From ‘The Great White Way’ to the silver screen…
While the Broadway roots of some of Hollywood’s most famous stars may be well known, even among non-theater nerds, we think it’s about time to take a deep dive into the Broadway/Hollywood overlap.
You may not realize it, but there are quite a few screen actors who cut their teeth on Broadway before transitioning to movies and television. Since this article is just the first in this series, let’s begin with a batch of 4 celebs whose renowned Broadway roots are no secret to Hollywood fans.
Broadway stars to Hollywood stars: Sarah Jessica Parker
Yes, ladies and gentlemen! Decades before Sarah Jessica Parker became a household name as everyone’s favorite columnist/socialite/Manolo Blahnik enthusiast, Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, she portrayed a much different New Yorker: Annie Warbucks! Starting a day before her 14th birthday, Sarah Jessica Parker portrayed the titular character in Broadway’s Annie in 1979. And that wasn’t even her Broadway debut, folks! Prior to Annie, Sarah played Flora in a Broadway revival of The Innocents, directed by the famed director/playwright Harold Pinter, in 1976. She was only 11 years old!
After scoring a leading role in the CBS series Square Pegs in 1982, SJP quickly shot to fame, starring in four films in the next three years: the most notable of which was her portrayal of Rusty in the 1984 film adaptation of the musical Footloose, starring Kevin Bacon (in which she made high-waisted purple Levi’s an iconic ‘80s look!) The following year she starred in Girls Just Want to Have Fun opposite Helen Hunt. In 1992, she played the girlfriend of Nicolas Cage in Honeymoon in Vegas. While Honeymoon in Vegas was considered a box office success, it was her next role, as one of the zany yet villainous Sanderson sisters (alongside Bette Midler and Kathy Najimy) in the now cult-classic hit Hocus Pocus (1993) that cemented her role as a cultural icon to ‘90s kids across the world.
Sarah transitioned back to the great white way in 1995, starring as Rosemary Piklington in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Broadhurst Theater, and later that year in an Off-Broadway production of Sylvia, in which she starred opposite her future husband, Matthew Broderick, another Broadway performer turned Hollywood star. During the following year, 1996, she played the lead role of Princess Winnifred in a Broadway production of Once Upon A Mattress at the Broadhurst Theater.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s career continued to soar throughout the ‘90s and in 1998, after receiving the script for HBO’s dramedy series Sex and the City based on Candice Bushnell’s novel of the same title. Sarah signed on to play what has become her most well-known role, that of protagonist and narrator Carrie Bradshaw. The show ran for six seasons and wrapped in 2004, by which point Sarah had established herself not just as an A-list celebrity, but a style icon and household name. She earned four Golden Globes, three Screen Actors Guild awards, and two Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Carrie Bradshaw.
Her film career hardly abated following the end of SATC. In the years that followed, Sarah continued to star on the silver screen in films such as The Family Stone (2005), alongside Diane Keaton, for which Parker was nominated for a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a comedy. And of course, there were the Sex and the City films in 2008 and 2010, which were met with a lukewarm reception by mostly everyone except for die-hard SATC stans. (But honestly? We’re glad they exist.) Currently, Parker is set to again star alongside her husband Matthew Broderick in a Broadway production of the classic Neil Simon comedy Plaza Suite, which is slated to premiere at the Hudson Theater in March of 2022.
Broadway stars to Hollywood stars: Jason Alexander
Jason Alexander rose to fame as George Costanza in the hit sitcom Seinfeld (1989-1998), but his career started long before Seinfeld. Alexander, born Jay Scott Greenspan, was an established ‘song and dance man’ before he made the leap to television and film acting. He made his Broadway debut back in 1981, originating the role of Joe in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. His other Broadway credits from this time include Kander and Ebb’s musical The Rink (1984), Neil Simon’s comedy Broadway Bound (1986) (the third and final installment of Simon’s Brighton Beach trilogy), and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989). Jason Alexander scored a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in 1989, just as Seinfeld’s first season was premiering.
And while George Costanza is definitely his most famous role (one for which he received a whopping seven Emmy nominations,) Jason Alexander’s expansive film and television resume is full of surprises including (but certainly not limited to): The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Star Trek: Voyager (1999), Pretty Woman (1999), The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), and Shallow Hal (2001), along with guest roles in Curb Your Enthusiasm (2001, 2009), Malcolm in the Middle (2003), Community (2013), Young Sheldon (2018-2021), and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2019).
