10 Broadway Stars You Never Knew Started Out in the Chorus

News   10 Broadway Stars You Never Knew Started Out in the Chorus
 
People flock to see shows with Audra McDonald and Matthew Morrison's names above the title, but who knew these two top-billers began their careers as unknowns in Broadway ensembles? Take a look at our list of the ten most surprising Broadway stars you never knew started out in the chorus before making it big.

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These days, many Broadway productions are all about stars. It's not the revival of the Pulitzer-winning The Gin Game many theatregoers are snapping up tickets for; it's the acclaimed duo of James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. That's not necessarily bad news; stars are usually stars for a reason, and Jones and Tyson are no exception.

But stars don't just arrive on Broadway fully-formed. We get a fair amount of famous performers who made their name in other arenas, likes movies or reality television. Theatre lovers might be surprised, however, to learn just how many big stars we have that worked their way up through the ranks the old-fashioned way, starting as chorus boys and girls before getting their big breaks.

Scroll down to learn about the most surprising stars who got their starts in the Broadway chorus.

1. Phylicia Rashad
Phylicia Rashad is probably best known and loved for her long-running performance as Clair Huxtable on "The Cosby Show," but before that she was Phylicia Ayers-Allen and a Broadway chorus girl. She was a munchkin in the original company of The Wiz and performed in the ensemble of Dreamgirls as well. Broadway producers clearly saw star potential in Rashad, as she was also hired as a Glinda understudy in The Wiz and a Deena Jones understudy in Dreamgirls. After Dreamgirls, Rashad won a part on "One Life to Live." She was cast in NBC's "The Cosby Show" the following year, a program she would stay with for seven years. She's come back to Broadway periodically however, becoming the first African-American woman to win a Best Leading Actress in a Play Tony Award in 2004 for A Raisin in the Sun.

Phylicia Rashad
Phylicia Rashad Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

2. Craig Lucas
Craig Lucas is currently on Broadway, but not as a performer. His book for An American in Paris nabbed him a Tony nomination this year, as did his book to 2005's The Light in the Piazza. Before his career as a playwright, however, he was in several Broadway ensembles. He appeared in the ensembles of Shenandoah, Rex, On the Twentieth Century and Sweeney Todd before making his debut as a writer with 1990's Prelude to a Kiss.

3. Matthew Morrison
TV fans know Matthew Morrison best as Will Schuester on "Glee." Broadway fans probably know him best as Hairspray's original Link Larkin, or as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, which he's currently appearing in eight times a week. Before all of that, though, he was a replacement ensemble member in Footloose and part of the Phantom chorus in the 2000 revival of The Rocky Horror Show. Hairspray elevated him to featured player status, while "Glee" made him a major star just a few years later.

Matthew Morrison in <i>Finding Neverland</i>
Matthew Morrison in Finding Neverland Photo by Carol Rosegg

4. Audra McDonald
With a record-breaking six Tony Awards to her name, it is hard to believe at this point that Audra McDonald was ever anything but one of Broadway's biggest stars, but in the early 90s, she was just a recent Julliard graduate making her Broadway debut in the chorus of The Secret Garden, a role she also played on the show's national tour. Just a few short years later, she appeared as Carrie Pipperidge in Lincoln Center's revival of Carousel, for which she earned her first Tony Award. Luckily for all of us, McDonald's big break came very quickly.

Audra McDonald and cast in <i>Carousel</i>
Audra McDonald and cast in Carousel Photo by Joan Marcus

5. Brian D'Arcy James
Brian D'Arcy James is currently keeping the St. James in stitches as one half of the Bottom Brothers in Something Rotten!. His incredible voice and excellent comedic timing have made him a Broadway favorite since he introduced Barrett's song in the original company of Titanic in 1997. Before that, however, he paid his dues in the chorus. He appeared in the ensembles of both Blood Brothers and the 1994 revival of Carousel before catching his big break with Titanic.

Brian d'Arcy James
Brian d'Arcy James Photo by Joan Marcus

6. Rita Rudner
You may know Rita Rudner best as a writer and comedian, famous for her hilarious stand-up and her many appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," but she actually started her career trodding the boards as a Broadway gypsy! She appeared in the ensembles of Promises, Promises; Follies; The Magic Show; Mack & Mabel; and So Long, 174th Street. She also was a replacement Lily St. Regis in Annie before she started venturing into Manhattan's comedy clubs, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Rita Rudner
Rita Rudner

7. Kelli O'Hara
Currently starring in her Tony Award-winning performance as Anna Leonowens in The King and I, Kelli O'Hara made her Broadway debut in the ensemble of Jekyll & Hyde. She next appeared in the ensemble of the first revival of Follies before creating the role of Susan in 2002's Sweet Smell of Success. Her big break would probably be considered by most to be 2005's The Light in the Piazza, in which she originated the role of Clara, but O'Hara is a great example of a big Broadway star who truly worked her way up the ranks.

Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison in <i>The Light in the Piazza</i>
Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison in The Light in the Piazza

8. Sutton Foster
Sutton Foster is probably Broadway's most famous understudy-turned-star, but even before that happened, she spent some time as a Broadway chorus girl. She appeared in the ensembles of the original production of Les Misérables, the 1997 revival of Annie and The Scarlet Pimpernel. She most likely would have been in the ensemble of Thoroughly Modern Millie as well had she not been moved up to the title role during the out of town tryout, earning her a Tony Award and making her an instant Broadway star.

Foster in <i>Anything Goes</i>
Foster in Anything Goes Photo by Joan Marcus

9. Jerry Mitchell
Jerry Mitchell is one of Broadway's most prolific and powerful choreographers and directors, currently represented on Broadway by the Tony-winning Kinky Boots and soon to be joined by his Gloria Estefan musical On Your Feet! He made his Broadway debut, however, as a dancer at the tender age of 20 in the 1980 revival of Brigadoon. He went on to appear in the choruses of On Your Toes and The Will Rogers Follies before making his solo Broadway choreographic debut with the 1999 revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Since then, he's stayed away from performing. Luckily, he hasn't stayed away from Broadway.

10. LaChanze
LaChanze won her Tony Award playing Celie in The Color Purple, but she made her Broadway debut 20 years prior in the chorus of Uptown...It's Hot!. She followed that up with an appearance in the ensemble of the first Broadway revival company of Dreamgirls. Her big break came when she created the role of Ti Moune in Once On This Island just three years later, earning her first Tony Award nomination for her performance. She's been a favorite amongst Broadway fans ever since.

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(Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.)

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