The Impact of Celebrity Casting on The West End and Broadway

Like what you see below?
Get more stories like this in your inbox by joining our newsletter.

Sign Up

Audience image from Pexels

People are spending time and money more carefully since the pandemic. Once avid-theatregoers are just not going to as many shows as they used to in the West End or on Broadway. With fewer trips to the theatre, shows are trying lots of different strategies to stand out. One that we’re seeing more and more of is celebrity casting. Although celebrity casting on Broadway or in the West End is not a new phenomenon, it certainly has increased as competition has become more fierce. To unpack this new increase in celebrity casting and what it means for ticket sales, theatre marketers, and producers, I sat down with two of Situation’s Broadway experts and our theatrical expert of Situation UK in London. Pippa Bexon, our Executive Director of Client Services in our London Office has driven marketing strategies for several celebrity-led plays and musicals, both with limited and open-ended runs. Our Broadway Account Group Directors Mollie Shapiro and Rian Patrick Durham have seen a major uptick in the number of limited-run celebrity-led plays on Broadway, and have driven marketing strategies for several new shows and have first hand knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. This conversation was an important opportunity for us to compare notes on the two markets and see where we can learn from each other. I always appreciate hearing my team’s expertise, I hope you do too.

Jeremy Kraus: Pippa, I’d like to start with you; There seem to be more celebrity driven shows in the West End recently. Do you feel like there are more? And do you feel like that is a result of producers feeling that they need to have something more than just a new show?

Pippa Bexon: Yes and no. I think the UK theatre market has more plays by nature than Broadway, and plays are stronger vehicles generally for celebrities and actors crossing over from the film and TV space compared to musicals. So celebrity casting has always been a bigger part of the landscape over here. But it has definitely stepped up in the last 18-24 months. It has become not the exception, but the rule. It’s harder and harder for a show to succeed without really strong brand equity. That brand equity can come from the title, playwright, story, but it can also come from the talent on the stage. Additionally, we’ve all been talking about the writer and actors’ strike this year. Celebrity casting has been boosted by the strikes. Obviously the strikes are in the US, but they have impacted the UK market because there have been more big-name talent available to jump in at the last minute and do limited-run shows.

Jeremy Kraus: And, Rian, what are you seeing on Broadway in terms of celebrity casting? Does celebrity casting pretty much a guarantee that we’re gonna see some serious box office success?

Rian Durham: We all know all the traditional ways of building word of mouth and getting buzz for your show. Reviews, A Tony Award, and A full page out of the New York Times, aren’t as directly impactful as they used to be. I think what’s interesting is with a celebrity, above the title is billing can certainly helpful for generating ticket sales, but I think what is arguably more helpful is a celebrity’s ability to build word of mouth.

Celebrity casting doesn’t guarantee success, but it definitely guarantees buzz and organic chatter amongst your potential audience members. What Pippa said is really interesting: it’s important to create a perfect brand equity cocktail, combining the brand equity of the celebrity, plus the brand equity of the title or the content. A celebrity in an unknown play or a play with tough themes isn’t necessarily a guaranteed hit. But if you have a celebrity with a well known and beloved title you’ll be able to leverage the power of celebrity in combination with the title. It drives the word of mouth better than most anything we see now.

Jeremy Kraus: So it’s not just a big name that will create a hit. It has to be a big name in the right show. What types of celebrities are you seeing? Are there certain types of stars that cause a show to perform better? Movie star versus TV star versus Broadway star?

Rian Durham: Yeah, I think it depends on where the celebrity is in their own personal zeitgeist. If someone is just coming off of a majorly huge TV show and everyone’s talking about them, or they’re in consideration for big awards and big movies, that definitely helps with kind of reaching that broader spectrum. I think what’s interesting is the more niche celebrity, that will reach a specific demographic. And if that matches up with the demographic of people who will genuinely enjoy the experience of seeing that particular show, then there can be great success.

