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From the Stage to the Small Screen

This season, theater folk may be found both on stage and in your living room. Leslie (Hoban) Blake gives us the rundown. logo

Kristin Chenoweth
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?)

The cast of Deadline includes Hope Davis and
Oliver Platt (standing, second and third from left)
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.
At least a dozen more current and new Los Angeles based shows feature theater talent, including ABC's Dharma and Greg (Thomas Gibson, Mitchell Ryan, Susan Sullivan); Norm (Max Wright, Laurie Metcalf); Once and Again (Marin Hinkle); The Practice (Camryn Manheim, Lisa Gay Hamilton); and, now, Gideon's Crossing (André Braugher and newcomer Hamish Linklater). At CBS, there's City of Angels (Viola Davis); Family Law (Dixie Carter); Judging Amy (Tyne Daly); Ladies Man (Alfred Molina, Sharon Lawrence); and, now, The District (Lynne Thigpen, Elizabeth Marvel); That's Life (Ellen Burstyn, Paul Sorvino); Kiss Me, Guido (Alec Mapa); and Yes, Dear (Jean Louisa Kelly).

Meanwhile, Fox's hit Ally McBeal boasts the theatrical quartet of Calista Flockhart, Peter MacNicol, Greg Germann, and Jane Krakowski, while David Kelly's new high school-based show Boston Public co-stars Anthony Heald and Fyvush Finkel. Triple Obie-winner Stacey Keach plays a big, bad dad on Titus, even as Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith portray good parents on That 70's Show. Last season, NBC's Will & Grace added Tony/Drama Desk winner Gregory Hines to its cast of regulars. And will anyone ever forget Kelsey Grammer's recent, ill-fated return to the theater in last season's Macbeth? (Ironically, Grammer's Emmy winning guest star Jean Smart has won kudos for her stint on Broadway in The Man Who Came to Dinner.) Other theatrical co-stars of Frasier include John Mahoney and David Hyde Pierce.

Tony nominee/Drama Desk winner Allison Janney is up for an Emmy in playwright Aaron Sorkin's political mega-hit The West Wing. Even the youth oriented WB can claim stage vet Mary Beth Piel (on Dawson's Creek) plus theater people on two new shows: Gilmore Girls, about a small town girl and her mom, co-starring 1975 Tony winners Edward Herrmann and Kelly Bishop; and Nikki, a comedy about a newlywed dancer and a wrestler in Las Vegas, with Christine Estabrook and Susan Egan playing neither.

There are more television shows shooting in New York this season than at any time since the "Golden Age," and they all feature a concomitant percentage of theater-based talent. Besides the above noted Deadline, Dick Wolf added Rent's Jesse L. Martin to the roster of leads on his perennial Law and Order last season, and now stage vet Dianne Wiest has been hired to replace the retiring Steven Hill. ABC producers evidently liked the recent Broadway production of A Moon for the Misbegotten so much, they decided to keep cast members Roy Dotrice and Gabriel Byrne together for their upcoming Madigan Men, in which they'll represent two different generations of divorced guys who jump back into the dating pool.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that, after a 40 year absence, Sidney Lumet has chosen this season to return to TV with A&E's first dramatic series, 100 Centre Street. Set in New York's night court system, the cast includes such eminent stage performers as LaTanya Richardson, Alan Arkin, Phyllis Newman, Chuck Cooper, and Marcia Jean Kurtz, along with newcomer Michole Briana White (Jitney).

Jim Gaffigan and Christine Baranski
in Welcome to New York
With a matched double set of Tonys, Drama Desk and Obie awards, Christine Baranski comes to CBS' Welcome to New York not only as co-star, but as an executive producer. "One of the reasons I wanted to do this show," Baranski explained at a press conference, "was the possibility of working with a team of really great actors. My background is the theater, and the theater is such a collaborative medium. I would like to see this be a phenomenal ensemble. It's going to be so exciting to shoot in New York a show that takes place in New use the energy of the tremendous theater pool, the celebrities, the whole vibration of the city." Baranski's castmates on the show, set in the world of morning television, include comic Jim Gaffigan, young television vet Sara Gilbert (Roseanne), young theater vet Anthony DeSando, and Tony nominee Rocky Carroll.

One last historical footnote: The 60's also saw a profusion of televised straight plays from Broadway and original TV versions of Shakespeare, including Richard Chamberlain and Christopher Plummer as two very different Hamlets. In 1965 and 1966 alone, small screen presentations of Inherit the Wind, Death of a Salesman, and The Glass Menagerie all received several Emmy nominations. The advent of made-for-television movies relegated most theater on television to filmed versions of Broadway shows, usually for PBS, à la David Hare's Via Dolorosa last month. But huge ratings and numerous Emmys for such network musicals as Cinderella and Annie have fostered new interest in theater on television, especially on cable and pay-per-view. For example, Showtime recently aired author/director Neil LaBute's TV adaptation of his Off-Broadway hit Bash: Latterday Plays with the original cast: Calista Flockhart, Paul Rudd, and Ron Eldard. Each of these performers is, or has been, a TV series regular as well.

In addition to plays already seen on the small screen this year (such as the recent, acclaimed revival of Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz), Showtime is filming Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor with original star Nathan Lane, while Joe Mantello is directing Eve Ensler in her play The Vagina Monologues for HBO. Further, HBO has announced television adaptations of two recent Pulitzer Prize winning plays, Dinner with Friends and Wit; the latter will co-star Emma Thompson and Audra McDonald under the direction of Mike Nichols.

Theater vet Daryl Roth, who will be co-executive producer of HBO's Dinner With Friends, has said: "I think it's great that they're mining the theater for subject matter. Off-Broadway is the hunting ground right now." Whether on or Off-Broadway, it's clear that theater--and theater stars--will be everywhere on TV this season.

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