There have been so very many reasons to tune in each week to “30 Rock,’’ but for theater fans the show has offered a special treat: the chance to see some familiar Broadway faces.
Tina Fey’s NBC sitcom has tapped into the energy of the city where it’s set by casting guest roles with some of the leading lights of the stage — an organic fit for a New York TV show about a New York TV show that’s also about the theater.
“I have a degree in theater tech with a minor in movement,’’ we’ve heard Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, lament. “Why did my parents let me do that?’’ The show abounds in that kind of inside joke or throwaway theater allusion: Liz typing away in her office, say, while delivering an off-key rendition of “Maybe,’’ from “Annie.’’
Theater occupies a niche rather than commanding a mass audience, which frees it up to take more chances. The same is true of “30 Rock.’’ While many of the guest stars came from Broadway, “30 Rock’’ has often felt like television’s version of an off-Broadway show, albeit one with the cultural reach to increase the visibility of some wonderfully gifted actors and singers.
Take Elaine Stritch, who got the late-career boost of any performer’s dreams. Though a legendary figure in theater circles, Stritch was less familiar to TV audiences — at least before the foghorn-voiced octogenarian barreled onto “30 Rock’’ as the crusty, politically incorrect, impossible-to-impress mother of Boston-born NBC executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin).
Leveling barbs at her son and anyone else who crossed her path, Colleen Donaghy displayed a theatrical insouciance that seemed to belong to an earlier era. “You’re going to have to work your backside,’’ Colleen advised Jack’s future wife, Avery Jessup (played by Pittsfield’s Elizabeth Banks). “Because chest-wise, you have the measurements of an altar boy.’’ Yet Stritch’s Colleen had a twinkle in her eye even at her gruffest, drawing on the persona the actress has constructed over six decades of performances on Broadway stages, including her immortal rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch’’ in the 1970 production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.’’
Another member of Jack Donaghy’s family, his ne’er-do-well brother Eddie, was played by two-
time Tony Award winner Nathan Lane (“The Producers,’’ “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’’). Lane’s performance gave TV audiences a taste of the panache that has made him one of Broadway’s most bankable stars, along with a glimpse at two of the hardest-working eyebrows in show business. On “30 Rock,’’ the grifting Eddie falsely told Jack that their father was dead. That it was part of a scam became obvious when their dad showed up — played by yet another member of the Broadway tribe, Brian Murray.
That’s not to say, however, that the writers on “30 Rock’’ always knew what to do with Broadway’s finest once they were cast. It was borderline criminal how the show wasted Patti LuPone, also a double Tony winner (for “Evita’’ and “Gypsy’’), who popped up now and again as Sylvia, the uber-Italian mother of writer and human refuse heap Frank Rossitano (Judah Friedlander). When you’ve got a performer of LuPone’s charisma and talent, why confine her to the kind of stereotypical “That’s my boy’’ cheek-pinching that any ham-and-egger with a SAG card could do?
More often, though, the guest stints by Broadway actors were memorable — or even a bit meta, in the case of Nina Arianda.
Arianda won a Tony last year for her extraordinary performance as Vanda, a young actress who turns the tables on a full-of-himself director in David Ives’s “Venus in Fur.’’ This season on “30 Rock,’’ Arianda played Zarina, Jack’s new, and much younger, girlfriend. She was mere arm candy, just one of numerous women Jack was seeing — each of them slotted into a particular category by him — until Zarina suddenly upset the power balance. During an encounter on the street, Jack learned that she, too, was enthusiastically playing the field (using Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte as her “sex idiot’’). Not only that, Zarina had Jack slotted into the none-too-flattering category of older father figure.
The guest stint by Cristin Milioti, on the other hand, could not have been more different from the doleful Czech she has since portrayed in the Tony-winning musical “Once.’’ On “30 Rock,’’ Milioti threw herself deliriously into the part of Abby Flynn, a comedy writer whom Liz Lemon hired to add a feminist voice to “TGS,’’ the show within the show. To Liz’s consternation, Abby turned out to be a hot-pants-wearing, baby-voiced sexpot who liked nothing better than to bounce on a trampoline in the office while the men ogled her.
