TV stars on Broadway: Growing trend and winning formula

Thursday, June 14, 2012 - 9:00pm

Despite what people think, The Great White Way isn't a vast wasteland filled with has-been stars, television talent competition show rejects and washed-up celebrities; it's actually a draw for high-wattage thespians who want some fat on which to chew.

It is a popular belief that major stars only do Broadway shows after they've lost their luster in Tinsel Town. But shows are featuring major, current box-office draws. There's "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe, who recently played to sold-out audiences in the Broadway revival of "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." And there's "Avengers" hottie Scarlett Johansson, who won a Tony Award for her acclaimed debut in the 2010 revival of '"A View From the Bridge."

More and more stars seem to be trading in the Hollywood high life for the big, bright lights of Broadway, even it's for a limited time only.

When celebs such as Denzel Washington ('"Fences'"), Hugh Jackman ('"The Boy From Oz'"), Kevin Spacey ("The Iceman Cometh"), Julia Roberts ("Three Days of Rain"), Al Pacino ("The Merchant of Venice"), Samuel L. Jackson ("The Mountaintop"), Nicole Kidman ("The Blue Room") and even Madonna ("Speed the Plow") show up on the boards of Broadway shows for their usual short engagements, it's viewed as once-in-a-lifetime events.

For good reason, too. While snooty theater purists might bristle at the thought of "outsiders" infiltrating their community, Hollywood stars joining shows usually cause a media frenzy and bolster box office sales.

"I think everybody wants to be in a good show," longtime theater industry insider Irene Gandy told CNN. "I mean, these are great playwrights, and you have to have some chops to do this material."

Gandy, who along with producer partner Jeffrey Richards, oversees two of this season's biggest shows: the masterful musical "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, and "Gore Vidal's The Best Man.'"

Outside of the fact that both best-selling productions share the same producers at their respective helms, the shows also feature actors who have become household names from their television work: Audra McDonald ("Private Practice") and David Alan Grier ("In Living Color") have both been nominated for Tony Awards for their roles in the fabled musical about hard living in 1920s South Carolina. Broadway royalty Angela Lansbury ("Murder She Wrote"), Candice Bergen ("Murphy Brown"), John Larroquette ("Night Court") and Eric McCormack ("Will & Grace") are hitting high marks with the political thriller about the double-dealing and dirt-digging surrounding a presidential election. James Earl Jones also stars in the play, directed by Michael Wilson.

Throughout the years, Gandy and Richards have also worked on a string of shows starring major TV actors including: Tom Selleck ("Magnum PI") in "A Thousand Clowns"; Alan Alda ("M*A*S*H*") in a revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross"; "Saturday Night Live" alum Will Ferrell's George W. Bush parody "You're Welcome America"; a revival of "Speed the Plow'" starring Jeremy Piven ("Entourage"); and David Mamet's short-lived "Race," which starred James Spader ("The Practice"), Dennis Haysbert ("The Unit") and Kerry Washington ("Scandal'").

So what's the allure of procuring big name talents and bringing them to the theater world?

"I would say that we go after names to get people in the seats and help the box office," Gandy said. "Theater has changed, and audiences like to go see people that they've never seen live before and that they are familiar with." And audiences can't feel more familiar with a celebrity than seeing them in their homes every week on television.

Take the five-time Tony Award nominated play "Other Desert Cities," for example.

Most of the cast members are actors renowned for their work in television: Stockard Channing ("The West Wing"), Judith Light ("One Life To Live," "Who's The Boss?"), Rachel Griffith ("Six Feet Under," "Brothers & Sisters") and Stacy Keach ("Mike Hammer").

Same goes for the steamy multiracial reworking of Tennessee Williams' beloved play "A Streetcar Named Desire," which boasts Blair Underwood ("LA Law"), Nicole Ari Parker ("Soul Food") and Wood Harris ("The Wire") in its cast.

Elsewhere on The Great White Way, popular current and former TV stars are serving their talents to hundreds of theatergoers eight times a week:

Linda Lavin, who starred in the CBS sitcom "Alice" for nine seasons after cutting her teeth on Broadway, is back again in "The Lyons," playing a Jewish matriarch of a family coming apart at the seams.

"That's So Raven" and "The Cosby Show" star Raven-Symone making her debut in the Whoopi Goldberg-produced "Sister Act: The Musical," based on the hit 1992 movie.

"3rd Rock From the Sun" star John Lithgow stars in "The Columnist," about a powerful Washington insider with skeletons of his own. "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon recently received rave reviews and a Tony Award nomination for her stellar work in "Wit," about a scholar undergoing experimental treatment for cancer.

"High School Musical" star Corbin Bleu taking on the role of Jesus in a revival of the 1970s spiritual spectacle "Godspell."

"The story, itself, is such a beautiful, beautiful story ... everybody can connect with this show," Bleu said. "Godspell" is the Brooklyn native's second stint on Broadway. He joined "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks as replacements in the Tony Award winning "In The Heights" in 2010.

"Broadway is the true test of an actor," Bleu said. "That is the original form of acting -- theater."

"That means that there are many film and television actors who, one, feel that they are fulfilled by that or challenged by the fact that there is no yelling of 'Cut!' " he said. "But also it's very strengthening to be able to stand in front of the entire audience and get that automatic feedback and have that living, breathing thing in your hand. It's a beautiful thing there."

Jim Parsons, the two-time Emmy Award winning star of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory," returned to Broadway this season with the play "Harvey." Like Bleu, this is Parsons second go at Broadway, but his is during his hit show's summer break.

Last year, he played opposite Ellen Barkin, who nabbed the Tony Award for best featured actress in a play, in the HIV/AIDS drama "The Normal Heart."

"I was so excited to do theater again," Parsons told "CBS This Morning." "For me, it's nothing like it."

"I think more and more film and television actors are finding out the secret, that it's just an incredible thing."
 

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