Idolatry on Broadway?

In addition to the writer, producer, director, casting director, choreographer, musical director, and studio executive, actors may soon have to pass muster with someone else before getting a job: the audience. To wit:

> NBC announced last month that it will launch a new reality show called You're the One That We Want, an American Idol–type competition to cast the two lead roles in a Broadway revival of Grease scheduled to open next June.

> You're the One is a copycat of the BBC program How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, currently airing in the United Kingdom, which is searching for someone to fill the lead in a London production of The Sound of Music. Andrew Lloyd Webber is producing the TV show and will do the same for the musical.

> Nielsen Media Research, the ratings company, has teamed with to form Live Theatrical Events, a market research firm that polls audiences to get a better idea of how to make a hit show. One piece of data the company has just started selling to subscribers is the Hot List, an audience survey of which stars they'd like to see in what shows. (Nielsen is owned by VNU, which also owns Back Stage.)

Though the audience has long had a say in who stars in what, its influence in casting has been largely passive: An actor who plays the lead in a movie or musical that sells a lot of tickets will get more work, as producers decide that's who audiences want to see. But now the audience is getting a chance to exert its influence on the front end of the selection process, picking unknowns as well as established performers. (In addition to the above shows, there's I Wanna Be a Soap Star on Soapnet, the cable channel devoted to daytime drama.) And people in the entertainment business say that what was once a fad is becoming a trend—and one that won't fade anytime soon, considering the enormous popularity of American Idol and other reality programming.

"Star casting has been around for a very long time," said Ken Davenport, a producer for the long-running Off-Broadway musical Altar Boyz, who is using Live Theatrical Events to help him cast his next project. "This is just a new facet of it. What's changed is how celebrity is created: It's created [in part] through reality television."

"The reason is because this is what audiences respond to and go see," said casting director Arnold Mungioli of Mungioli Theatricals. "They're less interested in the show. They're going to see a star.... We [in the industry] go for the star because that's the way the audiences respond."

Frenchie Davis (Rent), Tamyra Gray (Bombay Dreams), Diana DeGarmo (Hairspray), and Constantine Maroulis (The Wedding Singer) are some of the Idol alumni who have worked or will soon work on Broadway, in part because of their connection to the No. 1 show in America. No one is saying they don't belong in these shows or don't possess the ability to become major stars. But Mungioli said the concept of what makes a star is changing because of reality television, which could in turn have a negative influence on the casting process.

"There is a pervasive lack of understanding of what is required to carry a show," Mungioli said. "It's not singing one song on television. It requires some craft and skill and the basics of acting: Who am I talking to? What do I want? How am I going to get it? There are people who have the talent to sing...who don't have the craft and the skill to understand the structure of a scene or the arc of a role. What is the audience going to get ultimately? This has the power to short-change them."

Davenport, however, stressed that market research from Live Theatrical Events and, perhaps, casting through reality shows are simply additional tools that producers can use to increase the size of their audiences in a business where "it's not unusual to lose money," he said. "Four out of five shows fail to recoup their investment." Davenport added that these tools won't become the beginning and end of the decision-making process, which has to allow as much for art as for business if it's going to survive.

"Am I going to cast somebody for Altar Boyz who's been on The Surreal Life? No freakin' way," he said. "Will I look at anybody who can act, sing, and dance? Yes. Is it a plus if they've appeared in front of millions of people on national television? Absolutely."

Davenport also said it depends on the project: "Grease is the perfect choice because it's been seen by 75 percent of America. It's a fresh new take on it. They'll probably cast a fantastic Danny and Sandy out of it.... But I wouldn't cast Hamlet this way."

William Hung was a civil engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley, when he tried out for American Idol during its third season, in 2004. To say he wasn't good at singing "She Bangs" is putting it mildly. It seemed his only talent was to provide the show with an amusing moment. Tara Rubin, the casting director who helped put together the ensemble for the Tony-winning musical Jersey Boys, cringes at the possibility of a reality show mocking a Broadway aspirant in a similar fashion.

"I've always loved the casting process. There's a magic that happens," she said. "To reduce that process to something that takes place with cell phones on television, to subject that process to people who don't give notes in an encouraging or artistic way.... It seems that as a country we've come to love watching a person be humiliated on national television. That doesn't have anything to do with anything I've done in 20 years in an audition room."

On the whole, Rubin doesn't dismiss reality television. "American Idol is a phenomenon that has found enormously talented people, and millions of people have been captured by that format," she said. "But I don't want to participate in it when I cast a Broadway show. I think it could have a harmful effect."

And though she doesn't believe American Idol will become the dominant paradigm for casting, or maybe even a significant one, Rubin did allow that its influence "is clearly encroaching on our world."

Moreover, Mungioli said, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what casting entails, even among his colleagues in the business. "If people are moving around a lot onstage, is that choreography? If the lights are on onstage, is that lighting design?" he asked rhetorically. "If a producer hires a casting director and he brings bodies into an audition room, is that good casting? Most people would say it is."

Darcie Siciliano is a New York actor following the traditional path: showcases, Off-Broadway plays, independent films, tours, commercials, and industrials. She has also been the lead singer of a rock band. However, getting a big break through a reality show is not for her. "For me it would reek of opportunism," Siciliano said. "I don't mean to say that as an actor I'm not looking for opportunities, but for me it would be very disingenuous. There's no integrity in it.… On a reality show, you're not playing yourself. You're playing a fictional aspect of who you are."

Todd Alan Crain, a New York actor with a significant musical theatre background, disagrees. He has even tried to land a role as a reality-show host. "If we, as chameleon performers, don't find a new way into this new 'enemy media,' then we will succumb to the depression of not working," he wrote in an email to Back Stage. "The phrase 'Adapt or die' is truly fitting when it comes to this topic. That's why I've pursued the host route as another possible vehicle to more acting-based projects. Any exposure is great exposure."

Further, the people interviewed for this article said there's one arbitrary factor in establishing or propelling a career that's worse than any talent show or fan poll: nepotism. And each person said that persistence and talent will almost always deliver for the deserving actor.

Ultimately, the audience will have to be satisfied if any form of entertainment is to survive. Playwrights David Mamet and John Patrick Shanley—each of whom possesses an independent spirit—have long maintained that the people who buy the tickets are the ones who instruct artists on how to do their jobs. It is unlikely, however, that either one would poll a focus group or support a reality show to find the next Ricky Roma for Glengarry Glen Ross or Father Flynn for Doubt.

Nevertheless, if surveys, focus groups, and reality shows come to be major factors in determining who gets what role, and the quality of entertainment declines as a result, then, Mungioli said, the audience will have only itself and its preference for celebrity over story to blame. "There is absolutely liability with the audience on this one," he said. "If they showed up to discover something rather than [to] see what they already knew, then we'd have more adventurous theatre. That's the truth."