Steal a glance at the Tony Award nominations for Best Actor in a Drama, you could be forgiven for thinking you accidentally clicked on an Academy Award nominations link. Denzel Washington, Jude Law, Alfred Molina, Liev Schreiber, and Christopher Walken are all up for an award that honors theatrical performances? But it's not just the leading guys. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Scarlett Johansson Laura Linney, Viola Davis: the Tony awards are stacked with movie stars and Oscar-nominated performers this year. What gives?
I have a couple theories. First, consider the recession. The economic downturn has had a couple important impacts on the Broadway acting market. First, it hurt Hollywood salaries. Film actors are facing declining real wages as movie executives abandon the cult of the movie star. As one agent told the Los Angeles Times, "In terms of prices and quotes, everyone is in free fall. It's just brutal out there." When Hollywood casting directors stop calling and salaries fall, the opportunity cost of moving to New York to be in a play a few months falls, too.
That's the push. Here's the pull: when money gets tight, producers look for sure things. A musical based on a trillion-dollar trilogy about a green ogre? That's a sure thing. Jude Law as Hamlet? Sure thing. Wolverine and James Bond chewing the fat for two hours in brave new accents? Oh yes, please.
There are other explanations that have nothing to do with the recession. It's credible that the Tony nomination committee cynically rewards big names to attract more stars to Broadway and more eyeballs to the June 13 telecast. It's also credible that some actors simply want to do live theater, whether or not they have offers back in LA. Most of the names we recognize on the marquees are middle-aged male television stars of past and present (John Lithgow, Anthony LaPaglia, Sean Hayes, and so on), but Scarlett Johansson doesn't appear to be in any sort of career trough and she appeared in a supporting role in View from a Bridge.
If more Hollywood moves to Broadway, is it a good thing? Yes and no. No, because it's bad for insanely talented leading men and women on Broadway if bigger names elbow them out of roles they would have snagged years ago. Yes, because it's good for the public's appreciation for acting. Consider the case of Jude Law. After a series of radiant, toothy turns in The Talented Mr. Ripley, A.I., and I *Heart* Huckabees, Law has spent the last five years wallowing in the the kind mediocrity that anybody would deserve after appearing in The Holiday. You'd have been right to forget him. But for his title role in Hamlet, the New Yorker (not one to kow-tow to an actor complicit in The Holiday) called him a "sensation."
More actors deserve such a renaissance. Hollywood teaches us that famous actors are famous. Broadway reminds us that famous actors can act. Go East, middle-aged men.