Betty Who in Hadestown is a great example of this kind of smart, niche-celebrity casting. Not everyone knows who she is, necessarily, but she really resonates with a very specific group. And that specific group will likely love seeing Hadestown.

So if there is like that, connect, I think the power of niche celebrity can oftentimes result in a much more targeted and direct sales campaign as opposed to the broader scope.

Jeremy Kraus: That’s a good segue into my next question for Mollie. Once you have the celebrity on board, what should a show be doing to fully leverage that celebrity star power? What is the best way to take advantage of celebrity casting to increase ticket sales?

Mollie Shapiro: Celebrity casting opens up a wealth of possibilities. You’re potentially introducing a whole new audience of nontraditional theatergoers to the world of your show, simply because they are interested in what that celebrity has going on. So, it’s important to really try to understand who their fanbase is and how best to reach, engage and ultimately activate them to want to see this production. Collaborating with the celebrity on content is a great way for the show to connect with that person’s audience, as long as it feels authentic. Whether the content is within the tone and voice of the show itself or the character they’re playing, or if it’s simply true to the celebrity’s own personality and brand as an individual, it’s a great way to pique interest and get folks excited. Their fans want to hear directly from them: Why are they taking on this role? Why are they excited about this project? Why did they choose a theatrical production?

There’s also an opportunity to really leverage the celebrity’s fanbase via paid advertising. You can request advertiser access to directly target their audiences. You can layer in different types of niche targeting that might be super specific for that individual. It also opens doors to new and different types of editorial and advertorial pieces that broaden the reach of a show. The approach varies depending on the type of celebrity that you have, as well as whether or not the show itself has any title recognition or brand equity, but there are a lot of different levers that can be pulled as long as you establish a relationship with that person early.

Jeremy Kraus: Mollie, do you think that celebrities who don’t have previous theatre credits can be as impactful or can be more impactful than those celebrities who have been on Broadway before? I’ll give examples: Tony-nominated Josh Groban versus a hypothetical of say, the popstar P!nk on Broadway. What are the pros and cons of a celebrity with previous theatre credits versus one without?

Mollie Shapiro: The most important thing is the celebrity casting has to either feel true to the types of projects that the celebrity tends to take on, or true to their public persona and brand. I mean if P!nk was on Broadway, I would drop everything and go see it. I don’t care what she is doing! I will be there. But the success of the celebrity casting’s ability to bring new audiences in, really depends on alignment of the celebrity’s brand and the role. The celebrity doesn’t need to have previous theatre credits to get folks excited.

Rian Durham: A big celebrity without any theatrical credits or experience may be lacking in street cred, but is really great for peeking intrigue. But I think where there’s actual positive sales consequences is when the celebrity feels like a sure bet. That can mean the celebrity organically fits into the project, has previous theatre credits and proven theatrical chops, or the role aligns with their brand and type. Back to the P!nk example: if P!nk came to Broadway and did a revival of Pippin, that would be a no brainer, because the circus setting and the musical style aligns with her skills and brand. If Jeremy Strong was playing a very serious character in a Broadway play after coming off his great work on Succession that would make a lot of sense. Hugh Jackman, playing the music man, a big showman, which is what he is, makes a lot of sense. But if it’s just a celebrity coming into a show that doesn’t align with their type or aesthetic and their brand equity, it’s harder to get that to translate to actual sales.

Pippa Bexon: We are currently working on Andrew Scott’s one-man version of Vanya. This is a great example of the best of both worlds. For the people who know him as a classically trained actor, it’s a full circle moment. They are excited to see him back doing what he does best, taking on a titan of a project with sophisticated theatrical skill. And then there are all these audiences that know his TV work (Sherlock, Fleabag, etc.) who may be less aware that he has a theatre background. This one-man version of Vanya is incredible, and Andrew Scott’s work in it is a masterclass. It may be considered as less accessible, to those who may not be familiar with Chekov, but by framing this with a star, and as a reworked version of a classic, it transforms into something far more accessible. So we need both groups: the people who know him from TV and the people who know him from theatre.

