STAGE TO SCREENS: A 2011-12 TV Season Packed With Stage Stars

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: A 2011-12 TV Season Packed With Stage Stars
Your favorite theatre stars — Laura Benanti, Patrick Wilson, Katie Finneran, Mandy Patinkin, Cherry Jones and more — will appear in TV shows this fall and winter. Here's a tube tour.

Megan Hilty in
Megan Hilty in "Smash." Photo by Will Hart/NBC


TV fans are filled with anticipation for Ashton Kutcher tag-teaming up with "Two and a Half Men" in the wake of Charlie Sheen's public meltdown and dismissal, Simon Cowell's relaunch into primetime with the hot new singing competition show "The X Factor," and the unveiling of hyped new series like "Terra Nova" and "Person of Interest." But for theatre lovers and Broadway babies, the most breathlessly awaited show of the season — indeed, the most anticipated series since "Glee" sang its way into our hearts in 2009 — is the upcoming NBC drama Smash. But fans will have to wait just a little bit longer. The series won't debut until midseason, in early February.

A backstage drama about the making of a Broadway musical (this one centered on the life of Marilyn Monroe), "Smash" features a slew of veteran talent from the Broadway and New York theatre scenes. Focusing on the dreamers and schemers striving to land their big break on the Great White Way, the series centers on the successful songwriting duo of Tom (played by Tony Award nominee Christian Borle, Legally Blonde: The Musical, Signature's Angels in America) and Julia (Emmy Award winner Debra Messing from "Will & Grace"), who set out to write a musical based on the life of Marilyn. Julia recently began the process of adopting a child with her husband of many years, Frank (beloved Broadway regular Brian d'Arcy James). But her focus is torn when she has the opportunity to write another Broadway show. Meanwhile, a classic rivalry story forms as two actresses square off for the lead — there's the youthful, inexperienced Midwestern beauty Karen (Katharine McPhee, "American Idol") — who yearns to see her name lit up on a Broadway marquee — and stage veteran Ivy Bell (Megan Hilty, 9 to 5: The Musical, Wicked), who wants to shed her chorus-girl identity and finally land her big break. The series stemmed from an idea by Steven Spielberg, who executive produces, but there's a raft of Broadway and theatre creatives behind the scenes. The pilot was written by acclaimed playwright/screenwriter Theresa Rebeck (Mauritius, plus this fall's Seminar and Broadway and Poor Behavior at Mark Taper Forum), who will serve as the show's creator, head writer and co-executive producer. Original songs for the series are written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the Tony Award-winning musical team behind Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can. Spring Awakening and American Idiot director Michael Mayer directed the pilot. And Hollywood mega-producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who helmed the big screen treatments of Chicago and Hairspray, serve as executive producers. And if "Smash" is a success, no doubt the show will be serving as a steady employment haven for New York theatre types for years to come.

While "Smash" is getting all the hype in theatre circles, there are plenty of other places to catch beloved stars of the Broadway stage making new transitions to TV this season or returning to the medium after previous stints.

BD Wong in "Awake."
photo by Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Cherry Jones, a longtime Broadway regular who captured a Tony for playing the stridently certain nun in John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize winning Doubt, and BD Wong, who scored a Tony for his Broadway debut in M. Butterfly, return to television in the new and daring new NBC drama, Awake, which premieres midseason. The envelope-pushing series revolves around Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) and the parallel lives he appears to be toggling between. Regaining consciousness after a major car accident, Britten finds his world shattered when he learns that his wife Hannah perished but that his teenage son, Rex, has survived. As he tries to pick up the pieces of his life, he awakens again in a parallel reality in which his wife is very much alive, but his son Rex is dead from the car accident. In order to keep both of his loved ones alive, he begins living two dueling realities in parallel worlds — a delicate psychological tap dance that finds Britten torn in two, psychologically, and increasingly uncertain of his own sanity. Jones, who played President Allison Taylor for the last two season's of "24," and Wong, perhaps best known for his longtime role as resident forensic psychiatrist and criminal profiler Dr. George Huang on "Law & Order: SVU," will play Britten's therapists in each respective world. It's to them that he confides his secret about his dual lives and shifting consciousness. Critics who have viewed the pilot have raved about it, so this one has serious hit potential.

