Typically, a writer’s work takes place behind the scenes. Sometimes they perform their own work in a concert setting or on the occasional demo recording. But, more and more writers have taken on roles in the full production of the musical they wrote—often on Broadway. Sara Bareilles, for instance, just recently announced that she will return to star in Waitress on Broadway for a second time, performing her own Tony-nominated score.
Here, Playbill looks at 14 playwrights, composers, and lyricists that took things to the next level, appearing on stage in musicals they wrote.
Note: We chose not to include solo shows, because they are, by nature, intended to be written and performed by the same person.
George M. Cohan
This early 20th-Century writer and performer is best remembered today for the iconic songs he have the world, including “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Boy,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Though his Broadway musicals are a bit dated by today’s standards, they were groundbreaking for their time, particularly due to the attention he gave the book scenes. His musicals could be considered a very early precursor to the work Oscar Hammerstein II later did with Show Boat and Oklahoma!.
When Cohan began writing shows, he was already well-known as a vaudeville performer, so he starred in almost everything he wrote, including Little Johnny Jones, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, and Hello, Broadway! You can see him now immortalized as a statue in Duffy Square, right by the TKTS booth.
Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
These pioneering black writers from Broadway’s early history wrote the landmark 1921 musical Shuffle Along, the major hit song of which was “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Though they appeared as characters in the 2016 Broadway musical about the writing of Shuffle Along (titled Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the 1921 Musical Sensation and All That Followed), the actual men have a history of appearing in the original show, as well. Lyricist Noble Sissle played the role of Tom Sharp in the original production of Shuffle Along. Eubie Blake, Shuffle’s composer, was the musical director and played the piano for the original production, but both Sissle and Blake appeared as themselves in the 1952 Broadway revival of Shuffle Along.
The writing partnership between Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which gave the world countless legendary musicals and films, lasted for six decades. Their films include Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon, and their stage work—which includes both musical books and lyrics—gave us such musicals as On the Twentieth Century, Bells Are Ringing, and Wonderful Town.
Their first Broadway musical, however, was On the Town. Comden and Green supplied both book and lyrics to this show, and they also wrote plum roles for themselves. Comden and Green originated the roles of Claire and Ozzie, who sing “Carried Away.” The pair also went on to perform on Broadway in A Party with Betty Comden & Adolph Green, a concert evening offering a retrospective of their career together, in both 1958 and 1977.
Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford
Gretchen Cryer spent a decade appearing in the casts of Broadway shows; she was part of the original companies of Little Me, 110 in the Shade, and 1776. But Cryer also had a talent for writing. Working with composer Nancy Ford, Cryer became part of one of the New York theatre scene’s only female composer-lyricist teams, creating such shows as Now is the Time For All Good Men, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, and Shelter, the latter of which played a Broadway run in 1973. Though Cryer appeared in the cast of Now is the Time For All Good Men—credited under a pseudonym: Sally Niven—she is perhaps best known for starring in the writing team’s biggest and most enduring success: 1978’s I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it On the Road, an semi-autobiographical piece about a divorcée mounting a comeback as a pop star. Ford eventually replaced Cryer in the role as well during the Off-Broadway run.
Like Cryer, John Cameron Mitchell began as a performer, appearing on Broadway in Big River, Six Degrees of Separation, and The Secret Garden. Mitchell burst onto the scene as a writer with the 1998 Off-Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which Mitchell co-wrote with composer-lyricist Stephen Trask. Mitchell also created the title role, an East German genderqueer rock star. Hedwig became a big success Off-Broadway, and a string of notable actors replaced Mitchell during the original run, including Michael Cerveris and Ally Sheedy. Mitchell immortalized his performance for the 2001 film adaptation, and returned to the role onstage as a replacement in the lead role during the show’s Broadway run in 2014.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is certainly the writer-performer most known today for starring in his own work. He began work on his first Broadway musical, In the Heights, while still in college at Wesleyan University. By the time it opened Off-Broadway five years later, Miranda took on the lead role of Usnavi. The show moved to Broadway in 2008, winning many accolades for Miranda as both a writer and performer; In the Heights won 2008’s Best Musical Tony and Miranda was nominated for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.
