STAGE TO SCREENS: Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory" Makes His Broadway Debut

By Christopher Wallenberg
19 Apr 2011

Jim Parsons
Jim Parsons
Photo by Maarten de Boer

Emmy Award winner Jim Parsons, famed as the genius-nerd Sheldon of TV's "The Big Bang Theory," is among the stars of The Normal Heart on Broadway.


A few months ago, Jim Parsons had what he calls a "Come to Jesus" call with his manager and two of his agents. After more than six years away from theatre, the Emmy Award winning actor who plays savant-like theoretical physicist Sheldon on the hit CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" felt that it was time to scratch an itch he was having to return to the stage — and that his three-month summer hiatus from "Big Bang" was a good opportunity to do it.

"I said, 'All signs point to me wanting to do some theatre this summer.' If we see a movie that we all really like, I'm certainly open to that. But nothing's on my radar right now that I'm excited about. The only thing that's getting me excited, that's making my palms sweat, is when we talk about this notion of doing a theatre show this summer," says Parsons, pausing for a beat, and then with deft comic timing and charming self-deprecation, blurting out, "Theatre show? Oh, God, I sound like my mother. Everybody's going to think, Oh, this guy has never done a play before."

Indeed, despite that unintentionally comic "theatre show" reference, Parsons is no stranger to the stage. He first got his start as an actor in the Houston theatre scene, where he was a founding member of the Infernal Bridegroom Theatre Co. and a regular at Stages Repertory Theatre, performing in everything from Samuel Beckett's Endgame to Guys and Dolls. He later studied classical theatre in a two-year program through the University of San Diego and the Old Globe, and assayed roles in everything from The Tempest at the Houston Shakespeare Festival to Tartuffe at La Jolla Playhouse.

"Doing live theatre has been such a part of my life for all of my adult years," Parsons says. "And I think that it was only going to be a matter of time before it reared its ugly head — that need to want to do theatre again."

Within a few days of that conference call with his agents and manager, they got back to him with the possibility of starring in the just-announced revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's landmark 1985 play about the early days of the AIDS crisis. Parsons quickly jumped at the unique opportunity, and a week later he ended up getting cast as young gay Southern transplant Tommy Boatwright in the production, which begins previews on April 19 and opens on April 27 at the John Golden Theatre (co-starring Ellen Barkin, Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey and Lee Pace).


Parsons on "The Big Bang Theory."

For Parsons, 38, it "was certainly a lesson — not like I needed one, because it happens all the time — that you need to open your mouth and say what you want. Because you've got a much a much better chance of getting it if you put it out there. Yes, you take that risk of being disappointed at a certain level. But there can be great rewards to putting it out there."

Parsons recalls this dynamic unfolding while he was working in theatre in Houston, wanting to take the next step in his career, and thinking about going to grad school for acting.

"I just felt that I needed to get out of town. But I was never really one to just pack up my knapsack and hit the road. I'm brave, but I'm not that brave. So I thought, you know, grad school would be a wonderful thing, not only an excuse to get out of town, but a useful thing for me to do… And I remember very distinctly making some sort of conscious decision to go ahead and share with people [that] I was auditioning for grad schools and that I really wanted to do this. It was one of the first examples in my life when I realized that if you really put it out there and tell everybody that you want something, you magnify for yourself how important it is, which probably makes you work that much harder at it."

First produced at the Public Theater in 1985 to great acclaim, The Normal Heart has been mounted several more times at Off-Broadway venues in the intervening 25 years, in addition to dozens of regional stagings. The new production, directed by Joel Grey (with an assist by George C. Wolfe), will mark not only the 25th anniversary revival of Kramer's seminal work, but also the play's Broadway debut.

Set in the months between July 1981 and May 1984, The Normal Heart examines the fraught, distressing and devastating advent of the AIDS epidemic in a frightened gay community, through the stories of a group of gay men living in New York City, one of the epicenters of the disease outbreak in its early days.

Led by an uncompromisingly strident writer/activist, Ned Weeks, who's a stand-in for Kramer himself, the ragtag group of activists argue and debate over the tactics of their fight to spotlight the burgeoning epidemic (angry public confrontation versus behind-the-scenes politics and cajoling). In the end, they refuse to let doctors, politicians and the press hide the truth of the AIDS crisis behind a wall of silence and outright denial. Many of the themes of the play — from gay marriage, to the broken healthcare system, to the disease crisis itself — are still as relevant today as they were when the play first premiered 25 years ago.

"It's just a wonderful play — fiery and fast-paced," Parsons says. "The whole piece has this wonderful passionate energy about it that really sucks you in. There's also this doom about it, because there's this thing that they're trying to work at and fix and get the word out as fast as they can."


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