NEW YORK — This Tony season, an unprecedented number of movie and Hollywood stars younger than 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.
The show, which hadn't been seen on Broadway in four decades, opened Wednesday at the Longacre Theatre with James Franco (1.9 million Twitter followers, @JamesFrancoTV) as the hustling George Milton, Leighton Meester (1.4 million followers, @itsmeleighton) in the ingenue role of the wife of the boss' son Curley, and a padded-out Chris O'Dowd (with a comparatively measly half a million followers, @BigBoyler) as the slow-witted giant Lennie Small.
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"I'm a Luddite, so I don't really know what Twitter or Instagram is, except that young people do it," said Shapiro. "But I know I've never seen the theater looking that young."
While Broadway productions increasingly cast young Hollywood stars in majors role, they rarely have them as three leads.
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 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.
But there are also pitfalls to Hollywood casting. The production has to take the stars' outsize 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 United States 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 Franco disrobing on stage every night might make the Internet explode. And she quickened the pace of George and Lennie's entrance to cut down on the distraction factor.
Franco said he thought audiences at preview performances had noted the star power onstage, 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.'"
Meester said she's tried 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 didn't mind if audiences think of other roles, such as his nice-guy cop wooing Kristen Wiig 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."
Offstage, distractions can take their toll. And the schedule, though more regular than that of film shoots, can be tricky.
Franco flies to Los Angeles on his day off to teach a class. When Shapiro and Franco began working together, they had what she described as "come-to-Jesus moment" in which she laid out that his day off was his business but he needed to be fully present when he was at the theater; he nodded eagerly and she said it's never been an issue since.
"James sometimes does things people read as dilettantish," she said. "But there isn't a casual bone in his body."
Franco said the absence of a camera meant adjusting his skills to work from every angle and to make everything count throughout the staging as opposed to capturing a single moment that can be inserted into a final cut.
"Everything kind of depends on another actor," he said as he sat in the theater with O'Dowd and Meester. "You can't just do your performance and be fine. You want everyone to be awesome, not just for the piece but for yourself."
O'Dowd offered a mischievous look when asked if he thought skeptics might view the casting of him, Franco and Meester as a gimmick.
"I haven't noticed the backlash yet," he said with a wry smile. "I'll keep my eyes open."
Certainly there are marketing benefits to bringing on younger celebs, but for the actors, the chance to take on an unexpected challenge is what motivates them. Broadway gives screen actors the opportunity to showcase their skills in real time with a classic text and without the distortions of the Hollywood editing process.
For Of Mice and Men, the actors think they can be part of something culturally important: introducing a difficult drama to a new audience.
"I'm very conscious that this will be this generation's Of Mice and Men," O'Dowd said. "And because we're selling well, the way commercial theater works it will be on again in 10 years. With the kids from Modern Family."