Take a stroll through the theater district these days, and one thing is obvious: You’re just as likely to come across a Hollywood name on a Broadway marquee as you are on a screen.
Film and TV stars have shown up on the Main Stem with increasing frequency over the last several years, but this season the phenomenon reached epidemic proportions. Neil Patrick Harris, Bryan Cranston, Denzel Washington, Daniel Craig, Daniel Radcliffe, Ian McKellen: That list is just the tip of the iceberg in a season so star-packed that the Tony nominators had no choice but to overlook as many as they recognized.
Industry trends have played a major role in getting so much screen talent to the boards, as the rise of premium prices have made star-driven limited runs of plays (usually revivals with familiar titles) one of the surest financial bets on the Main Stem. “Certainly the economics of Broadway have created not only an open-door policy, but a beckoning to anybody who has some notoriety to be able to do a play,” says Tony nominee Cranston, who followed up his Emmy-winning run in “Breaking Bad” with the lead role in LBJ history drama “All the Way.”
The enduring prestige of the stage also represents a significant lure. Succeed on Broadway, and you become a true actor’s actor. But it’s more than just finances and reputation: It’s affection. Many actors — not to mention writers and composers — say they first fell in love with their craft watching stage productions and dreaming of landing on Broadway someday.
“Since I was a teenager, I would come to New York and see a marathon of shows,” says Harris, now giving a Tony-nominated turn in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” after prior Main Stem stints in “Assassins,” “Cabaret” and “Proof.” “I really developed an affinity for the athleticism and the sheer will and the sweat equity that everyone puts into a show, and how many people it takes to make it happen every night.”
The pull of Broadway even stretches across the Pond. Sophie Okonedo, the British actress (“Hotel Rwanda”) nominated for a Tony for her role in “A Raisin in the Sun,” has a vivid childhood memory of watching a musical number from “Annie” excerpted from a Tony telecast. Struck by the fact that one of the orphans was black, she was prompted to imagine there could be a place on Broadway for her, too.
But with an eight-show-a-week schedule and rigorous physical and emotional demands, the theater, as they say, ain’t for sissies.
“Physically, vocally, it’s challenging,” says Tony Shalhoub, tapped for a Tony nom for “Act One,” the Moss Hart bio in which he plays three roles. “You have to gear your whole day toward that performance. Sleep the right amount, eat at the right time. It’s a completely different animal from film and TV.”
Harris calls stage performance “the hardest work an actor has to do,” and Cranston — who’s loving every exhausting minute of his nonstop role in the nearly three-hour “All the Way” — admits that, if he were to return to Broadway, he’d think about asking for a seven-performance week, with two days off in a row rather than the standard one.
But taxing as it is, stage work offers ample rewards. Cranston relishes the control he retains in shaping his performance on stage as opposed to on screen, where an actor’s work is molded just as much by the editor. Besides, live performance’s occasional accidents, happy or otherwise, help keep things fresh.
Woody Allen, nominated for the book of musical “Bullets Over Broadway,” enjoyed finding new facets of a preexisting story in the tuner adaptation of his own film. “The stage version is much more comic than the film version,” he notes. “Just the fact of putting in the songs has made it broader. There are more laughs in the play than the movie.”
For Douglas McGrath, the film writer-director (and co-writer of the “Bullets” film) who is now up for a Tony for his book for Carole King musical “Beautiful,” a legit gig enables his perfectionist streak. “In a movie you have one chance to get it right — you write, you shoot, you edit, and that’s pretty much it,” he says. “But in the theater you get one more opportunity to get it right every night.”
Creatives also find that talents they’ve developed in one medium can cross-pollinate with the ones they’ve nurtured in another. Harris says nine years of channeling Barney Stinson’s fearlessness on “How I Met Your Mother” helped him achieve Hedwig’s ferociousness, and Okonedo credits her theater training for her ability to analyze scripts and ask the right questions even in the limited rehearsal context of film and TV shoots.
And then, of course, there’s the thrill of the audience itself. Cranston likens the jolt he gets from the crowd to the one athletes feel in a stadium. Okonedo loves how vocal American audiences are compared to U.K. theatergoers. “They’re much louder and more responsive here, and it shocked me,” she says. “But it’s been fantastic. You’ve got to really get people to focus and listen. That’s a real skill for an actor.”
“There’s a purity to the theater,” echoes Harris. “If you’re really giving it, you can feel that from the audience.”
And sometimes, depending on the role, the interaction between actor and audience can become very up-close and personal. Harris’ Hedwig, for instance, gets downright intimate with theatergoers. “A lot of licking people’s heads and dry humping is going on at the Belasco Theater,” he affirms. “They don’t call them premium seats for nothing.”