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Broadway stars take on TV

You may not have realized, but your television is being invaded by the singing and dancing multihyphenates of Broadway. EW investigates the phenomenon.

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Broadway talent has always flowed from the stage to the small screen — think Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon, Gilmore Girls‘ Kelly Bishop, and GCB‘s Kristin Chenoweth, all of whom dazzled on stage before jumping into TV. Right now, though, the stage-to-TV highway is experiencing an unprecedented traffic jam: The Book of Mormon leads Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad will each star on their own NBC sitcoms, The New Normal and 1600 Penn, respectively; Tony-winning Sutton Foster (Anything Goes) has found a home on ABC Family’s Bunheads (with Bishop); and Spring Awakening breakout John Gallagher Jr., another Tony winner, recently landed on HBO’s Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom. Even more remarkable? None of those roles call for singing (at least, not yet). ”I’m thrilled and proud that Broadway performers are being credited as good actors,” says Foster. ”I think that’s exciting.”

So what’s up with TV’s current infatuation with the Great White Way? Read on.

Glee and Smash happened.

It’s undeniable: These two musical shows injected the idea of Broadway into the greater pop culture ether. ”Glee did maybe, in some way, pave the way to people reinvestigating the talent on Broadway,” says the show’s casting director, Robert Ulrich, who was responsible for helping Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison — both Broadway fixtures — cross over. ”It has been a wonderful thing to show the community that Broadway people can translate to television.” Glee has also had a halo effect on casting theater folk in roles that aren’t all about jazz hands — like Gad’s gig as the First Family’s out-of-control son on 1600 Penn.

Broadway’s booming.

Grace Wu, NBC’s executive VP of casting, who helped place Rannells and Gad, says the success of Broadway shows like Newsies and The Book of Mormon has put their casts in a brighter spotlight: ”There are really commercial, successful musicals on Broadway now. I don’t know if we could have said that in the past.”

Hollywood is run by fans of Broadway.

Stage actors have strong allies in TV’s current decision makers: Glee, American Horror Story, and The New Normal co-creator Ryan Murphy; Desperate Housewives and Devious Maids creator Marc Cherry; The Newsroom‘s Aaron Sorkin (himself a playwright); and NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt are a few prominent examples. ”Bob runs the network, he’s been a Broadway producer, and there’s nobody more connected in terms of knowing who that talent is,” says NBC’s Wu. ”It was his idea to bring on Jeremy Jordan from Newsies to Smash.”

New York City is a hotbed of TV production right now.

It’s easier for Broadway actors to get parts on television shows when they’re shot near Broadway. ”It used to be that Law & Order was the only game in town,” says Rannells, ”and then all of a sudden there were all these other opportunities.” Of the 41 drama pilots for the 2012-13 TV season, 11 were shot in NYC. And those pilots that were picked up — ABC’s 666 Park Avenue, CBS’ Elementary, and The CW’s The Carrie Diaries — are set to shoot their freshman seasons in New York, joining series like Boardwalk Empire, Girls, and The Good Wife. ”A lot of my friends that do theater were managing to pop up in shows, mainly because they were close by,” says Gallagher. Adds Foster, who did spots on Flight of the Conchords, Royal Pains, and Law & Order: SVU while living in New York: ”It was great to be able to have access in my backyard.”

Now that TV’s backyard is bigger than ever, all of America is getting a chance to see what Broadway actors can do. ”Everyone wants to share their work with the world,” says Glee‘s Ulrich. ”And you certainly have a better opportunity doing that if you’re on TV than if you’re just on the Broadway stage.”

Crossing Over: A Stage-to-TV Hall of Fame

These stars went from being Broadway’s finest to (re)making their names on TV.

Kristin Chenoweth

While she wowed theater audiences with her pipes as Glinda in Wicked, Chenoweth has proved to be a deft comedian on TV (Glee, GCB) and will branch out this fall on The Good Wife.

Mandy Patinkin

Can you imagine Homeland‘s Saul Berenson singing and dancing? Patinkin did just that when he won a Tony as the original Che in Broadway’s Evita, opposite Patti LuPone.

Audra McDonald

Not all crossovers are forever: The Broadway mainstay switched coasts for Private Practice, then left the show last year for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which netted her a fifth Tony.

Denis O’Hare

TV audiences know him from dark fare like True Blood and American Horror Story. But he has a lengthy stage résumé that includes a Tony win for Take Me Out and a nod for the Sondheim musical Assassins.

Kristen Bell

Although known for Veronica Mars, Gossip Girl, and House of Lies, Bell wasn’t always so hard-boiled — she originally made a splash singing in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

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