By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hollywood stars are lighting up Broadway in limited-run plays that can be box office gold for the theater industry and give film and television actors a prestigious career boost.
British actress Rebecca Hall, of 2013's Disney-Marvel superhero blockbuster sequel "Iron Man 3," is appearing on the New York stage in the 1920s play "Machinal," after making her Broadway debut in January to critical acclaim.
Multiple Emmy winner Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad" fame switched from the small screen to the stage to play late U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in "All the Way," which opens on March 6.
The same month, James Franco, an Oscar nominee for "127 Hours," will begin previews in the Depression-era drama "Of Mice and Men" with TV's Leighton Meester of "Gossip's Girl."
In April, dual Academy Award winner Denzel Washington ("Training Day" and "Glory') will open in "A Raisin in the Sun," and Golden Globe winner Michelle Williams ("My Week with Marilyn") and Alan Cumming, of TV's "The Good Wife," will appear in a revival of the Berlin-set musical "Cabaret."
"I don't know any actor who would not want to be on Broadway," said Cranston, a multiple Emmy winner for his portrayal of a meth-making chemistry teacher in "Breaking Bad."
"It is the pinnacle of stage work. It is where the best work should come together, the best written material, the best actors, the best directors, the best environment. And the most courteous and dedicated theatergoers are here," the actor added in an interview ahead of his Broadway debut.
Jim McCarthy, CEO of the discount tickets company Goldstar, said actors see a stint on Broadway as a way to bolster their credibility and to interact with an audience in a more personal way than they can through television or films.
For producers and backers of shows, a star vehicle can be music to their ears.
"The combination that really works in a show is when you can combine the familiar with the novel. The show may be new to people but the actor is not," said McCarthy, a co-organizer of the TEDxBroadway 2014 conference that brings together leaders in entertainment, marketing, tourism and technology to brainstorm about the future of Broadway.
HOT TICKETS, BIG TAKINGS
Musicals tend to be the top-grossing shows on Broadway. "The Lion King," which opened on Broadway in 1997, was the No. 1 attraction in 2013, bringing in $97 million, according to figures compiled by the Broadway League, the national association for the Broadway theater industry.
"Wicked," which has been running since 2003, and "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway since 2011, were also big earners.
But dramas, particularly those with top stars, also attracted large audiences. "Betrayal," starring James Bond's Daniel Craig and his real life wife, 2006's best-supporting Oscar winner Rachel Weisz for "The Constant Gardener" in the Harold Pinter marital drama, was one of the hottest tickets when it opened last year.
The play set a box office record in its first week taking in more than $1.1 million for seven performances and was the second-highest grossing non-musical, pulling in $17.5 million during its 14-week run.
"Lucky Guy," the play by the late Nora Ephron in which dual best actor Oscar winner Tom Hanks made his Broadway debut and earned a Tony nomination, brought in $22.9 million after an 18-week run.
"From a producer's point of view when you have a big star in a role that is right, it is box office gold. It certainly has proven that," said Hal Luftig, who produced the 2013 Tony award winning best musical "Kinky Boots."
Although a star name on the marquee can pull in audiences, Luftig said it is not a guarantee that a show will be successful.
"'Betrayal' and 'Lucky Guy' were the right fit for the right play," he explained. "Ultimately at the end of the day the star has to be good. What it does do is it creates awareness of the show."
Debbie Bisno, who produced "The Merchant of Venice" with Al Pacino and "Grace" with Paul Rudd," refers to finding the right play and the actor to match as creating the "perfect cocktail."
Broadway theaters are competing with other live events such as concerts to attract audiences and tickets are expensive, so a Hollywood star could be the deciding factor to see a play.
"There is a certain ingredient that needs to happen now, especially with plays," said Bisno. "With musicals we often say the musical is the event, the star. But with theater there has to be something that makes it a must-see."
Star vehicles tend to be limited-run plays to suit the actors' busy schedules. Many stars come to Broadway to return to their roots in theater, to challenge themselves and to work with new people, but with typically eight shows a week a Broadway run can be grueling.
"The bar has been raised about what is event status, what makes an event. I think that is a result of both the economy and the amount and the myriad of choices people have in front of them," she said.
"At the end of the day, you have to have a great product."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Marguerita Choy)