A History of Writers Performing in Their Own Musicals

Aaron Netsky

In just a few weeks, the musical Hamilton will begin previews at the Richard Rogers Theatre on Broadway. Hamilton features a book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and stars Miranda as the title character, Alexander Hamilton. If audience members experience some déjà vu at performances of Hamilton, it’s probably because they were fortunate enough to witness Miranda performing in the central role of Usnavi in In the Heights, at the Richard Rogers Theatre, also a product of Miranda’s own creative juices (with a book by playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes). Miranda does it all, and fortunately for us as well as him, he’s quite good at it all. Not every musical features a performance by one of its own creators, in fact very few do.

First off, off-Broadway’s reining champion, The Fantasticks. It first opened on May 3rd, 1960, and has boasted such performers as Jerry Orbach, Kristen Chenoweth, Liza Minelli, and Glenn Close. Even the show’s producer Lore Noto did a stint as The Boy’s Father, Hucklebee, but when it opened, librettist Tom Jones, under an assumed name, played the Old Actor, Henry. Later in the sixties, Anthony Newley collaborated on two musicals with Leslie Bricusse, Stop the World – I want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, and directed and starred in both on Broadway.

Hamilton

Hamilton

From the seventies, and even to this day, there is really only one Riff Raff, and that is Rocky Horror Show composer/lyricist/librettist Richard O’Brien, who, alongside the iconic Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter, starred in the original West End and Broadway productions, and in the film. In 1998, long before Neil Patrick Harris revived the role last year on Broadway, the lead in Hedwig and the Angry Inch was originally played off-Broadway by John Cameron Mitchell, the show’s book writer. Mitchell also directed and starred in the film version, and was recently among the actors who succeeded Harris in the Broadway revival.

Writers appearing in their own musicals became a lot more common post 2000, partly because those writers were also performers themselves. When Boy George’s musical, Taboo, came to Broadway in 2003, George himself, who wrote an original score complimented by a few old hits, played Leigh Bowery, perhaps the most flamboyant character in a show full of “characters” from the eighties, while a young Boy George was played by Euan Morton. In 2008, Stew narrated his musical Passing Strange, about a young rock musician searching for the true artist’s lifestyle. Billy Joe Armstrong played St. Jimmy at different times throughout the Broadway run of American Idiot, based on one of his band Green Day’s albums. Sting, who wrote the score for the musical The Last Ship, which was based on memories of the town he grew up in, stepped into the role of Jackie White toward the end of that musical’s Broadway run.

It is only fitting that, since The Drowsy Chaperone started out as a bunch of Bob Martin’s friends parodying some of the more ridiculous traditions of musical comedy at a party thrown for him, he would eventually help write and star in the musical that came out of those experiments. He played a man who hates going outside but loves musicals so much that when he shares his love with an audience, and plays his favorite cast recording, they come alive around him. That show opened on Broadway in 2006.

Harvey Fierstein has long been a prolific writer and performer, winning his first two Tony Awards for writing and starring in Torch Song Trilogy. In 2007, he wrote the book for the musical A Catered Affair, and played the “bachelor” Uncle Winston. In the movie the musical was based on, the uncle was ostracized for being a drunk, but on Broadway he was re-made to demonstrate attitudes toward gays in the 1950s. Fierstein has also written the books of other musicals, and though A Catered Affair was the first of his own that he himself starred in, toward the end of the Broadway run of the most recent revival of La Cage Aux Folles, Fierstein stepped into the role of the drag performer, Albin. At the time, Fierstein remarked that, while he seemed an obvious choice for that role, he had written the show seeing it more from Georges’s point of view.

So it is getting more common. One wonders if Lin-Manuel Miranda will ever write a show he, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to be in. Then again, why mess with a working formula? If no one else is writing the shows you want to be in, write them yourself. An acting teacher once told Robert Creighton that he bore a resemblance to James Cagney, so what did Creighton do? He wrote a musical about the life of Cagney, and it was recently produced by the York Theatre Company in New York City with Creighton playing Cagney. Writers have long written shows with specific performers in mind; think Ethel Merman, her musicals, and then a bunch of other musicals written around her time that she wasn’t in but seem to have been written for her. More and more, the performer in mind for the role is the person writing the show.

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog. Only a month in, so still plenty of time to catch up and follow along. Visit it at http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com.

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