Seeing a Hollywood star’s name lit up on a Broadway marquee is no surprise these days. Right at this moment you can get tickets to shows starring Daniel Radcliffe, Neil Patrick Harris, Denzel Washington, Michelle Williams and James Franco (and more – see here). Sometimes it feels like every actor who has made it in L.A. wants to try his or her hand at the New York stage. But appearances can be deceiving. Upon closer look, it turns out that some of the biggest film stars started on the Great White Way. Did you know that before her many, many Oscar nominations, Meryl Streep was freshly out of Yale Drama and making her Broadway debut? And before she became the quintessential Manhattan cool girl, Sarah Jessica Parker starred as another famous New York character when she was barely a teenager. Here are 10 stars who found their voice on stage in New York.
Jason Alexander is known for bringing to life George Costanza, one of television’s most indelibly neurotic characters, but he was already a Broadway star when he landed the plumb role on Seinfeld. He made his Broadway debut starring as Joe in the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical adaptation of the Moss Hart/George S. Kaufman play Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. In 1989, he won a Tony for the Jerome Robbins-directed review Broadway. Alexander hasn’t forgotten his musical theater roots. This summer he will be singing songs from Merrily, Pippin and others at Tanglewood with the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Before her breakout film roles in The Deer Hunter and Manhattan, Streep made her Broadway debut as Miss Imogen Parrott in a revival of Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s comedy Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ in 1975. Alas, she hasn’t been seen on the Great White Way since 1977, but made a memorable turn as the title character in the 2006 revival of Mother Courage and Her Children at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Not that she’s been twiddling her thumbs. She has picked up a whopping 18 Oscar nominations and three awards, most recently for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
Two years before he helped Stella get her groove back, Taye Diggs played the (slightly) villainous landlord Benjamin Coffin III in the 1996 debut of Rent. He has gone from film to theater and back ever since, playing the Bandleader in Rob Marshall’s 2002 movie adaptation of Chicago followed by a stint as Billy Flynn on Broadway later that year. He continues to rack up screen credits, playing nice guy heartthrob Dr. Sam Bennett on Private Practice alongside fellow Broadway star Audra McDonald, starring as Harper Stewart in the Best Man movie franchise, and leading the cast of Murder in the First, a new TV series debuting on TNT in June.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson
On the Emmy winning sitcom Modern Family, Ferguson’s endearingly uptight Mitchell Pritchett frequently clashes with his overly dramatic music teacher partner Cam for being overdramatic. But in real life, it’s Ferguson who is the musical theater star. He took his first Broadway turn as Chip in George C. Wolfe’s revival of On the Town back in 1998. Ferguson also had a memorable run as homeschooled Leaf Coneybear in Bill Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2005. Like Streep, Ferguson’s return to the NYC stage has occurred in Central Park: He starred in Daniel Sullivan’s uproarious revival of The Comedy of Errors at the Delacorte Theater in 2013.
Before she earned a 2010 Oscar nomination for her performance as the adorably logical Natalie Kenner in Up in the Air, Kendrick was a Broadway baby. The Portland, Maine native appeared in the musical High Society in 1998 when she was just 12 years old. Even though her film credits far exceed her theater turns at this point, she hasn’t stopped singing. Five years after High Society Kendrick made her film debut in Camp, where she played an ambitious theater camper (and killed with her version of “Ladies Who Lunch”). In 2012 she again reminded audiences that she has pretty good pipes in the sleeper hit Pitch Perfect. And in 2014 she will be starring in two highly anticipated theater-to-film adaptations: playing Cinderella in Into the Woods and Cathy Hyatt in The Last Five Years. A Pitch Perfect sequel is also slated for 2015.
Sarah Jessica Parker
To many, Sarah Jessica Parker is the epitome of New York cool. Before making Manolo Blahnik a household name, the Sex and the City star had a long list of credits that stretch back to her teen years. On the eve of her 14th birthday in 1979, Parker took over the role of Annie in the original Broadway production, which she played for a year. While she hasn’t graced the Great White Way in some time, she starred opposite Blythe Danner in the premiere staging of Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola Off-Broadway in the fall of 2013 until February 2014.
It would probably surprise millions of Law & Order fans that Orbach, who played curmudgeonly detective Lennie Briscoe for 13 years, was a song and dance man. The veteran Broadway actor starred as Sky Masterson in the 1965 production of Guys and Dolls and went on to appear in many more, including Annie Get Your Gun, Chicago and 42nd Street. He won the Tony for lead actor in a musical for Promises, Promises in 1969. Even before he took the Great White Way by storm, Orbach was a star Off-Broadway. Back in 1960 he originated the role of El Gallo in the longest running musical of all time, The Fantasticks. Upon his death, the show’s current home was renamed the Jerry Orbach Theater.
Gad’s natural comic timing and range is just being discovered by millions in the uber popular Disney hit Frozen (he voiced Olaf the snowman). For theater lovers his talent was first discovered in 2005’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, where he starred alongside fellow stage-to-screener Jesse Tyler Ferguson. But in 2011 it was his take on the loveably buffoonish Mormon missionary Elder Cunningham in the runaway hit The Book of Mormon that made him a star (and earned him a Tony nomination). The multitalented Gad has also created a popular webisode series, Gigi: Almost American, with his wife Ida, and starred in the short lived NBC sitcom 1600 Penn. He recently played Steve Wozniack in the biopic Jobs and will be starring opposite Billy Crystal in the upcoming series The Comedians.
Wright has come into the mainstream lately with his crucial roles as the brilliantly villainous Felix Leiter in the James Bond franchise and as tech wizard Beetee in the last three Hunger Games movies. But to theater lovers he will always be Belize and Mr. Lies — the characters he created in the original 1993 Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s beloved Angels in America (he also played the roles in the television mini-series adaptation). Despite his many film roles, Wright is frequently on Broadway, with recent credits such as Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk in 1996, Topdog/Underdog in 2002 and A Free Man of Color in 2010.
Before she was Rachel Berry, the aspiring actress with a golden voice and an equally rich ambition on the hit Fox series Glee, Michele made her first star turn on Broadway originating the role of Wendla in Spring Awakening. From the first notes of the bluesy opener “Mama Who Bore Me,” it was clear a star had just been born. While Glee character is currently making her Broadway debut in a fictional production of Funny Girl, Michele in real life is rumored to be playing Elphaba in the upcoming film adaptation of Wicked.