From the Public Theater to Lincoln Center to small commercial venues, Off-Broadway will always be an exciting place to spot emerging talent. Over the years, in-the-know theatregoers witnessed debuts of actors like Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand. Go see an Off-Broadway show and save that Playbill — you never know what those artists will do next!
The legend herself landed a lot of her early roles in stage musicals. However, Streep's Off-Broadway debut was during the summer of 1976, playing Katharine in Shakespeare's Henry V at the Delacorte. Directed by Joe Papp, the production featured a cast of 57. In her first interview with the New York Times, leading up to the production, Streep articulated: "I envy the wealth of experience [British actors] can call on [when performing Shakespeare] but we have a different tradition in America that is just as strong. It has to do with heart and guts." She later received a 1977 Drama Desk nomination for her work in Happy End and went on to win an Obie Award for her performance in Off-Broadway's Alice in Concert.
The creators of "Friends"
Future "Friends" creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane (and theme song writer Michael Skloff) were fixtures Off-Broadway before they sold a certain sitcom first called "Six of One," which later turned into the mega-hit "Friends." Writing material for musical revues including Personals, as well as A... My Name Is Alice, Kaufmann, Skloff, and Crane tackled topics such as trashy novels, yuppies, feminism, modern parenting, blind dates, NYC neurotics, baggage with exes and moving in with a significant other… all topics they would later explore on "Friends."
In January of 1959, at the age of 16, Barbra Streisand made her off-Broadway debut in a play called Driftwood. The show played the long-forgotten Garret Theatre, located in an attic space on 49th Street. Who else was in the play? An equally unknown Joan Rivers, who then went by the name Joan Molinsky! Rivers started rumors over the years that the two played lesbian lovers in Driftwood, and made jokes about Babs’ kissing skills… but actually there were no lesbians in Driftwood. Streisand did, however, play a truck hijacker and graduated from high school during the show’s six-week run.
Future "Saturday Night Live" Stars
The first season of "Saturday Night Live" premiered in 1975. Among its cast members were Chevy Chase and John Belushi — who had both starred in the 1973 Off-Broadway show, National Lampoon: Lemmings! This satire, inspired by the popular magazine, National Lampoon, included riffs on Woodstock, drug culture, Vietnam and more. The play also starred Christopher Guest, who became an "SNL" cast member a decade later (and created popular mockumentaries like "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Waiting for Guffman").
Long before Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner Willis made his Broadway debut in Misery (in 2015), he made his Off-Broadway debut. In the early 80s, Willis landed a couple of Off-Broadway gigs including the original 1983 production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love (which coincidentally hit Broadway in 2015, as well). Willis understudied Ed Harris as Eddie, at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre on 42nd Street. Another early credit was Will Rogers: The Cherokee Kid, which played the theatre now known as the Abrons Arts Center in 1980.
This Golden Girl originally made a name for herself playing Lucy in the 1954 Off-Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera at the Theatre de Lys (now Lucille Lortel). Before this, off-Broadway musicals had largely been revues, but this production is widely credited for launching the idea of the book musical Off-Broadway. With over 2600 performances, the successful run of Marc Blitzstein and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny changed the scene. Arthur credits the show also with teaching her that she was a comedian. As she told NPR in 2007: “[The first performance of Threepenny Opera is] to this day, the most exciting moment of my life. [It taught me that] comedy is being true to what you're playing and you must never show people that you're trying to be funny. It made my life. Because prior to that, I had never attempted comedy!”
Academy Award-winning movie star Christopher Walken spent many of his early years treading the boards at Off-Broadway establishments like the Public Theater and Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse. The eccentric character actor made his off-Broadway debut in the cheerful musical Best Foot Forward, starring Liza Minnelli, in 1963 when he was only 20 years old. Walken's initial training was as a musical theatre performer, although he'd go on to play mostly dramatic roles. He also appeared in landmark Off-Broadway plays such as Hurlyburly and The House of Blue Leaves, and in new musicals, like Kid Champion at the Public, where he played a disturbed rock star.
Before he booked "Seinfeld" in 1989, Jason Alexander was a high-spirited, acclaimed musical theatre actor. The early 1980s found Alexander Off-Broadway in the very first edition of Forbidden Broadway and the bouncy musical revue, Personals. There was also the Theatre in the Park production of Stop The World, I Want To Get Off, where Backstage reviewed 25-year-old Alexander: "Jason Alexander's performance of 'What Kind of Fool Am I?' stands the hair up on the back of your neck. Still, Alexander has kept one foot in theatre with projects like the television movies of Bye Bye Birdie and Cinderella and a recent Broadway return replacing Larry David in Fish in the Dark.
Midler technically appeared on Broadway before making her Off-Broadway debut, but Off-Broadway is where she really got to shine. Midler first debuted on Broadway in the ensemble of Fiddler of the Roof in 1966, at the age of only 20. (She later graduated to the role of Tzeitel.) In 1970, at the age of 24, she moved to the hottest Off-Broadway musical in town when she played Betty Lou in Salvation at the Jan Hus Playhouse on the Upper East Side. Her big number, "In Between", found her belting the lyric:
"You/I wanted you/In the morning/And over again/
You/ I wanted you/In the evening/ And over again/
And in between/And in between/And in between/ I wanted all your friends."
This risqué persona suited her well. Soon after, she would make a name for herself singing in concerts and nightclubs, before being catapulted to recording and Hollywood fame.