Jason Alexander has also been at the forefront of made-for-TV-musicals, starring opposite Vanessa Williams in a feature film version of Bye Bye Birdie (1995) and in Cinderella alongside Brandy, Whitney Houston, and Bernadette Peters. Most recently, Jason returned to Broadway to replace Seinfeld creator Larry David in Fish in the Dark (2015), which David wrote and starred in prior to Jason Alexander succeeding him in his role as Norman Drexel in June of that year.
It’s worth noting that Jason Alexander is a mere Oscar away from becoming a certified EGOT winner. And while this may not qualify him for that Oscar, his face DID make it into a downright hilarious Super Bowl commercial for Tide earlier this year, cementing his cultural relevance among younger audiences who may not have been alive during his Seinfeld tenure. We have a sneaking suspicion that Jason Alexander will continue to grace both Broadway stages and the big screen for many years to come.
Broadway stars to Hollywood stars: Idina Menzel
Okay, so for real Broadway nerds, this seems like a no-brainer but… not all of us are Broadway nerds! Madame Idina Menzel has lived many lives before her Frozen fame caused “Let it Go” to become a song that felt like it was played around the world for a solid two years straight (at least.)
Let’s take it back to the year 1996, when Idina made her Broadway debut in a little-known musical called RENT. (Maybe you’ve heard of it?) Idina Menzel originated the role of Maureen Johnson in the original Broadway cast of Jonathan Larson’s rock musical based on the Puccini opera, La Boheme.
RENT’s success launched a slew of careers, and Idina Menzel’s is at the top of that list. She even earned a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance. Following the blinding success of RENT, which has since transcended from “cult classic” to “rock musical masterpiece” and “every teenage girl’s favorite musical at some point,” Menzel went on to perform in a number of other Broadway roles including Amneris in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida (2000), Sheila in Hair (the New York City Center Encores! Production), and Kate in Andrew Lippa’s version of the musical The Wild Party (2000), in which she starred alongside her then-husband and fellow RENT OBC (original Broadway cast) alum Taye Diggs.
Idina Menzel truly transcended to Broadway legend status in 2003 with the premiere of the hit Broadway musical Wicked. Idina originated the role of Elphaba, the mercurial but kind-hearted Wicked Witch of the West alongside Kristin Chenoweth’s Glinda the Good Witch. The show grossed over $56 million in its first year on Broadway and raked in a whopping ten Tony nominations. While both Idina and Kristin Chenoweth were nominated for Best Actress in a Musical, it was Idina Menzel who took home the Oscar for her performance as Elphaba.
The 2005 film adaptation of RENT, which reunited the majority of the original cast, was Idina’s largest on-screen role at the time, although she did have smaller roles in Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), The Tollbooth (2004), and Water (2004). 2007 brought Idina Menzel’s first foray into Disney musicals with her performance as Nancy Tremaine in Enchanted, alongside Patrick Dempsey and Amy Adams. (It’s worth noting that while Enchanted was a movie musical, Idina’s character did not sing. A duet written for her by Broadway legends Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz was notoriously cut from the film.) Glee fans will remember Idina’s epic performance as the recurring character of Shelby Corcoran (2010-2013), who plays Lea Michele’s character’s biological mother (and also the coach of a rival show choir.)
2013 cemented Idina’s transition from Broadway superstar to overall superstar with the release of the instant-classic animated Disney musical, Frozen, which stars Idina as Princess Elsa, alongside Kristen Bell as Princess Anna, and other Broadway alums Josh Gad and Jonathan Groff. (More on those three actors in part two of this series!)
Needless to say, Frozen, along with its sequel, Frozen II (2019), became one of the highest-grossing animated films of all time, becoming the first animated film since Toy Story 3 (2010) to surpass the $1 billion mark. Just as notable as the film’s commercial success was the musical success of the film’s hit song “Let it Go,” which won an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2014. (You may remember Idina Menzel’s iconic live performance of the song at the Academy Awards, following John Travolta’s now-infamous mispronunciation of her name.)
Most recently, Idina Menzel starred as Dinah Ratner, Adam Sandler’s estranged wife in 2019’s crime thriller Uncut Gems — another performance that is sans-singing but just as captivating as her musical roles. She will star as Cinderella’s stepmother in Amazon’s upcoming live-action musical remake of Cinderella with Camilla Cabello in the title role, which is set to premiere in September 2021. Currently, Idina is in Ireland shooting Disenchanted, the much-anticipated sequel of 2007’s Enchanted, which is set to premiere in 2022.