Laura Benanti
photo by John Russo/NBC

With Pan Am (ABC) and The Playboy Club (NBC), the broadcast networks are trying to steal a page from cable and capture the swinging 1960s vibe of "Mad Men," AMC's Emmy-winning dramatic showcase, with its stylish sets and martini-swilling men in sleek suits, not to mention the sexist workplace environment and perverse air of male chauvinism providing disconcerting tension. The same dynamic, albeit less subtly handled, is in evidence in "The Playboy Club," which premieres Sept. 19 and airs Mondays at 10 PM ET. The show explores the seductive fantasy promised by Chicago's legendary Playboy Club in its early '60s heyday — a provocative time and place that challenged existing social mores and transformed American culture forever. Theatre fans will be thrilled to know that Tony Award-winner Laura Benanti, who wowed audiences with her transformation from demure Louise to the sultry and defiant Gypsy Rose Lee in the Patti LuPone-headlined Gypsy revival in 2008, stars in "The Playboy Club" as Carol-Lynne. A golden-voiced bombshell beauty who's the established star bunny at the Playboy Club, Benanti's character is striving to be more than just a pretty object of lust. Benanti was most recently seen on Broadway in the Lincoln Center productions of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play). Her character is dating Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), the ultimate playboy and one of the city's top attorneys — but sparks are flying between him and another bunny, so watch out!

Meanwhile, in "Pan Am," which premieres Sunday, Sept. 25 at 10 PM ET, the sexy, carefree allure of the Jet Age is the inspiration and backdrop for this new 1960s-set series centering on the crew members (including a quartet of flight attendants) on a transatlantic airliner. While the series co-stars former big screen ingenue Christina Ricci, one of the key roles is tasked to Kelli Garner, who most recently starred Off-Broadway as the young Nina in the Classic Stage Company's 2008 production of Chekhov's The Seagull alongside Dianne Wiest and Alan Cumming; and in Bert Royal's Dog Sees God Off-Broadway. In "Pan Am," Garner plays the free-spirited Kate — a flight attendant working on the same crew as her beauty-queen younger sister (a runaway bride who recently escaped a life of domestic boredom for a world of adventure). Kate helped Laura flee her parents and fiance's grip, and now her character's daring, resourcefulness and spunk will be put to the test as a secret in-air spy and CIA informant.

Patrick Wilson in "A Gifted Man."
photo by Heather Wines/CBS

Patrick Wilson, that hunky heartthrob of thinking men and women everywhere, has proven himself a leading man of the stage (The Full Monty, the 2002 revival of Oklahoma!, All My Sons in 2008) and screen ("Angels in America," "Little Children," "Watchmen"). Now he's set to tackle his first headlining role in a TV series. In A Gifted Man, which premieres Sept. 23 at 8 PM ET on CBS, Wilson's flawed hero, Michael Holt, sees dead people — well, one dead person specifically, his deceased ex-wife. The show centers around Wilson's abrasive workaholic surgeon (paging Dr. House!), whose life changes forever when his dead ex, Anna Paul, begins teaching him the meaning of life from the "hereafter." She spent years after their divorce caring for the poor at a free health clinic, while Holt made bank by running a concierge-style medical center for the super-rich, and she compels him to change his selfish ways. Wilson, who asked that the series be shot in New York, recruited a raft of veteran theatre actors for the show, including Jennifer Ehle (The King's Speech, The Coast of Utopia, The Real Thing, Macbeth) as his ex-wife; Pablo Schreiber as Anton, a shaman friend of Michael's sister who believes that Anna is a spirit; and guest stars like Bill Irwin and Marin Ireland.