Jeremy Kraus: What about a singular star versus an ensemble of stars?

Rian Durham: If you have a singular star, your laurels all kind of rest on the shoulders of that one person which has its benefits, because if the star is big enough, that definitely will drive word of mouth interest and sales. The problem is that when that star is either out for a week or misses a show, you’re gonna see a low week of sales, a low week of grosses, and a low week of returns. Whereas if someone from a show with an ensemble of stars has to miss a show, you likely won’t take as much of a hit.

But a show with an ensemble of stars can dilute the celebrity nature of it a little bit, which would be a downfall. One thing that can help is casting a group of actors that audiences want to see together. That kind of combines all their powers and creates the ensemble celebrity. Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad are an iconic comedic duo with so many fans who were first introduced to them through their work on Book of Mormon. Now they are back together again making comedic magic in Gutenberg! The Musical!The intentionality of these two together, in another comedy, is magnetic.

Jeremy Kraus: What about social media stars? What are we seeing in terms of the impact of casting someone with a huge following? Do we see better sales? Do we not see sales? Does it depend on the show?

Mollie Shapiro: If you cast someone who has a huge following but doesn’t necessarily have a specific lane that they tend to own with their fans, I think it sparks buzz but, Rian was saying earlier, it doesn’t ultimately lead to sales. The most important factor that actually impacts sales is when the role and the celebrity feel like a true fit. You want your audience to say “Of course, this person would play that role,” or “of course this person would be involved in this type of production telling this type of story.” Whether it’s an actor or a social media personality, you need that connector of specificity for it to really have sustained impact beyond the initial announcement..

Rian Durham: Yeah, additionally social media stars’ audience tends to be global. So there’s a limited amount of interaction from a sales point of view that some of their audience can have with an in-person theatrical experience. They can’t necessarily buy a ticket because they live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

When someone does have a huge following comes into a show, the fans who are able to absolutely do show up. It’s just a question as to what scale their social media fans can actually drive sales as opposed to just driving buzz and excitement around the the product they’re working on

Jeremy Kraus: Pippa in the UK what are we seeing on the difference between a celebrity cast in a limited run play versus an open run? What are the differences?

Pippa Bexon: I think FOMO (fear of missing out) and scarcity is key. The shorter the run, the stronger the call to action to purchase. That’s definitely the case here with celebrity casting. How you market your show can give you a huge head start in identifying audiences and interests online. It helps you narrow in on the lowest hanging fruits in a way that you normally wouldn’t have. Some really good examples of limited-run celebrity casting that come to mind are 2:22 A Ghost Story and Cabaret in the UK. Their model includes rotating celebrities into the lead roles for a limited time so that each celebrity’s fan base experiences the urgency to purchase before their engagement is through. Ghost Story’s casting of the female lead has been a mixture of new-to-theatre TV personalities, pop stars, and TV actors. Each celebrity goes into the show for a limited run. Each time the show brings in a new audience from that celebrity’s fan base into a piece of theatre that is an excellent show for people who don’t normally attend live theatre. The piece is accessible, interesting, exciting and overall a great first theatrical experience. So I think that’s been a really fantastic model of creating scarcity and a reason to return as well during an open ended run.

Rian Durham: Yeah, I think the limited run nature of it is really great because it does create that sense of FOMO. It also, I think, helps really drive the advanced sales before the show opens. Celebrity casting can also bump a show that may be third or fourth on someone’s list up to the first on someone’s list. Because of that, I have to go see it in a very limited amount of time, and I want to see this person. So I think that to me is the advantage is the event sales and just bumping it up the list in terms of priorities, for when someone goes to see it

Jeremy Kraus: Overall it sounds like celebrity casting can always help with buzz, but when it comes to actually driving ticket sales and bringing in new audiences, there are many more factors at play. Good thing our clients have smart marketers like you guys to help them leverage the power of celebrity and make the most of the awesome reach celebrity casting can bring in.

Join our newsletter list to hear our insights, data, and perspectives on your industry.