I’m going to New York and this time, nobody’s gonna stop me… At the third time of trying (after traumatic passport lost and a wedding cancellation (someone else’s I should add), I will finally be making my way over to the Great White Way over New Year and though it will be my first trip there, I’m thinking I’m pretty much going to spend most of it in the theatre (where else!). I can do the touristy stuff next time because at the moment I’m just dazzled by the opportunities to see some proper famous people on the stage, shallow fame whore that I have turned out to be.
But even then, the people who I’m most excited about aren’t necessarily the ones you might expect – Bradley Cooper is headlining The Elephant Man but it’s Patricia Clarkson who’s most exciting me in that cast, Ewan McGregor may be the biggest name in Stoppard’s The Real Thing but it’s the opportunity to see Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cynthia Nixon that is getting me there and if Hugh Jackman is the main draw in The River, it’s the unexpected appearance of our very own Cush Jumbo that is most intriguing. That said, there’s no point in me pretending that I’m more excited about Ruth Wilson than Jake Gyllenhaal in Nick Payne’s extraordinary Constellations– we’ll call it the most high-scoring draw ever.
Of course, the golden rule is that you should never book on the strength of the names alone, you could well end up with the understudy and have no cause for complaint. But still, still, I wanna see the big names. The prospect of not seeing Glenn Close might be somewhat mitigated by the incredible cast around her in A Delicate Balance (John Lithgow, Clare Higgins, Lindsay Duncan, Martha Plimpton…) but I’d be gutted if I didn’t get the hugely delightful Emma Stone giving her all in Cabaret. Then there’s Rose Byrne in You Can’t Take It With You, Idina Menzel in If/Then, the list just goes on and on and on. How can I possibly fit it all in and guarantee I get to see everyone I want?!
The fact is I can’t and I won’t. And it’s an interesting thought because it is something I rarely think about in my theatregoing here. I go out pretty much every night so there’s not much that is on that I don’t manage to fit into the schedule somehow and when it comes to understudies, I’ve been quite lucky in not having too many big name dropouts and where I have, it’s been most enjoyable anyway – Gloria Onitiri on for Heather Headley in The Bodyguard was just fantastic, and Adam Morris on for Richard Schiff in Speed-the-Plow added real interest to an already intriguing production. Would I have felt the same had Helen McCrory missed Medea the night I was there, or Imelda Staunton pulling a sickie at Gypsy? Probably not, but the fear still somehow feels more present for the limited opportunities I will have once across the ocean.
And though I may like to think otherwise, I’m not so immune to star casting here. I followed the hordes that went to see Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit despite having no particular affection for her (heresy, I know) and certainly not for the play; the prospect of seeing Kathleen Turner again was the only thing that took me to Bakersfield Mist, likewise Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary and others beside, not least a certain Benedict Cumberbatch next August in yet another Hamlet – I am only human and in the throes of a terrible addiction. (If anything, I’m hoping the cost of this trip to New York will cure me of the need to go again anytime soon!)
But in a theatre economy that does rely on, and features heavily, big names, should there be greater transparency about when they aren’t going to be there. Over on the booking page for the very well-received Memphis is the small print that tells you obliquely that three out of the eight weekly performances won’t actually feature Beverley Knight or Killian Donnelly, the two above-the-title stars of the show and one has to wonder how many people booking via agencies or ticket booths would be aware of this, especially tourists ie those most unlikely to be able to reschedule to see the performers they want…
It’s a tricky one to be sure, and from my relatively privileged position here I’m probably not best equipped to answer, as with anyone who regularly gets to attend press nights (which almost always will be moved if one of the stars can’t make it). But I will say that I totally understand and appreciate the pain of not getting to see who you wanted and I pray that it doesn’t happen to me in New York (though I’m fully prepared to give an anguished howl to the gods if it does!).