Big stars from movies and TV are hardly a novelty on Broadway anymore. But this fall may be some kind of high-water mark. Famous names will be plastered all over Broadway marquees — mostly in revivals, or in tony ensemble pieces rather than classic star turns. It's only prudent. Few Hollywood stars want to risk facing the critics in an untried new play (as Katie Holmes did two seasons ago in the ill-fated Dead Accounts), or take on a demanding classic role where they're likely to be judged against a long line of legendary predecessors (witness the tepid reviews for Scarlett Johansson's recent turn as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).
This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan's critically praised off-Broadway comedy from the 1990s, seems like an ideal vehicle for the trio of stars headlining its Broadway debut (opening on Sept. 11). Michael Cera, known for his sweetly disaffected teens in movies like Superbad and Juno, plays a Manhattan rich kid who steals $15,000 from his father; Kieran Culkin (Igby Goes Down) is his manic, drug-dealing friend; and Tavi Gevenson (the 18-year-old fashion blogger who has just launched an acting career) rounds out the intriguing cast as Cera's girlfriend.
Two more young stars making Broadway debuts, Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal, are the chief raison d'etre for a revival of The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard's 1982 marital drama returning to Broadway for the third time (Oct. 30). Glenn Close (who co-starred in the original Broadway production of The Real Thing) and John Lithgow head the cast of A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 drama (Nov. 20), last seen on Broadway in 1996. Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, stage pals from The Producers and The Odd Couple, will reunite — along with F. Murray Abraham, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally and Harry Potter's Rupert Grint — in the Broadway debut of Terrence McNally's backstage theater comedy It's Only a Play (Oct. 9). Bradley Cooper takes on the title role in a revival of Bernard Pomerance's hit drama The Elephant Man. And James Earl Jones gets top billing in a new version of the Kaufman-Hart warhorse You Can't Take It With You (Sept. 28).
Also returning to Broadway this fall is perhaps the ultimate star vehicle of them all: A. R. Gurney's Love Letters, a showcase for two actors reading a series of letters that chronicle the ups and downs of a 50-year love affair. Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy will play the roles for the first month, followed by tag-team series of duos, including such age-appropriate stars as Carol Burnett, Candice Bergen, Alan Alda, Angelica Huston and Martin Sheen.
The only star of the sole new musical set to open this fall is the man behind the scenes: Sting. For his first Broadway musical, The Last Ship, (Oct. 26), the rock star has drawn on his own childhood experiences, setting the musical in an English seafaring town where the last shipyard is about to close down. After somewhat mixed reviews for a pre-Broadway run in Chicago (and a spotty record for rock stars trying to transition to Broadway), its prospects are uncertain. But for musical fans, it's the only game in town this fall, aside from a couple of well-hyped revivals: On the Town, the Bernstein-Comden-Green perennial (Oct. 16), and Side Show, the 1996 musical about the Hilton sisters, Siamese twins who became a hit in vaudeville in the 1920s, which is returning a new production reconceived by director Bill Condon (Nov. 17).
Amid all the stars and revivals, is there any room left on Broadway for serious new plays? Yes, actually — three promising ones this fall.
The most anticipated is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephens' adaptation of the novel by Mark Haddon about a 15-year-old autistic genius who investigates the killing of a neighbor's dog. The London production won critical raves and a record-tying seven Olivier awards, including one for Best Play and another for director Marianne Elliott, who is bringing her British production over here largely intact.
Another new British import is The River, the latest work from Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem), set in a remote cabin where a fisherman has an enigmatic encounter with two women. Originally staged at the Royal Court Theatre, the Broadway version will have the same director (Ian Rickson), plus an extra dose of star power: Hugh Jackman, one of Broadway's most reliable boxoffice draws, plays the fisherman.
The lone new American play of the fall season is Disgraced, Ayad Akthar's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a Muslim-American lawyer facing a clash between his religion and his work relationships. After successful productions off Broadway and in regional theaters, its arrival is proof that Broadway can still make room for serious works by homegrown playwrights about contemporary issues. Even without stars.