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Lohan to Broadway! (Not Really): How the Branding Phenomenon is Influencing Casting Decisions

0317 freaky
Disney may be catching a second wind on Broadway. Playbill.com reported this week that the entertainment giant’s theatrical division is developing stage musical adaptations of “Freaky Friday,” “Father of the Bride,” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Sadly, it’s not the Jodie Foster, Spencer Tracy, and Lewis Carroll versions that are being adapted, but rather the Lindsay Lohan, Steve Martin, and Tim Burton ones. (We point this out only as an excuse to mention the word “Lohan,” which is scientifically proven to increase readership by 1,000,000 percent. Truly, these are the end times.) In addition, Disney commissioned the current Off-Broadway hit at New York Theatre Workshop, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” whose rave from The New York Times’ Ben Brantley extended the show’s run and could fuel a Broadway transfer, and Walt’s wonderful world is also reportedly working on a stage version of “Dumbo.”

Anyway, Disney is largely credited (or blamed) with helping make the Broadway landscape what it is today: one with plenty of room for work based on movies, rock albums, and comic books but with a diminishing tolerance for original concepts. (“Starcatcher” is at least based on a novel, though it just happens to be one of those “Wicked”-like prequels to a classic, oft-filmed story.) Four new musicals based on Mouse House films are four more signs that franchise mentality has become as prevalent on Broadway as it is in Hollywood. That’s old news, of course. But as that other Times theater critic, Charles Isherwood, recently noted, that mentality is spilling over into Off-Broadway. Isherwood pointed to the migration of shows such as “Avenue Q” and “Rent” to Off-Broadway houses and wrote, “The Broadway-to-Off trend only underscores the high-end commercialism that has made it impossible for fresh, adventurous works to have extended lives off Broadway.” (This is probably the place to note that Mary Rodgers, the author of the original novel “Freaky Friday” and the lauded composer of “Once Upon a Mattress,” as well as daughter of legendary composer Richard Rodgers, wrote her own well-received Off-Broadway musical adaptation of “Friday” back in 1991, in collaboration with John Forster, for TheatreworksUSA. It’s had subsequent productions, but nope, that’s not the one Disney is developing.)

Isherwood may as well have been talking about actors. Like brand-name stories, brand-name performers are being sought after more and more by stage producers on and away from the Main Stem. As producer David Richenthal told the Times back in 2009, “I would consider it financially irresponsible to approach a major revival without making a serious effort to get a star.” If that’s true, then Atlantic Theater Company fulfilled that responsibility when it cast Carey Mulligan—Oscar-nominated for “An Education” and slated to appear alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire in a new film version of “The Great Gatsby”—to star in its production of Ingmar Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly,” which will begin previews Off-Broadway on May 13.

The trend has also taken hold in television. Among the actors signed to star in pilots in the upcoming season are Anjelica Huston, Kevin Spacey, and Zooey Deschanel. More and more, producers in all mediums are insisting on known commodities when it comes to both content and performers. This makes the unknown actor’s job more difficult. Branding and self-promotion may feel icky, but they’re as important as ever at a time when all the decent-paying work appears to be going to the people who have already had plenty of it.

Pictured: Lindsay Lohan in the 2003 film "Freaky Friday"

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