At any Broadway show, the rustling of programs is a familiar sound. Audiences read cast member biographies, excited to learn about their past performances and accomplishments. These paragraphs are commonly littered with impressive resumes, but in some cases, the one most read looks a little different than the rest. 

As I was sitting in the audience engrossed in my program, I saw a hand in the row in front of me raise high into the air. “Will Daniel Radcliffe be at the stage door?” they asked. Heads from surrounding rows all turned in anticipation for the usher’s answer. They proceeded to explain that they cannot guarantee any cast member will exit the theater via stage door following a performance, much less one specific member. This explanation was met with disappointed stares from every “Harry Potter” fan in the audience.

Radcliffe is currently starring in “Merrily We Roll Along” on Broadway, and has gained a significant amount of media attention for this role, though not all of it positive. Variety writes “he’s fun, with moments of brilliance — but he doesn’t have the kind of stage presence of seasoned Broadway actors Groff and Mendez.” Radcliffe has been featured in Broadway shows previously, but does not have the in-depth traditional training and lengthy theater resume of his co-stars. The review also mentions that the “dissonance is not helped by the fact that Gilmour dresses him a bit like Harry Potter, in an argyle sweater vest, high-top Converse sneakers and big glasses. It’s distracting, and makes one wonder if Radcliffe is there as the draw for Broadway audiences when the musical itself — being real art, rather than commerce — may otherwise not be.”

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MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG: Audiences anticipate the entrance of actor Daniel Radcliffe, as he stars in a Broadway musical.

“Merrily We Roll Along,” originally created by Stephen Sondheim, lasted only sixteen official shows on Broadway before it closed in 1981. Written in reverse chronological order, the show is not one that is particularly easy to follow, and has a complex villain of “art manufactured for the purpose of money.” This show is certainly not written to preserve an audience’s comfort, as it highlights the idea that every choice you make will have long lasting effects out of your control. The beginning of the story isn’t shown until the end, leaving the audience in a state of confusion for two hours and 45 minutes. The performance was captivating —  it has definitely earned its place back in a Broadway theater. However, many audience members seemed more enthralled by Radcliffe’s post show performance, auctioning off a prop that had been utilized during the performance for the charity “Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids.” Some stated that it was the “best part of the show” as they left the theater, and many pulled out their phones to document the experience. The prop was a piece of paper found in a typewriter, and ended up being sold for $5,500. Unsurprisingly, the theater has been packed since the show’s reopening in October of 2023. “Merrily We Roll Along” has been extended to close in July 2024, instead of the previous date of March. 

Radcliffe is certainly not the only celebrity face currently gracing the Broadway stages. Grant Gustin, star of “The Flash,” has recently debuted in the newly opened show, “Water for Elephants.” This musical, based on the novel published in 2006 and the film made in 2011, is filled with a cast of spectacular circus artists that have been previously seen on stage with companies such as Cirque du Soleil. Before becoming a television star, Gustin had performed with other theater productions such as the national tour of “West Side Story.”

Celebrities such as Gustin are the best case scenario for Broadway shows, as they have both a past on the stage and a name that will bring audiences from far and wide due to their work on screen. However, this is not always the case as celebrities such as Colleen Ballinger, seen in “Waitress,” have made their Broadway debuts post achieving fame. Usually, these runs are much shorter than those of more seasoned professionals such as Gustin and Radcliffe, who as of press time, will be staying with their respective shows for the duration.

Another example of these short term celebrity appearances that garnered much media attention was the addition of Jordan Fisher and Lola Tung to the cast of “Hadestown.” This show was Tung’s Broadway debut, and in an interview with “The Broadway Show,” she stated “I felt like I was intruding almost … Coming from the TV world right before this, I was like, I don’t want to be in anyone’s way, I don’t want to mess anything up.” Fisher has been in multiple Broadway shows in the past, but empathized with Tung’s statement. He explained that he had come to Broadway the same way as her, and it was nice to watch almost a decade removed. Tung appeared on Broadway for less than two months, beginning in February 2023 and being replaced by mid March. Fisher started at the same time, but has extended his run to Sept. 15, 2024 with a small leave of absence for most of April.

This same idea of short-term runs by celebrities can be seen worldwide, as international celebrities such as Joe Sugg perform in musicals on world stages. Sugg was cast in “Waitress” in London’s West End and held this role for just a little longer than a month in the fall of 2019. Fans traveled from far and wide to catch a glimpse of his performance. 

A San Jose State University thesis paper by Douglas Santana states that  “This new trend of hiring performers, less for their theatrical talent and more for the potential economic gain their name or image could bring to production, demonstrates a new and different focus for Broadway shows in the 21st century.” The discussed trend has been said to challenge the “authentic theater experience,” but alternatively could be having a positive impact on the finances of the theater industry, allowing new and long running shows to both open and be maintained, as it satisfies both audiences and box offices.

While there is much discourse surrounding how much the shows themselves benefit from the appearances of these stars, no one seems to wonder how they themselves are financially impacted. In a Variety article, Robert Hofler states “There is an assumption made by many Hollywood stars who switch mediums and take on roles in Broadway plays that get paid more than a regular star. Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane were each paid a sum of $100,000 per week for their run in “The Producers,” but the truth is that most stars ultimately take a pay cut — at least in comparison to what could be made in film or television.” This truth illustrates that many of these performers are actively choosing the opportunity of Broadway, prioritizing it over their own personal bank account balances. Does this sacrifice give them the right to take a starring role without doing their time in the corps?

Many often discuss the impact these stars have on the ticket sales of these Broadway shows. Is it ok if the majority of the seats are filled by people there to support their favorite celebrity? In an article published by New York University News, Sarah Nichols stated “Audiences who go to see celebrities on Broadway cheer at the mere entrance of the actor, automatically making the show about the star and not the play itself. They are applauding the fame, the actor’s previous accomplishments, not their performance in the moment.” This statement was proven to be true on March 29, as Radcliffe was met with a theater full of cheers for walking onto the stage. Does it take away from the experience as an audience member if those around you are not as engaged with the show’s content?

In the conclusion of a paper by Faith Maciolek, she explained that “overall, the act of stunt-casting has been proven to be a money-making tactic that is a risk, with some celebrities being better received than others. However there are generally more stars who are performing well on Broadway in comparison to the number of stars who are bringing box office numbers down.” This statement demonstrates that while not appreciated by many Broadway fanatics, it has not had a negative effect on the industry as an entity. Broadway employs many people, not just those who are seen on stage. If one person loses the chance for a role to a popular celebrity, but hundreds of others are offered increased job security for a period of time, is it worth it? Does this compromise the integrity of the art of theater or does it help the industry successfully continue in an ever challenging economy? 

In a telephone interview, former Editor in Chief of Playbill, Blake Ross, stated “Theater has been quote ‘dying’ since the beginning of time … but it will never die because it is the ultimate art form and the ultimate live experience.” This idea can be proven true every day as audiences rise to their feet, applauding and cheering following live performances across the world. While celebrities have been used to grab audiences, the fact is that there are audiences to be had. While not loved by everyone, theater is thriving due to this casting format and will continue to thrive moving forward.