American Idol contestants in Broadway productions
American Idol contestants in Broadway productions

American Idol and Broadway

As the TV show ends, the connection endures.

When American Idol comes to an end after 15 seasons next year, it will have introduced a number of performers who have become household names — and even more who have become Broadway veterans. Some have become both. At least 17 (and counting!) alumni of the TV singing competition have gone on to tread the boards of Broadway.
“I’m not surprised at all,” says Justin Guarini. “If nothing else, American Idol teaches you how to get up in front of a crowd.” The runner-up to Kelly Clarkson in the first season, Guarini has performed in four Broadway shows, more than any other Idol finalist. He is one of several who could serve as poster children for the American Idol–Broadway pipeline.

Constantine Maroulis has an explanation for the phenomenon. “Let’s be honest: Broadway has always featured whoever the current celebrities are — people who have a fan base and media attention — and we’re all over television and red carpets and magazines,” says Maroulis, referring to his fellow former Idol contestants. “It’s just good math all around. Of course, it works best when the person is also the best for the part.” Maroulis, the sixth-place finisher in season 4, is a three-time Broadway veteran and the only Idol contestant so far to receive a Tony Award nomination, for the leading role of Drew that he originated in Rock of Ages.

“Broadway was where I was always headed; American Idol was just an unexpected stop along the way,” says season 2’s Frenchie Davis, who was the first Idol contestant to join the cast of a Broadway show (Rent in 2003). 

“If you have the talent, the drive, and the perseverance, Broadway gives you a place to shine,” Guarini says. “Many AI contestants share those qualities.”

Six Degrees of Jennifer Hudson

Jennifer Hudson, season 3’s seventh place finisher, who went on to a career as an Oscar-winning film actress and a Grammy-winning recording artist, will make her Broadway debut in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple this fall. “Broadway is probably the hardest thing to do in entertainment,” she said recently. “I just want to do it justice.” 

Coincidentally, two AI contestants from the same season have also performed in The Color Purple. La Toya London, the fourth-place finalist in season 3, joined the national tour of the show. Fantasia, the season 3 winner, made her Broadway debut as a replacement for the lead in the original stage production of The Color Purple.

As it happens, these three from season 3 are not the only Broadway troupers. Season 3 semifinalist Katie Webber has performed in a half-dozen musicals on Broadway, from Wicked to Honeymoon in Vegas. Fantasia’s runner-up in season 3, Diana DeGarmo, is also now a Broadway veteran, having performed in both Hairspray and Hair. If that’s not dizzying enough, it was in the cast of Hair that DeGarmo met and married Ace Young, a finalist from season 5. Young was also in the replacement cast of the Broadway revival of Grease — as was the contestant who won season 5, Taylor Hicks!

There seems to be something of an informal AI-Broadway alumni association.

“I keep in touch,” says Davis. “Ruben and I are always trying to support one another. And he and I saw Clay in Spamalot,” she says, talking about season 2 winner Ruben Studdard (with whom she performed in a touring company of Ain’t Misbehavin’ ) and season 2 runner up Clay Aiken, who came aboard Spamalot in the final year of its Broadway run.

Guarini remembers running over from the Broadway show in which he was performing, Romeo and Juliet, to make the opening night in 2013 of After Midnight, Fantasia’s second Broadway hit. “I got there just as the curtain went up. I literally had to climb over a very patient k.d. lang to get to my seat. Awkward, but totally worth it.”

Too Broadway”

There is considerable irony in this Broadway web of Idol connections. “Too Broadway” was the most frequent put-down that the American Idol judges seemed to employ when critiquing contestants. Longtime Broadway star Betty Buckley famously took to Twitter to rip into Idol judge Randy Jackson for such remarks: “Theatrical singing encompasses every kind of sound, voice and style. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

For their part, drama critics just as readily dismissed a performer on Broadway as “too American Idol.” Indeed, Ben Brantley, the chief drama critic of The New York Times, wrote an article in 2005 headlined “How Broadway Lost Its Voice to American Idol” decrying the influence he saw the TV show having on stage performers. “The favorite technical tricks of Idol contestants are often like screams divorced from the pain or ecstasy that inspired them. . . . The most successful contestants take an athletic approach to a melody. They hoist, hold, and balance notes like barbells in a weightlifting exhibition.”

Guarini believes that attitudes have changed on both sides. “American Idol has a Broadway-themed week now,” he says. “It makes me happy to know that kids who are 6, 7, 8 years of age are now hearing catalogues of composers in this genre.” And, Guarini says, “I don’t think American Idol has influenced Broadway so much as it has introduced Broadway to a group of people who might not otherwise have been exposed to it.” If any former AI contestant has made it to Broadway, Guarini argues, it’s not because they can scream. “The American theater landscape has changed dramatically. The competition for roles is fierce, and performers have to be more skilled than ever before in order to be cast.”

Period of Adjustment

Many of the contestants had previous experience in the theater. The best known of these is season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert, who before American Idol had performed in national and out-of-town productions of such Broadway staples as Hair, Brigadoon, and Wicked. “I think a lot of people on American Idol grew up doing school plays,” says Maroulis. “I always loved Broadway and rock ’n’ roll.”

Justin Guarini, who had acted in many shows in school, auditioned for both The Lion King on Broadway and for American Idol at roughly the same time. Both asked him to join. “I was forced to make a decision, and took the risk on the unknown,” he says. It’s not a choice he regrets. “I feel like AI has helped me be a better, more versatile performer.”

When he did finally debut on Broadway, in the 2010 musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, “I was already familiar with the Broadway schedule and lifestyle. My biggest adjustment was learning the etiquette. I was lucky enough to begin my Broadway career with two legendary actors playing my parents: Patti LuPone and Brian Stokes Mitchell.”

Broadway Spells R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Since his debut as the stuttering son of LuPone and Stokes Mitchell, Guarini has gone on to play Fiyero in Wicked, Will in American Idiot, and Paris in Romeo and Juliet — the first Idol to perform on Broadway in a straight play (not to mention a play by Shakespeare). Like countless other Idol contestants, he has also appeared in several Broadway shows in regional productions. A few years ago, Guarini told Oprah Winfrey that he became depressed after his movie with Kelly Clarkson flopped, his record company dropped him, and he (and his curly hair) became the butt of jokes. But drama critics have praised his theatrical performances and see a solid career for him on the stage (“Who would have thought?” one remarked).

Broadway brought similar heightened respect to Maroulis. “Broadway is the highest form of the performance art we have in this country, in my opinion,” Maroulis says. “I am thankful that I grew up wanting to be a significant voice in both the Broadway and music scenes, and I have done that.”

Davis, who was suddenly disqualified in the middle of season 2 because of photographs she had posed for when she was a teenager, would surely have reason to feel vindicated by her subsequent career on stage and in cabaret. Nearly a decade after American Idol, she was even invited to join the first season of The Voice, a now higher-rated TV singing competition, where she finished in fifth place. Her experience helps to explain her unsentimental reaction to the imminent cancellation of American Idol. “It had to end at some point. They’re going off the air, and I’m still singing.”

Maroulis views the show differently — “I am a big fan” — but he too has perspective on its demise. “It’s been an incredible run,” he says, “but when you were the biggest show in the history of television — literally 30 million people watching the show every week — there is no way for you to keep that kind of pace up. It still gets eyeballs, but all good things come to an end.”

Guarini says he is proud to have played a part in “a vital piece of music and television history.” But he too is still singing, as are the many contestants who have been and will be on Broadway and on legitimate stages throughout the country. “A good performer is a good performer. Idols put the work in just like everyone else, eight shows a week.”