The relationship between Hollywood and Broadway can be dizzying, especially at Oscar time.
It’s a long-held thrill for theatergoers to spot their favorite Hollywood actors and actresses tread the boards on Broadway, fulfilling dreams of their own to perform on the world’s greatest stage. But at Oscar time, Broadway often goes to Hollywood, appearing as its own character in critically lauded nominated films. As the Oscars get set to air on February 22, keep an eye out for where the stage met the screen.
Broadway in the Movies
Birdman, which has been nominated for nine Academy Awards this year, is just the latest film to use Broadway as its subject and its setting. The very first talkie to take home an Academy Award for Best Picture was entitled The Broadway Melody, a 1929 film about the backstage loves and shenanigans of the stars of a Broadway revue. Other Best Picture Oscar winners about Broadway include 1936’s The Great Ziegfield and 1950’s All About Eve — the movie many consider to be the best ever made about Broadway.
Getting Broadway Right
Actor Jeremy Shamos has a small part in Birdman, as the terrible stage performer who is replaced by Edward Norton’s character. “I’ve gotten a lot of nice e-mails and phone calls congratulating me for being a great bad actor,” Shamos says.
It’s ironic Shamos was cast in such a role. He is a Tony-nominated veteran of six Broadway plays, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris. He has more experience on Broadway than anybody else in the film had; when he was on set, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and others picked his brain about the way things are done on Broadway. They made changes based on his advice.
His own experience on Broadway differs somewhat from what Birdman depicts about life on the Great White Way. In the film, for example, there’s a lot of tension and conflict among the actors. “Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I have experienced much more camaraderie and collaboration,” he says. “There was also a lot of solitude backstage in the movie. In general, there are always people around. You don’t find yourself alone.”
On the other hand, “I think Birdman captures the actor’s experience of being on a stage more than any film I’ve seen — the way the lights hit you and the way the audience kind of appears shadowy and out of focus, but very present.”
Oscar Nominees With Broadway Pedigrees
Emma Stone made her Broadway debut this season as Sally Bowles in the revival of the musical Cabaret. But Sally is almost her second Broadway debut this season: She portrayed the daughter of the first-time playwright (Michael Keaton) in Birdman. Stone has been nominated as best supporting actress for her role.
She is far from the only Oscar nominee with Broadway under her belt. Of the 20 performers nominated for Oscars this year, half have been on Broadway, and an 11th — Keira Knightley — will be making her debut in the fall.
Here is the breakdown:
Actor in a Leading Role
Bradley Cooper for American Sniper (currently in The Elephant Man, formerly in Three Days of Rain, 2006)
Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything (Red, 2010)
Actress in a Leading Role
Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything (Metamorphoses, 2002)
Julianne Moore for Still Alice (The Vertical Hour, 2006)
Actor in a Supporting Role
Robert Duvall for The Judge (Wait Until Dark, 1966; American Buffalo, 1977)
Ethan Hawke for Boyhood (The Seagull, 1992; Henry IV, 2003; Coast of Utopia Parts 1 to 3, 2007; Macbeth, 2013)
Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher (Awake and Sing, 2006)
J.K. Simmons for Whiplash (A Change in the Heir, 1990; Peter Pan, 1991; Guys and Dolls, 1992; Laughter on the 23rd Floor, 1993)
(It’s worth noting that the only supporting actor nominee this year who has not performed on Broadway is Edward Norton, who portrays a Broadway actor in Birdman.)
Actress in a Supporting Role
Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game (Therese Raquin, scheduled to open in October)
Emma Stone for Birdman (Cabaret, 2015)
Meryl Streep for Into the Woods (Trelawny of the “Wells”, 1975; A Memory of Two Mondays/27 Wagons Full of Cotton, 1976; Secret Service, 1976; The Cherry Orchard, 1977; Happy End, 1977)
Stage to Screen — to the Oscars . . .
Meryl Streep’s nomination this year, her 19th, is for playing the witch in Into the Woods, a film adaptation of the 1987 Broadway musical written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Last year, she was nominated for her role in August: Osage County, the film adaptation of the play by Tracy Letts that ran from 2007 to 2009.
The list of films adapted from plays goes back to before the Oscars existed, even before the Hollywood studios were built. As early as 1900, the great theater actress Sarah Bernhardt appeared in a two-minute movie version of Hamlet, playing the title character, and in 1912, she portrayed Queen Elizabeth I in a screen adaptation of a play that marked the first full-length commercial film shown in America; the producer rented the Lyceum, then and now a Broadway theatre, in order to lend class to the new art form. Fifteen years later, in 1927, The Jazz Singer, often credited as the first talkie (some historians dispute this designation), was indisputably the first movie musical to be based on a Broadway show. The most beloved include Best Picture winners West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Chicago. Some of the least beloved — alas, not Best Picture nominees — include A Chorus Line and The Producers (which is a movie musical based on a Broadway musical that was based on a movie).
The adaptations have not been limited to musicals. Two of the three films nominated for the very first Oscar for Best Picture, in 1928, were adapted from Broadway plays. (The winner, Wings, was not.)
. . . And From Screen to Oscar — to the Stage
It took a few decades for theater and film adaptations to go in both directions. It wasn’t until 1970 that a Broadway show based on a movie won the Tony for best musical. Fittingly, the musical was Applause, inspired by All About Eve. Now every major Hollywood studio has a theatrical division, looking to create shows for Broadway, and every Broadway season includes a number of musicals that are based on movies — or that use the same name, basic story, and source material (such as a book or a play) as a well-known movie.
There are six such musicals opening on Broadway this season. Four of the original movies were Oscar winners; the musical versions are opening one after another in April:
Gigi is set to open April 8 at the Neil Simon Theatre. This is a revival of the Lerner and Loewe stage musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1973. The 1958 movie won nine Oscars, including Best Picture. Both the stage and movie musicals are based on a novel by Colette, about a young girl who is being groomed to join the family business, as a courtesan.
An American in Paris will open April 12 at The Palace. The 1951 movie using the music of George Gershwin won six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay.
Finding Neverland is scheduled to open April 15 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The 2004 movie about the man who created Peter Pan won one Oscar for Best Original Score (but the Broadway musical is not using the same score).
Dr. Zhivago plans to open April 21 at the Broadway Theatre. The 1965 movie that takes place during the Russian Revolution won five Oscars, although this included several that would be hard to reproduce on stage, such as cinematography.
Bradley Cooper at The Elephant Man premiere. Photo by Richard Mitchel
Emma Stone in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Cabaret. Photo by Joan Marcus.