Exclusive From The 2015 Tonys Playbill! How "Glee" and "Smash" Brought Backstage Life Into The Spotlight

Tony Awards   Exclusive From The 2015 Tonys Playbill! How "Glee" and "Smash" Brought Backstage Life Into The Spotlight
 
What happens backstage at Broadway shows is supposed to be secret, private and not really important compared with what is happening onstage. But try telling that to the public.
Michael Keaton in "Birdman"
Michael Keaton in "Birdman"

People's fascination with life through the wings and behind the passdoors peaked in recent years with TV shows like "Smash" and "Glee" and movies like this year's Oscar-winning Best Picture, "Birdman."

When people think of classic backstage stories they think of Tony winners 42nd Street or A Chorus Line, but the backstages of Broadway have become center-stage fascinations for a whole new generation.

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"Birdman" (2014) Michael Keaton plays a Hollywood actor going through a mid-life crisis, trying to restart and reinvigorate his career by appearing in a Broadway play he wrote himself. But he's haunted by the image of the action hero (Birdman, a stand-in for Keaton's own turn as Batman) who made his fortune, but destroyed his soul. Both the movie and Keaton were nominated for Oscars, but the uncredited co-star that deserved its own special Oscar was the St. James Theatre itself, whose hallways, crossovers, dressing rooms and stage serve as the ominous setting for this unusual drama. "Smash" (2012-13) The gold standard for portrayal of backstage life on Broadway as we live it today. More or less. Broadway stars Christian Borle, Debra Messing, Megan Hilty, Brian d'Arcy James, Ann Harada, Jeremy Jordan and so many more passed through this saga of the backstage drama surrounding the creation of a new Broadway musical, Bombshell, originally scripted by playwright Theresa Rebeck, with actual Broadway-style songs written for it by Tony winners Scott Shaiman and Scott Wittman. "Smash" ran only two seasons, but it drew a devoted fan following who recently fought for tickets to a concert version of the songs written for the show.

"Glee" (2009-15) This long-running sitcom about high school glee clubbers and their battles to put on concerts and musicals, somehow managed to attract Broadway's top talent as guest stars and helped mainstream both classic and contemporary showtunes. Principals included Broadway's Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele. It created its own stars who have gone the other way to the legitimate stage, including Jane Lynch and Darren Criss. "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" (2015-present) This Netflix situation comedy bowed in March and almost instantly made a star of real-life Broadway actor Tituss Burgess (Sebastian the Crab in The Little Mermaid), who plays an alter ego, "gay as a penguin" Titus Adromedon, an actor who dreams of playing Broadway and constantly breaks into song. Auditions, new head shots and bad side jobs are important parts of his life. His PG-13 music video "Peeno Noir" from the show went viral.

"The Standbys" (2012) Directed by Stephanie Riggs this documentary goes beyond A Chorus Line, to examine the demanding and hightly specialized world of Broadway standbys and understudies. They just sit around and wait, right? Wrong. They have to know as much as the person they are covering, and be ready at a moment's notice to do it, but with minimal rehearsal. It also includes interview with stars Bebe Neuwirth, Jonathan Groff, Sutton Foster, David Hyde Pierce and many others about their experiences standing by.

"The Late Late Show With James Corden" (2015 to present). Though he's been on the air just a few months, British actor James Corden, who won the 2012 Tony Award as Best Actor in a Play for One Man, Two Guvnors, has used the world of theatre as a backdrop for several guests and skits, notably an episode in which he purported to perform Grease in a Los Angeles street crosswalk, casting himself as the temperamental director berating his actors in their dressing tents.

James Corden performing <i>Grease</i> on the streets of Los Angeles on "The Late Late Show with James Corden"
James Corden performing Grease on the streets of Los Angeles on "The Late Late Show with James Corden"

"Inside Amy Schumer" (2013-present) Comedy Central's comedy sketch series regularly pokes fun at actors and comedians and their backstage lives. In the current season the writers devoted an entire show to a parody of the Broadway drama 12 Angry Men, in which the all-male jury tries to judge whether Amy is attractive enough.

"Girls" (2012-present) Lena Dunham's HBO series tracks a group of twentysomething women living in New York.

"Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" (2013) For those not lucky enough to see Elaine Stritch's autobiographical solo show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, director Chiemi Karasawa took cameras into Stritchy's home to show how the diva assoluta conducts her offstage life.