Kristin Chenoweth in "G.C.B."
photo by Bill Matlock/ABC

After turning heads as Annabeth Schott on "The West Wing," Olive Snook on "Pushing Daisies," and a scene-stealing arc as the booze-soaked April Rhodes on "Glee," Kristin Chenoweth is once again back on the small screen in the midseason ABC ensemble comedy, G.C.B., as a Southern bitch (the creators' original language) with a milk-spitting whopper of a name — Carlene Cockburn. Chenoweth, of course, is that pint-sized wonder with the larynx of steel who's beloved by Broadway babies for originating the role of Glinda the Good Witch in Wicked. She was last seen on Broadway in Promises, Promises in 2010. Shortened from "Good Christian Bitches" (the book it's based on), or "Good Christian Belles" (depending on whether the Parents Television Council is screaming at you), "G.C.B." reads like a Southern religious spin on "Desperate Housewives," with a more wicked and pungent bite. This soapy new drama, from "Sex and the City" creator Darren Star, revolves around Amanda Vaughn, the ultimate high-school mean girl who's returned to her hometown in disgrace after her marriage ends in scandal. As her old classmates (including Chenoweth) reacquaint themselves with the "new" Amanda, the ladies alternate between sympathy and scheming while Amanda and her teenage kids try to adjust to their new lives. Will they welcome her with open arms or seek revenge?

As another entry in the "Someone Please Give this Theater Actress a TV Series" category, Chenoweth's co-star in Promises, Promises, Katie Finneran, co-headlines the new Fox series I Hate My Teenage Daughter, which premieres Nov. 30 at 9:30 PM ET. Finneran, who won supporting actress Tonys for Promises, Promises in 2010 and Noises Off in 2002, co-tars with former "My Name Is Earl" Emmy winner Jaime Pressley as single-mom BFFs — both former nerds — who fear that their spoiled and snotty daughters have spun out-of-control. Finneran plays Nikki, once an unpopular, overweight social pariah, now a pretty Southern belle, who allows her daughter to do as she pleases. The moms have given the girls everything: clothes, money, and an overabundance of self-esteem. The unintended consequence is that they've created a couple of mean-girl monsters just like the ones who tortured them years ago. A veteran New York theatre actress, Finneran virtually walked off with the show in two show-stopping scenes with Sean Hayes in Promises, Promises. As Marge MacDougall, the speech-slurring, boozy bar floozy, Finneran fluttered about in a feathery coat that she drunkenly claimed was "owl" and threw back glass after glass of hooch. The character is what the kids call a hot mess, and Finneran delivered a rip-roaring comic dynamo of a performance that won't soon be forgotten. We'll see if the actress can work that same kind of comic magic for the television cameras.

Stephen Lang in "Terra Nova."
photo by Michael Lavine/FOX

Perhaps the most hyped new TV series of the season is Fox's otherworldly dinosaur drama, Terra Nova, which premieres Sept. 26 at 8 PM ET. The epic adventure series follows the Shannon family as they are transported on a harrowing yet hopeful journey back in time to prehistoric Earth as a small part of a daring experiment to save the human race from extinction. It's the year 2149, and the Shannon family lives on a pollution-choked, overheating Earth that's bursting at the seams from overpopulation, with the majority of plant and animal life extinct. The future of mankind is in doubt, but a glimmer of hope emerges when scientists unexpectedly discover a fracture in the time-space continuum that makes it possible to construct a portal back to the past. The history-changing idea emerges to resettle humanity in the distant past — with a second chance to rebuild civilization. The Shannon family is chosen to embark on their journey as part of the Tenth Pilgrimage of settlers to Terra Nova, the first colony established in this idyllic yet dangerous world. The series stars longtime stage veteran Stephen Lang as Commander Nathaniel Taylor, the charismatic yet mysterious first pioneer and leader of the settlement. While he's perhaps best known for playing Colonel Miles Quaritch in "Avatar" and Stonewall Jackson in "Gods and Generals," Lang has a long and varied stage resume. He was the first actor to play the iconic role of A Few Good Men's Colonel Nathan Jessup, a character popularized by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 film, and he was nominated for a Tony Award in 1992 for his lead role in The Speed of Darkness. He played Happy in the 1984 revival of Death of a Salesman and the television movie adaptation with Dustin Hoffman. He was recently seen as Colonel Littlefield in John Patrick Shanley's Defiance, which ran Off-Broadway in 2006.

