Eric McCormack
Eric McCormack
Well, everybody is talking about the letter from Eric McCormack that was printed in the Arts & Leisure section of this past Sunday's New York Times. McCormack--one of the stars of the hit TV sitcom Will and Grace and recently the star of the Broadway revival of The Music Man--seems to have taken quite personally an observation that Times writer Barry Singer made in an interview with one-time Broadway star Donna McKechnie in the July 22 edition of the paper. Titled "Broadway to Park South, A Trooper Keeps Trekking," the article--printed in conjunction with McKechnie's cabaret appearance at Arci's Place--contained the following, apparently toxic sentence: "Once, musical theater legends generally worked in Broadway theaters. Today, those stages are often reserved for musical comedy novices from television and film."

This comment caused McCormack to go ballistic. "I'm tired of reading about television actors ruining the theater," he wrote in response to the Singer piece. "Who imposes these ghettos? We're all just actors, folks, and the best of us build resumes in all areas, theater, film, and television, and continue to challenge ourselves (and others' limited perceptions) by moving between all three." McCormack concluded with a flourish, writing that "If Donna McKechnie or Barry Singer would like to see me ruin the musical theater with my (trained) singing and dancing, I'd be happy to get them tickets. I'll even try to get Ms. McKechnie a role on my series; then again, she's a television 'novice.' "

Ouch!! On the one hand, McCormack has a point--however nastily he may have chosen to make it. Relatively few actors become stars on TV or in films without some theatrical training and/or experience beforehand. For every Tom Cruise, who went almost directly from high school musicals to major movies, there are people like Allison Janney who have spent years toiling in the theater before being lucky (and talented) enough to snag high-profile television roles. While McCormack would surely never have been cast as Harold Hill in The Music Man if he were still just a gifted but little-known actor at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario--rather than the star of a hit TV show--that doesn't mean that he lacks the chops for a Broadway role. (McCormack may not have much experience as a singer, but the role of Harold Hill requires acting talent, charisma, and stage presence far more than dulcet vocal tones.)

On the other hand, it's doubtful that Barry Singer's vaguely disparaging comment about "musical comedy novices from television and film" was aimed specifically at Eric McCormack. As was pointed out by the writer of another letter to the Times, there is a long, honorable history of TV stars in Broadway tuners. Presumably, Singer was justifiably objecting to the casting of actors with lots of TV-Q even when they don't have the stuff to handle their stage musical assignments.

Donna McKechnie
Donna McKechnie
Let's imagine for a moment how Donna McKechnie must feel about her career, presumptuous though this may be. Here is a superbly talented, highly respected musical theater performer who not only failed to make it big in films or on TV but has also found it difficult to maintain her theater stardom, for whatever reasons. Only recently, McKechnie gave a beautiful performance as Sally Durant Plummer in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Follies but was not asked to repeat her role when that Stephen Sondheim musical was revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre. Instead, Sally was played to mixed critical reception by Judith Ivey--a theater veteran who, perhaps not coincidentally, has had a bigger movie and television career than McKechnie. The reason given for McKechnie's non-appearance in the Broadway Follies was that director Matthew Warchus purposely avoided casting performers who had done the show previously; but you can bet your life that if McKechnie had suddenly become a huge TV star in the time between the two productions, she would have been welcomed by the Roundabout with open arms.

Maybe it's best to look at this brouhaha with a sense of humor. A friend of mine is convinced that McCormack's letter proves he's not a homosexual, although he plays one on TV, because (1) a gay man would never attack a musical theater icon like Donna McKechnie under any circumstances, and (2) a gay man would know that McKechnie is not really a TV novice, having appeared on the musical series Hullabaloo in the 1960s and in the vampire-themed soap opera Dark Shadows. The lady herself may have more trouble laughing off the letter in question, but I'm guessing that everybody can agree on the bottom-line: TV stars are welcome to perform on Broadway if they can do the job well, regardless of what theater training and credits they may or may not possess.