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James Franco, Michelle Williams and Co. get the Broadway bug

Hollywood's under-40 stars are besotted with Broadway, as are the fans who trail along. In this surge of newbies, everybody's learning.

April 16, 2014|By Steven Zeitchik
  • James Franco, starring in "Of Mice and Men" on Broadway, signs autographs for fans.
James Franco, starring in "Of Mice and Men" on Broadway, signs… (Patricia Schlein / Star…)

NEW YORK — This Tony season, an unprecedented number of movie and Hollywood stars under 40 are hitting Broadway for the first time.

"Scrubs'" Zach Braff just made his debut in Susan Stroman's staging of Woody Allen's comedy-musical "Bullets Over Broadway." Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee Michelle Williams is trying out her singing talents — and a British accent — as Sally Bowles in the Roundabout's sort-of revival of "Cabaret."

But nothing epitomizes this influx more than the trio of Broadway rookies bringing a burst of star power — and their fan followings on social media — to Tony-winner Anna D. Shapiro's staging of the John Steinbeck classic "Of Mice and Men" about Depression-era migrant workers in California. 

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The show, which hasn't been seen on Broadway in four decades, opens Wednesday at the Longacre Theatre with James Franco (1.9 million Twitter followers) as the hustling George Milton, Leighton Meester (1.4 million followers) in the ingénue role of the wife of the boss' son Curly, and a padded-out Chris O'Dowd (with a comparatively measly half a million followers) as the slow-witted giant Lennie Small.

"I'm a Luddite so I don't really know what Twitter or Instagram is, except that young people do it," said Shapiro, who actually has experience with youth-skewing shows, having directed "The Mother... With the Hat" starring Chris Rock three years ago, as well as the more traditional "August: Osage County."

"But I know," the director added, "I've never seen the theater looking that young."

While Broadway productions increasingly cast a young Hollywood star in a major role, they rarely have them as the three leading characters.

Showcasing a group of young performers like Shapiro's "Of Mice and Men" stars — the oldest of the three is Franco at 35 — can mean a potential windfall of enthusiasm, both from the actors and theatergoers.

All three actors (they're joined in the ensemble by Broadway veteran Jim Norton as Candy and newcomer and "True Blood" star Jim Arrack as Slim) have been particularly devoted to promoting the show to fans. Franco updates his Twitter and Instagram accounts as many as several times a day with show-related posts. "MICE AND MEN FEVER," he wrote in one recent tweet, alongside a photo taken of fans outside the theater. Selfies, indeed, are the new bus-stop ad. 

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But there are also pitfalls to Hollywood casting. The production has to take the stars' outsized reputations into account as they deal with everything from first-timer hiccups to scheduling snafus. Last year, Shia LaBeouf, known for the blockbuster "Transformers" movies, made an abrupt departure before the previews of "Orphans" over what the producers called "creative differences."

For the "Of Mice and Men" production, Shapiro said she was very conscious of the fact that her actors would be well-known to the audience as someone else — Meester as the slippery Blair Waldorf on the CW's long-running "Gossip Girl," O'Dowd as the Irish-born actor who's been blowing up in the U.S. over the last few years in "Bridesmaids," "Girls" and his own HBO show "Family Tree." And then there's the public-private persona known as James Franco.

Shapiro cast O'Dowd, she said, because he was a nuanced actor physically proportioned like Lennie, and she admired Meester's subtlety within her small-town beauty. (Franco was already onboard.)

Still, the issue has given her pause. She nixed a shirt-removal scene for George because she thought James Franco disrobing on a theater stage every night might make the Internet explode. She quickened the pace of George and Lennie's entrance to cut down on the distraction factor as well.

Franco said he believes that in preview performances so far audiences have noted the star power on stage, but only briefly. "It's really the initial moment," he said. "We give them a few seconds, and then it's, 'Now we're going to play the parts and get on with the show.'" 

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Meester said she's tried to focus on her own efforts and not be sidelined by the issue. "It's not about [the audience] so much as how I feel," she said. "It doesn't matter if people know something else I've done; I'm just happy to be doing something new."

But O'Dowd said he doesn't mind if audiences think of other roles, such as his nice-guy cop wooing Kirsten Wig in "Bridesmaids."

"I'm very conscious of what people know of me and I don't in any way try to get rid of that," he said. "I feel I can use people's expectations of me a little. With Lennie's character we can be as funny as we want and it only adds to it. It only makes it sadder at the end," he said, alluding to the play's dramatic turn.

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