Michael Emerson in "Person of Interest."
photo by Eric Liebowitz/CBS

Theatre veteran Michael Emerson rocketed to stardom playing Benjamin Linus, one of TV's most deliciously diabolical and enigmatic villains on "Lost." This month, he returns to the small screen in JJ Abrams' new paranoia-soaked spin on the procedural drama, Person of Interest, which premieres Thursday, Sept. 22 at 9 PM ET on CBS. While Emerson may be a two-time Emmy winning TV star, he first got this start in the theatre, toiling for many years on small regional stages before making his way to New York. He most famously brought to life that flamboyant, epigram-tossing aesthete, Oscar Wilde, in the Obie-winning Off-Broadway drama Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde in the late '90s. His stage resume also includes George Tesman, the ineffectual, put-upon scholar and husband of the title anti-heroine in the Kate Burton-starring Hedda Gabler on Broadway in 2001; and the forlorn, perpetually inebriated Ivy League washout, Willie Oban, in the Kevin Spacey-starring The Iceman Cometh in 1999. In "Person of Interest," Emerson plays the mysterious Finch, an eccentric billionaire who uses a Big Brother-style surveillance project that he created for the U.S. government to single out individuals from security footage who may be likely to participate in violent crimes. Finch enlists the services of an ex-CIA agent (Jim Caviezel) to help him enact his own unique brand of vigilante justice. Emerson will no doubt be channeling aspects of the paranoid Machiavellian manipulator, Ben Linus, his character on "Lost."

Brían F. O'Byrne
photo by Gavin Bond/NBC

Four-time Tony award nominee Brían F. O'Byrne, who starred on the short-lived ABC series "FlashForward" in 2009-10 and in Showtime's "Brotherhood," makes another leap to the small screen in NBC's Prime Suspect. An American remake of the long-running, seminal British crime series of the same name, "Prime Suspect" premieres on Sept. 22 at 10 PM ET and stars Maria Bello in the role made famous by Helen Mirren in the U.K. original. Bello's character (Jane Tennison has become Jane Timoney in the U.S. adaptation) is a smart but abrasive female detective fighting to prove herself amongst a hostile sea of men in the NYPD homicide division. The Irish-born O'Byrne, who has been a staple on Broadway over the past decade and was seen in HBO's "Mildred Pierce" miniseries earlier this year, plays the squad's lead detective Reg Duffy, who clashes with Jane. The actor won a Tony for his haunting portrayal of a serial killer in Frozen in 2004, played the conflicted priest accused of child molestation in Doubt opposite Cherry Jones in 2005, and also earned Tony nominations for his roles in The Lonesome West, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Tom Stoppard's sprawling The Coast of Utopia trilogy. Dan Fogler, who rose to Broadway stardom as William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2005 and captured a Tony Award for his efforts, co-stars in the new ABC sitcom Man Up! The series, which premieres Oct. 18 at 8 PM ET, explores the challenges of finding your inner dude in a world where guys use pomegranate body wash and flavor their coffee with nondairy hazelnut creamer. This buddy comedy, about three men struggling with issues of masculinity, wants to conjure "The Hangover," but just winds up being a lumbering and charmless mess.

