NBC's September 10 local broadcast of Broadway on Broadway, the annual free outdoor Times Square concert, kicks off the 2000-2001 theater season and heralds the new television season as well. Moreover, that night marks the launch of Broadway Television Network's pay-per-view presentation of the long-running Leiber and Stoller musical revue Smokey Joe's Café. Later this year, BTN promises televised versions of Stomp and the pre-tour Swing!
Coincidentally, the new television season features an abundance of stage stars, from Kristin Chenoweth to Anthony Heald to Elizabeth Marvel. These thesps are following a grand tradition which began in TV's "golden age" and which, hopefully, will never end.
Chenoweth definitely seems up for the challenge. "I was raised in suburban Oklahoma," she said in a recent phone interview from the left coast, "so L.A. hasn't been as serious a culture shock for me as for some transported New Yorkers! In the theater, it's about giving the last row their money's worth; for me, the major difference is the fine line between not overacting for the TV camera and still creating a fully fleshed-out character."
Performers have been treading that line for decades. In the 1950s, most television shows emanated live from New York; with theater skills at a premium, myriad young thesps such as Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Eileen Heckart, Rod Steiger, Eli Wallach, Richard Kiley, Kim Stanley, Robert Redford, and Nancy Marchand could earn a quick buck by plying their trade on a wide variety of TV drama series, from Philco Playhouse and Studio One to Lights Out and Suspense. (A four-time Emmy winner and posthumous nominee this year, Marchand's television days date back to 1953, when she co-starred with Steiger in Paddy Chayefsky's Marty; she won her first Obie in 1959 and her first Emmy in 1978.) Along with Chayefsky, the works of such then-new young writers as Horton Foote (A Trip To Bountiful), Reginald Rose (Twelve Angry Men), Rod Serling (Requiem for a Heavyweight), J.P. Miller (Days of Wine and Roses), and Tad Mosel (All the Way Home) were being directed by newcomers Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann, John Frankenheimer, and George Roy Hill. Together, these talents created the art of television drama as they went along.
In the '60s, as Hollywood studios took over television production, live TV came to an end and a mass exodus to L.A. brought many actors, writers, and directors directly into television with no stage stops along the way. Though notable exceptions included Shirley Booth (Hazel) and Alan Alda (Mash), filmed series began to feature newcomers with little or no theater experience (Clint Eastwood, Sally Field) or established movie stars (Doris Day, Barbara Stanwyck, Donna Reed, Loretta Young). New York based TV dwindled to little more than soap operas, sports, and local news--and, were it not for a major television strike in Los Angeles in the late '80s, that might have remained the status quo. When east coast network and cable stations began to broadcast from New York again, theater performers returned in earnest to the small screen. (Who can forget Tony winner Blair Brown as Molly Dodd?)
Throughout its 15-year run, Dick Wolf's Law & Order has relied heavily on such local theater talent as Michael Moriarty, Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, and S. Epatha Merkerson. This will also be the case with Wolf's new NBC show Deadline, co-starring Oliver Platt as a "dapper hard-hitting crime reporter" along with Bebe Neuwirth, Tom Conti, and Spinning into Butter's Hope Davis. "All of these performers migrate freely between major films, television, and the stage," says Wolf. "They are 'actor's actors' who will add conflict and humor to the series."
It's not an exaggeration to say that stage actors will be happily dominating the small screen in the months to come. Up to now, HBO has held the lead in New York theater talent with the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon on Sex and the City. (In a bit of turn-around, the show's "Mr. Big," Chris Noth, is currently starring on Broadway in Gore Vidal's The Best Man). On OZ, Rita Moreno and B.D. Wong play prison staffers, while Austin Pendleton and Charles Busch portray lifers. Stage vets on The Sopranos have included Tony-winner Robert LuPone, Obie-winner John Heard, and, of course, the beloved Nancy Marchand. Last season, Margaret Colin (Jackie) co-starred in the highly touted but ultimately doomed, New York-based show Time and Again on CBS, ably supported by Faith Prince and Jamey Sheridan (Brutus in the recent New York Shakespeare Festival production of Julius Caesar).
However, location is no longer the sole determining factor in casting theater talent for TV. Among the many shows set in New York but shot in L.A. are ABC's NYPD Blue (featuring Obie winner James McDaniel) and CBS' Becker (co-starring Obie winner Hattie Winston). Newer entries in this category include two eponymously titled series, Bette (as in Midler) on CBS and Kristin (as in Chenoweth) on NBC. The Midler show boasts Tony and two-time Drama Desk winner Joanna Gleason in a featured role, while Kristin also comes complete with theatrical co-stars: Jon Tenny (The Heiress) plays Kristin's Donald Trumpish boss and actor/playwright Christopher Durang is her minister.