"The Real Housewives of Atlanta" (2008-present) This reality show, the second offshoot of the "Real Housewives" universe, took an unexpected turn into Times Square when Linnethia Monique "NeNe" Leakes fulfilled a dream to appear on Broadway. She spent the last several weeks of the run playing the wicked stepmother, "Madame," the role originated by Harriet Harris. Leakes also played a stint on "Glee" as a swimming coach.

Neil Patrick Harris (right) in the "Saturday Night Live" sketch "Save Broadway"
Neil Patrick Harris (right) in the "Saturday Night Live" sketch "Save Broadway"

"Saturday Night Live" (1975-present) The sketch comedy show loves to skewer the fabulousness of Broadway, but one of their best attempts was the 2009 sketch "Save Broadway," in which the characters from various shows (including Neil Patrick Harris as Mark from Rent) gather offstage at Sardi's to figure out how to deal with the Great Recession. Their solution? Put on a show! A Chorus Line (1975 and 2006) The musical that pushed aside the leads and made stars of the chorus gypsies also helped make Broadway a dream for a whole new generation.

"Every Little Step" (2008) If A Chorus Line tries to show the real lives of chorus dancers, this documentary shows the real lives behind auditions for the 2006 revival of that show. It stars the real-life Bob Avian, Baayork Lee, Jay Binder and John Breglio, the creative/producing team that brought the show back to Broadway.

It's Only a Play (2014) Yes, Broadway got into the act itself this season, with Terrence McNally's backstage comedy about what really happens at the opening night cast party as the producer, author, star, director and others nervously await the reviews.

"From Wags to Riches With Bill Berloni" (2015) Debuting this summer: a reality show featuring the life and times of animal trainer Bill Berloni, winner of the 2011 Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre for his work as Broadway's go-to guy for trained showbiz animals. He started by finding the dog Sandy for the original 1977 production of Annie and has turned it into a sweet niche specialty. He will let cameras follow his backstage and offstage life starting in August on Discovery Family Channel.

And here are a few more of the classic films and a TV show that inspired them all: "All About Eve" (1950) In the role of her very considerable career, Bette Davis plays an aging Broadway diva trying to decide between her marriage and her career, as a younger woman pretends to be a devoted fan, but is really plotting to steal her spotlight — and her husband. Also served as the basis for the Tony-winning musical Applause.

"42nd Street" (1933) Broadway 1930s style. So many dancers! It contains one of the most iconic lines about showbiz, when a dancer from the corps is tapped to take over the lead role on opening night: "You're going out there a chorus kid, but you've got to come back a star!"

"The Producers" (1967) I'm wearing a cardboard belt! One of the funniest parodies of Broadway life, courtesy of Mel Brooks. It finds humor in the crazed desperation of two crooked producers who try to recruit the worst director, worst star, worst designers, worst script, et al, in the pursuit of a guaranteed flop — only to find themselves stuck with Broadway's biggest hit. That's showbiz! Possibly the most quoted of all backstage stories. Made into a Tony-winning stage musical, then back into a film.

"Bullets Over Broadway" (1994) Woody Allen's fairytale about a tough gangster who gets bitten hard by the theatre bug offers a wonderfully parodic view of life backstage during the rehearsals and rewrites of a Broadway play. We've all been there.

"Funny Girl" (1968) Bittersweet portrait of life behind the scenes at the Ziegfeld Follies in the Broadway of a century ago. Fanny Brice's doomed romance with gambler Nick Arnstein seems a counter-argument to the iconic Styne & Merrill song "People." Sometimes people who need people aren't so lucky after all. "Shakespeare in Love" (1998) Another Oscar-winning Best Picture set behind the scenes at a theatre—but this time it was the Elizabethan world of the Globe Theatre and the main characters are William Shakespeare and the lady for whom he purportedly wrote Romeo and Juliet.

"High School Musical" (2006) Before you say anything, remember that we all started in high school shows, and the ordinary pressures of ego, stress, et cetera, made even more extreme by raging hormones and immaturity. Whatever you think of Disney's megahit (and its TWO sequels) about a basketball jock who agrees to appear in the school musical, it captured that atmosphere perfectly.

Robert Viagas is Managing Editor of Playbill.com and author or editor of 20 books on theatre.

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