Kerry Washington
photo by Craig Sjodin/ABC

From the creators of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" (Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers) comes Scandal, a new ABC drama slated for midseason that revolves around a professional crisis manager and her dysfunctional staff. A former media relations consultant to the President of the United States, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, who made her Broadway debut in David Mamet's Race) dedicates her life to shielding and defending the public images of the nation's elite politicians and power-brokers in moments of turmoil. After she leaves the White House to open her own consulting firm, she's hoping for a fresh start — but she can't seem to sever her ties to her past gig. Tony Goldwyn — who was seen on Broadway in Promises, Promises, appeared in films like "Ghost," and directed last year's "Conviction" with Hilary Swank—portrays President Fitzgerald Grant. The longtime stage and screen character actor Jeff Perry, who co-founded Chicago's seminal Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1974, plays Cyrus — one of Pope's staff members. whose own lives can seem as tragically broken as the people they're trying to steer out of a crisis.

Famed theatre director and actor Terry Kinney, another Steppenwolf co-founder (along with Perry and Gary Sinise), will appear in the upcoming CBS midseason replacement show, The 2-2. The series, produced by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, follows a group of six diverse NYPD rookies as they patrol the gritty streets of the Big Apple. Kinney will play the rookie's demanding Field Training Officer, Daniel "Yoda" Dean — a hard-nosed, unsentimental veteran of the police force who emphasizes basics and holding cops accountable for their actions. Kinney is the noteworthy director of such Steppenwolf-Broadway productions as A Streetcar Named Desire and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, both starring Gary Sinise (in 1997 and 2000, respectively). He recently directed Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty on Broadway in 2009. Actor Stark Sands plays one of the rookies, Kenny McClaren, a fourth-generation cop displaying sharp instincts but plagued by lingering doubts about joining the force. Sands is known to Broadway audiences for his sensitive, heartbreaking turns as Lieutenant Raleigh in the 2007 production of Journey's End (for which he earned a Tony nod) and as the emotionally and physically scarred Iraq War vet Tunny in American Idiot. In 2009, he brought to life the mythical outlaw Clyde Barrow in the musical adaptation of Bonnie & Clyde at the La Jolla Playhouse. His breakthrough film role came as the compulsive, gay son of fading diva Angela Arden in Charles Busch's silver screen satire, "Die, Mommie, Die!"

Mandy Patinkin in "Homeland."
photo by Kent Smith/SHOWTIME

Tony and Emmy award-winning actor Mandy Patinkin may be teaming up with his former Evita co-star later this fall for a two-month Broadway run of An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, but theatre fans can catch the silver-voiced singer-actor on TV in the glossy new Showtime thriller, Homeland, debuting Oct. 2 at 10 PM ET. Starring Claire Danes (who made her Broadway debut as Eliza in Roudabout's Pygmalion) as a live-wire CIA agent Carrie Mathison, the series centers on her efforts to expose the truth about an MIA marine POW who's returned home to the U.S. as a hero after eight years in captivity abroad. But his story doesn't add up, and Mathison receives a tip that Brody may have been turned against his country and is now working for Al Qaeda. A dangerous game of cat and mouse ensues. Patinkin plays Carrie's longtime mentor, Saul Berenson, the CIA's Middle East Division Chief emeritus who still has considerable sway within the agency. Carrie enlists his help in the case, but using questionable investigative methods, she may land them both on the hot seat.

And for all you Gleeks out there, we have some scoop on season three involving beloved Broadway belter Idina Menzel. She will return to the series for as many as 12 episodes as Shelby Corcoran, Rachel's biological mother, who adopted Quinn's baby daughter, Beth, at the end of season one. Menzel, who originated the role of Elphaba in Wicked, begins her story arc in episode two (Sept. 27) when she lands a job as a teacher at McKinley High. Her juicy storyline reportedly revolves around Quinn. But will she also try to bond with her own daughter, Rachel (Lea Michele), as Ms. Berry embarks on her senior year in high school? Christopher Wallenberg is a freelance arts and entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. He's a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe, Playbill and American Theatre magazines.

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