Theater just seems to be in the show’s DNA. Even Baldwin, the big-name movie star who made the best career move of his life by agreeing to costar on “30 Rock,’’ is no stranger to the Broadway stage. He delivered an acclaimed performance two decades ago as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire,’’ and is slated to return this spring in Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans,’’ playing a kidnapped mobster.
But the series regular who really brought the Broadway vibe was Jane Krakowski as hall-of-fame head case Jenna Maroney.
The actress has extensive musical-theater credits that include an appearance on Broadway in “Starlight Express’’ when she was 18, as well as roles in revivals of “Nine,’’ for which she won a Tony, and “Company.” (While we’re on the subject, can someone explain how on earth Krakowski has not won an Emmy for her consistently brilliant work on “30 Rock’’?) Her Jenna was forever busting out in song, Merman-style, on the slightest pretext.
How did “30 Rock’’ love Broadway? Let us continue to count the ways. One of Liz’s boyfriends, a hunky actor named Danny with whom Jack develops a bromance, was portrayed by Cheyenne Jackson, a star of such musicals as “All Shook Up’’ and “Xanadu.’’ Liz’s endearingly clueless mother was played by Anita Gillette, who has a significant Broadway background, dating to the original production of “Gypsy.” Buck Henry, who played Liz’s dad, has been on Broadway a couple of times, too, most recently in “Morning’s at Seven” in 2002.
Matthew Broderick, who costarred with Lane in “The Producers’’ and is currently appearing in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,’’ launched his career in part as a Neil Simon regular on Broadway in the ’80s. He exploited his nebbishy image to the hilt on “30 Rock’’ as the hapless Cooter Burger, an employee of the Department of Homeland Security who desperately wanted Jack to be his friend. Rip Torn, who played GE chairman Don Geiss on “30 Rock,’’ is probably best known for film roles and his work on “The Larry Sanders Show,’’ but he has also performed many times on Broadway, where his earliest credit was as a replacement, playing Brick in the original “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
And Roger Bart, who won a Tony Award for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’’ and starred in “Young Frankenstein’’ on Broadway — as well as in the touring production that came to Boston three years ago — gave an utterly hilarious performance on “30 Rock’’ as a ruthless network budget-cutter who is revealed to be a blubbering emotional wreck.
Performing on Broadway is the kind of experience that makes you adept at scene-stealing. If you doubted it, you needed only to watch Tituss Burgess, a veteran of Broadway musicals who played D’Fwan on “30 Rock.’’ A hairdresser who spoke of himself in the third person and of everyone else with disdain, D’Fwan was part of the entourage surrounding Angie, Tracy Jordan’s wife, when she landed the starring part in a Bravo-style reality TV show. Burgess swiped every scene he was in — no mean feat against Sherri Shepherd’s Angie.
This season, the emcee of an awards luncheon, where Liz Lemon was among the honorees, was played by the one and only Andrea Martin. While Martin became well-known on “SCTV,’’ her origins are in theater, and that is where she has spent much of her career, including a just-ended stint at the American Repertory Theater in “Pippin.’’ In March, Martin will head with that production to Broadway, a place that knows her well from her Tony-winning performance in “My Favorite Year’’ as well as her work in “Young Frankenstein,’’ “Oklahoma!,’’ and “Fiddler on the Roof.’’
Her character on “30 Rock’’ was a quavering bundle of neuroses, unable to stop talking about her ex, who dumped her for another woman, or about her carpal tunnel syndrome. Maybe it doesn’t sound funny, but Martin made it hilarious. She only had a few lines in the episode, but she’s the one you remember. Like so many of the stage actors who added to the luster of “30 Rock,’’ she knew how to make a lot of a little. Just can’t beat that Broadway training.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.