As monumental a debut as In the Heights was, no one was prepared for the global phenomenon Miranda still had up his sleeve. Hamilton, since opening Off-Broadway in January 2015 and moving to Broadway seven months later, has become one of the most massive successes Broadway has seen in generations. Though Miranda contributed music and lyrics to In the Heights alongside book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, he owns the credit for all of Hamilton’s writing jobs—book, music, and lyrics—and Miranda originated the title role. Though he left the show in July 2016, Hamilton has continued to sell out houses on Broadway and across the United States. And Miranda has not finished performing in his masterpiece; it was recently announced that Miranda will return to the title role for a special three week engagement in Puerto Rico in January 2019.
Billy Joe Armstrong
Green Day front man Billy Joe Armstrong made his Broadway debut as a writer when the musical adaptation of his album American Idiot opened at the St. James Theatre in 2010. The musical opened with a cast of traditional Broadway performers—including John Gallagher, Jr., Tony Vincent, Stark Sands, and Michael Esper—but Armstrong himself eventually replaced Vincent in the role of St. Jimmy, another character’s rock star alter ego. Armstrong sang “St. Jimmy,” from the original album, “Last Night on Earth,” and “Know Your Enemy,” which were interpolated into the Broadway score.
Harvey Fierstein has worked as both a writer and performer his entire career. He made his Broadway debut in 1982 with Torch Song Trilogy, a play about a gay man living in New York City in the late 70s and early ’80s (which is currently in a revamped revival Off-Broadway at Second Stage). Fierstein starred in both the original Broadway production and the play’s 1988 film adaptation. After Torch Song, Fierstein kept his writing and performing careers separate, for the most part. He wrote the books for La Cage Aux Folles, Legs Diamond, A Catered Affair, Newsies, and Kinky Boots. Fierstein enjoyed separate successes as a performer, in Broadway shows like Hairspray (for which he won a Tony), and films such as Mrs. Doubtfire, Bullets Over Broadway, and Death to Smoochy.
Fierstein returned to the world of performing his own work when he replaced Douglas Hodge as Albin/Zaza in a Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles, staying with the production until it closed four months later. He also re-created his Tony-winning stage performance as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray for the musical’s 2016 live TV adaptation, which featured a script newly adapted for the screen by Fierstein himself.
Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell
Perhaps the ultimate meta musical, [title of show] follows the story of its own creation, initially for submission to the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). The show’s composer-lyricist and book writing team Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell starred as themselves. After premiering at NYMF in 2004, the work received Off-Broadway runs at Ars Nova in 2005 and Vineyard Theatre in 2006. The production ultimately received a Broadway run in 2008 with the complete original Off-Broadway cast, though the piece has enjoyed amateur and regional runs across the country with new actors taking on the roles.
Like Billy Joe Armstrong, Sting is primarily a singer-songwriter working in the pop rock world. He rose to prominence with his band The Police, but launched a solo career in 1985. Responsible for such hits as “Every Breath You Take,” “Roxanne,” and “Desert Rose,” Sting owns a staggering 16 Grammy Awards.
Sting first came to Broadway in 1989, playing Macheath in a revival of Threepenny Opera, and returned 25 years later as a writer. The Last Ship, inspired by Sting’s childhood experiences, follows the demise of the shipbuilding industry and its effect on a small town in northeast England. The score was supposed to pull mainly from Sting’s 1991 album The Soul Cages, and though the final score of the 2014 musical included the songs “Island of Souls” and “All This Time” from the album, most of it featured original material. Like American Idiot, The Last Ship opened on Broadway with Sting as the show’s composer-lyricist, but just a few months later Sting replaced Jimmy Nail in the leading role of Jackie White, and played the remainder of the musical’s brief Broadway run.
Though Sara Bareilles released her first studio album, Careful Confessions, in 2004, her 2007 single “Love Song” brought her national notoriety. Her 2010 album Kaleidoscope Heart debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, and four years later her album The Blessed Unrest earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. A well-known fan of musical theatre, Bareilles became a Broadway writer herself when Waitress, based on the film of the same name, opened in 2016. Bareilles’ score was Tony-nominated, as was the show’s original star, Jessie Mueller. Like Sting and Armstrong before her, Bareilles took over in Waitress’s starring role, replacing Mueller about a year into the run. Producers recently announced Bareilles will return to the production in January 2018, when she will play a six-week engagement, part of which puts her opposite friend and fellow singer-songwriter Jason Mraz in his limited engagement with the show.