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Broadway cast sizes present creative, commercial options

Posted on December 21, 2013 | by Suzanne Egan

via theglassmenageriebroadway.com

In recent years, small-cast plays have dominated the theater world. Audiences are almost surprised if more than five actors appear on stage for final bows. But this is more than a trend — there are practical and artistic reasons for this choice.

Small casts are cheap, even when there’s a celebrity on stage. Fewer cast members also means more resources can be designated to factors like set, lighting and costume design. The current Broadway production of “The Glass Menagerie” exemplifies what can be accomplished when a production employs few actors and hires masterful scenic and lighting designers.

However, small casts are creative choices, not just practical decisions. The spring production of “Macbeth” starring Alan Cumming included a cast of three actors playing over 20 characters. The play was set in a mental hospital, with Cumming assuming the title role and most of the others, and the other two actors played unnamed orderlies. In “Macbeth,” the reduced cast size transformed the Shakespearian tragedy into a psychological thriller.

A Time To Kill (via facebook.com)

Despite these benefits, Broadway has recently seen an increase in productions with larger casts as well. New York City currently hosts “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Winslow Boy,” “A Time to Kill,” “Domesticated” and “Macbeth” (this time with Ethan Hawke as the title character) — all with casts between 10 and 26 actors. For fear of oversaturing the market with small-scale shows, producers have recently turned to productions with large casts.

The larger cast size could also stem from the rising number of movies with theatrical source material. “August: Osage County” will be the latest film adaptation of a play to hit theaters. Before “August,” “Les Misérables” in 2012, “War Horse” in 2011 and “Rabbit Hole” in 2010 all brought stage material to the screen.

Macbeth (T. Charles Erickson via lct.org)

The commercial and critical success of these films may have attracted more Hollywood actors to the stage. Celebrity presence is now so strong that a single production may include several known names. The cast of “Macbeth” includes Ethan Hawke, Anne-Marie Duff and Brian d’Arcy James, and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” included Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce.

Although the number of large-cast plays is increasing, plenty of shows still utilize small casts. These different types of shows provide theatergoing audiences with some variety.

Suzanne Egan is a staff writer. Email her at theater@nyunews.com.

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