the King'

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Marcia Gay Harden On How Theater Is Like Music

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Marcia Gay Harden On 'God Of Carnage'

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Jane Fonda On '33 Variations'

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For the past several decades, musicals have been the face of Broadway, and its chief economic engine. But this spring, Broadway producers have been rediscovering straight plays, and audiences have been flocking to see them. Big names from Hollywood and television have been flocking to star in them, as well, including Academy Award winners Jane Fonda, Geoffrey Rush and Marcia Gay Harden.

Jeremy Gerard, who covers Broadway for Bloomberg News, says he finds that the variety and artistic aspirations of this spring's new productions are exciting, but that almost all of them will only last as long as the tulips and daffodils.

"This year is different," Gerard says. "This year, we have a lot of these star-driven shows with very, very limited runs -– runs that used to be verboten on Broadway."

Commercial producers have always used big stars to sell serious plays — but in the past, they asked them to commit for at least a year, so they could make back their investment. Now, producers have come up with a new formula: Offer limited runs of plays with stars, for three to six months, and make the law of limited supply build the demand.

So this spring and summer, Broadway audiences can see a dizzying array of stars in person, but for just a short time: Jane Fonda stars in the new play 33 Variations until the end of May; Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon headline Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King through June; and James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden share the stage through July in a new comedy of really bad manners called God of Carnage.

Marcia Gay Harden may have won an Academy Award for Pollock and appeared extensively in film and TV, but her resume includes a lot of stage roles.

"There's a really tremendous energy exchange going on — we do something, the audience laughs, so they shoot the energy right back," Harden says. "We do something, they laugh, we do something, they gasp, and it's very, very exciting."

Jeffrey Richards is one of the leading producers of straight plays on Broadway. This season, he's presented one musical — a revival of Hair — and five plays, most with limited runs. He says musicals cost substantially more to produce.

"With a musical, you know, there's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Richards says. "But the rainbow can be much more gradual than the immediate impact of a straight play, where you can realize a profit more quickly, when you do it especially on a limited engagement and create a specific window, in which the consumer has the opportunity to see that play."

Four-time Tony Award winner Angela Lansbury is the dotty medium Madame Arcati in a revival of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, one of the plays that Richards has produced this season. He's waiting to see if that revival — which also stars Rupert Everett — turns a profit, but Richards says he structures a play's budget so he can pay back investors even if a play runs for only a few months.

"So if you were an investor in, let us say, Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet's wonderful play, you were making a profit in a 19-week engagement. Now, that's better than the stock market."

Bloomberg's Gerard thinks this new, short-term approach is a healthy one.

"It's kind of the 'iPodization' of Broadway, where suddenly you've got much more choice and much more turnover," he says."

Possibly one of the more off-beat choices this spring is Exit the King — Ionesco's little-known existential/absurdist play. Geoffrey Rush, who won an Academy Award for his role in Shine, has gotten rave reviews for his bravura performance of a 400-year-old despot who fights his impending death with every fiber of his being.

"I would say 98 percent of the audience — and friends of mine, who are fairly well-read but don't know the play, have said this — they come along, feeling as though they might have to have a really worthy evening of eating existential spinach and it'll be good for them," Rush says. "And they're surprised and delighted to find out that Ionesco's flavors are very entertaining."

Another play that mixes comedy and serious ideas is Moises Kaufman's 33 Variations starring Fonda, in her first Broadway role in 46 years. Fonda plays a musicologist who is fighting ALS — Lou Gehrig's disease — while researching Beethoven's manuscripts and trying to repair a difficult relationship with her daughter.

"There's a lot of laughter," Fonda says. "I mean, one is surprised how funny it is. But it takes you somewhere. I think people want to be taken somewhere and feel, when the experience is over, that they have actually experienced something and are the better for it."

Richards points to the robust box office for these plays, even in this economic environment, as a sign that live theater can hold its own.

"You have a kitchen in your home, and I think the restaurant business may be more hit by these times than the theater, because you can't have a stage in your home," he says.

Or Jane Fonda, except on video. And Fonda, for her part, enjoys spending two-and-a-half hours with a thousand strangers every night.

"I'd be happy if I didn't do anything but plays from now on," she says. "I just love doing this. I definitely want to do more."