Julia Roberts — movie star — officially becomes Julia Roberts — stage star — Wednesday when the Oscar winner opens on Broadway in a revival of Richard Greenberg's "Three Days of Rain."
Not that her marquee status was in doubt during the play's three weeks of sold-out preview performances at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
Each night, as the performance ends, fans gather behind barriers and across 45th Street from the Jacobs to catch a glimpse and get Playbills autographed. The theater's security team has set up an exclusive pen for ticket holders, who can line up on one side of the stage door.
Last Thursday, for example, a few hundred people had gathered on either side of the stage door and across the street. A half dozen police officers patrolled the area, shouting, "Off the streets! Everyone up on the sidewalks, now!" But the crowd grew as passers-by joined in. When traffic stopped a bus directly in front of the theater, the crowd across the street broke into loud boos and catcalls, which coincidentally greeted Roberts as she finally emerged from the theater.
She signed a couple of programs in haste and jumped into a black SUV.
At least one fan forgave Roberts for her brevity. "To be honest, she would have been trampled had she stuck around since people were jumping in front of the bus to get a look," said Erin Rosa. "Julia waved from the van — that's good enough for me."
Those demanding more than a quick look at Roberts have pretty much purchased all the tickets for the play's entire run, which ends June 18. The show, which also stars Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper, could possibly extend for a few more weeks. The theater's next tenant, "Martin Short Fame Becomes Me," begins previews July 22 and opens Aug. 10.
For Broadway, Roberts' appearance during one of the theater's busiest springs in years, has been a huge event and a public-relations blessing.
"A major film or TV star appearing on Broadway, or in any theater for that matter, brings with them a number of assets," said Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing. "First and foremost, there's the talent that has lofted them into the position of being a star.
"But they also bring with them the often-staggering press attention afforded to celebrities in those other mediums, which is vastly greater than the time and space typically afforded to theater. And, of course, they bring a huge fan base which is national and even international, all of whom are eager to see their favorite star in the flesh."
That eagerness created a frenzy during the play's first few previews, in which reporters — and even one critic — purchased tickets to see the show. At Roberts' first performance March 28, it was breathlessly reported that when a prop tomato accidentally fell off a table, the actress broke character and displayed her endearing toothsome grin.
Roberts herself has been relatively mum about her Broadway debut, turning down a parade of interview requests, including The Associated Press. However, she did agree to a few TV appearances and did tell the New York Post in an interview last week, "I love being an actor, but sometimes doing this I feel as though I've gone back to square one."
For Greenberg, the Tony-winning author of "Take Me Out," this new production is an opportunity for "Three Days of Rain" to reach a wider audience.
Commissioned and first performed by South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif., it tells of a brother and sister who unravel family secrets. New York first saw the play at off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club in 1997 with a cast that included Patricia Clarkson, Bradley Whitford and John Slattery. Elizabeth McGovern starred in the London production two years later.
Roberts came aboard for the revival after she read the play at the urging of director Joe Mantello and producer Marc Platt, an old friend who had heard she was interested in doing theater.
Greenberg doesn't think that Roberts' presence throws the play. "Because she is a star of such magnitude coming to Broadway, there has been a lot of wacky attention," he says. "But the play itself has stayed really well balanced."
Celebrity star power on Broadway is nothing new — and it does carry risks.
For the past two seasons, for example, major names have appeared in shows for limited yet profitable runs.
In 2004, rap mogul Sean Combs appeared in a revival of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." Although Combs didn't get great notices, he drew crowds to the theater. It was his two co-stars, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, who received the critical praise and won Tonys.
The following year, Denzel Washington, who does have a theater background, came to Broadway in a vaguely modern-dress revival of "Julius Caesar." Again there were crowds and sold-out houses. But Washington's portrayal of Brutus was bested by Colm Feore, a veteran of Canada's Stratford Festival, who portrayed Cassius.
"It's funny. `Three Days of Rain' is a very quiet play, and this has been a very noisy event," Greenberg said with a laugh. "But the great thing is that ... it hasn't affected the production."