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TV or Not TV: Network Stars Come to B'way

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The casting of television stars in Broadway shows, once a comparative rarity, has become a noticeable trend and now shows signs of becoming the rule. As with most decisions in show business, it has as much to do with business as show: Producers attempting to sell their shows in the crowded marketplace of "The New Times Square" have found that out-of-towners are more likely to see plays and musicals that feature names from the small screen.

The combination of a shrinking world and expanding ticket prices (up to $90 per seat, not including the fees of the scalpers and/or TicketMaster) have made the days of Broadway stars who rarely venture into other media a thing of the past. In place of those strictly Main Stem stars (i.e., Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon, Alfred Drake), Broadway now boasts Cheryl "Charlie's Angels" Ladd in "Annie Get Your Gun"; David "Baywatch" Hasselhof in "Jekyll & Hyde"; Henry "Happy Days" Winkler and John "Three's Company" Ritter in "The Dinner Party"; and Chris "Law & Order"/"Sex in the City" Noth in "Gore Vidal's The Best Man." A few more examples: Lea "Caroline in the City" Thompson just departed from "Cabaret," and Tom "Magnum, P.I." Selleck has been announced for a revival of "A Thousand Clowns" that was originally slated for this season but has now been pushed back to next season.

The latest household name from the small screen to take over a role on Broadway is talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, who will step into the role of the Cat in the Hat in the new tuner "Seussical" from Jan. 16 to Feb. 10. She will replace David Shiner, who is taking a vacation to spend with his family in Bavaria.

Although she is primarily known as a television personality, O'Donnell also has substantial acting credits, in such films as "A League of their Own" and "Sleepless in Seattle." She also played the role of Rizzo in the revival of "Grease" in 1994, so she is no stranger to the Great White Way. She has also hosted the Tony Awards ceremony twice, and enthusiastically championed the musical art form by inviting cast members from virtually every Broadway show to appear on her talk show.

Now that the tables have been turned, and she has been invited to appear in "Seussical," she has already raised its visibility and may boost its attendance. (Like most other shows on Broadway, its business has dropped off during the holiday season. There are a few exceptions, such as "Annie Get Your Gun," which increased attendance by slashing the average ticket price, but "Seussical" is about average in suffering a drop of about 6.5 percent in its weekly gross.)

Earlier this year, when "Seussical" finished its initial rehearsal period in New York and left town to try out in Boston, the legit community generally believed it was a bulletproof hit. However, reviews up north were less than generous, with critics complaining that the show was unfocused. A parade of Seuss doctors headed to Massachusetts to make changes in the sets, costumes, and direction as the authors, the Tony-winning team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, added and subtracted new songs. New York critics gave it a mixed reaction when it opened Nov. 30, but audiences seem to be enjoying it. The most commonly heard complaint, among both reviewers and audiences, has been Shiner's edgy, slightly unsettling performance as the Cat in the Hat.

O'Donnell is likely to radically reinterpret the role and bring some of her famous warmth to the part.

Even more important for the producers, (led by Barry and Fran Weissler, who also produced the "Grease" in which O'Donnell made her Broadway debut), she is likely to bring a portion of her huge television audience.

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