Broadway Stars to Hollywood Stars: Viola Davis
Viola Davis is one of those Hollywood stars whose list of credits could probably wallpaper an entire Manhattan studio apartment. And while film and television buffs have no shortage of Viola Davis roles to choose from when selecting their favorite, Ms. Annelise Keating herself has just as illustrious a theatrical resume.
After graduating from Juilliard in 1993, Viola hit both Broadway and the silver screen with a bang! Her performance in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars (1996) earned her a Theater World Award, and during the same year she also made her television debut in procedural crime drama NYPD Blue. Additionally, Viola made her big-screen debut that year in the film adaptation of The Substance of Fire opposite Hollywood legend Timothy Hutton.
To think Viola Davis was only getting started! In 1999 she won an Obie award for her performance as Ruby McCollum in Off-Broadway’s Everybody’s Ruby, after appearing in two films in 1998: the HBO military comedy The Pentagon Wars starring Kelsey Grammar, and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.
Her career remained split between Hollywood and Broadway roles during the early ‘00s. In 2001, she earned a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance in August Wilson’s King Hedley II, after starring in two seasons of the CBS medical drama, City of Angels (2000). While her career was already steaming full speed ahead, Viola Davis’s unofficial “break-out” film role came in 2008 when she featured in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. While Viola’s character, Mrs. Miller, only featured in one scene of the film, her performance earned her nominations for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Best Supporting Actress. However, her on-screen success did not deter Viola from returning to Broadway in 2010 to star opposite Denzel Washington in a revival of August Wilson’s Fences.
After earning a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Fences, she appeared in the film Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts later that year. (Hello, talk about range, Viola!) 2011 brought even more success with the release of The Help, the southern period drama in which Viola Davis portrayed Aibileen Clark, a black maid in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. The film, which was a commercial success and largely well-received by critics, also featured other well-known names, including Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, and Allison Janney.
The Help director, Tate Taylor, cast Viola Davis in his 2014 James Brown biopic, Get on Up, in which she played Susie Brown, mother of Chadwick Boseman’s title character. This was the same year that the world was introduced to Professor Annelise Keating, in the ABC primetime legal thriller, How to Get Away with Murder, a role that rightfully cemented Viola Davis as a household name. Viola became the first black woman to earn an Emmy Award for Best Actress for her role in HTGAWM. During the show’s six-season run from 2014 through 2020, Davis still managed to continue performing in feature films. This includes a film adaptation of Fences (2016), once again alongside her former Broadway co-star, Denzel Washington, who also directed the film. And like the 2010 stage version of the play, Viola’s performance in Fences earned her widespread critical acclaim, including BAFTA, SAG, Golden Globe, and Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress in her role as Rose Maxson. This bouquet of well-deserved distinctions made Viola Davis the first black actor (ever!) to win the illustrious “Triple Crown of Acting” (a Tony Award, an Oscar, and an Emmy.)
Last year in 2020, Viola earned her fourth Oscar nomination for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (another film adaptation of an August Wilson play) opposite her Get on Up co-star Chadwick Boseman in what would be Boseman’s final role.
Viola’s most talked-about upcoming television project (which we absolutely cannot *wait* for) is a Showtime drama entitled The First Lady in which Davis will star as — you guessed it — Michelle Obama. (Can you even?!) The anthology series, which began shooting in February of this year, has yet to have an official premiere date. It will focus on the unique experiences of three former first ladies: Michelle Obama, Betty Ford (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), and Eleanor Roosevelt (played by Gillian Anderson). If you’re curious (and we know you are), The Handmaid’s Tale’s O.T. Fagbenle will play former President Barack Obama, opposite Viola Davis’s portrayal of the 44th FLOTUS. Keep your eyes peeled for more from Showmax on this highly-anticipated series. We know it will be worth waiting for!
Okay, folks. Now, let’s take a break and catch our breath before we dive in for round two: the newest generation of Broadway-turned-Hollywood stars.
The next round will be rapid-fire, with even more stars whose Broadway backgrounds are less well-known than the Broadway OGs listed above. Start thinking of stars who might make it on our list…
We can’t wait to see how many you get right!
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