Five years ago, as he prepared to host the Tony Awards, CBS’s James Corden played host to a mini-galaxy of theater and TV stars in the “Carpool Karaoke’' segment of his late-night show.
Aboard Corden’s vehicle were six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, whose stints on TV have included “Private Practice” and “The Good Fight”; Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of “In the Heights” and a little show called “Hamilton”; Jane Krakowski of “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”; and Jesse Tyler Ferguson of “Modern Family.”
At that moment, Krakowski and Ferguson were each performing on Broadway — Krakowski in “She Loves Me,” Ferguson in “Fully Committed” — a fact to which Corden oh-so-casually called attention. “Jane and you, Jesse, you both have TV shows, but you’re both appearing on Broadway right now,” Corden said. “Which do you prefer: Theater or money?”
All four actors laughed heartily, and knowingly. (Corden had the bona fides to make that inside joke: Before being named host of “The Late Late Show,” he appeared on Broadway in “One Man, Two Guvnors.”) Lighthearted though it was, the exchange underscored that age-old dilemma: How you gonna keep ‘em down on the stage once they’ve seen those fat television paychecks?
You can’t, usually. And frankly it’s hard to blame any performer for jumping at the chance for a lucrative sojourn on the small screen, given how precarious a livelihood acting can be.
But it’s also hard for theater aficionados not to feel at least a little miffed at how often the temptations of television short-circuit, or at least interrupt, a shining stage career smack in the middle of a performer’s prime. This nettlesome reality was driven home for me again when it was announced recently that this will be the final season of “Younger,” a TV Land series starring Sutton Foster as a 40-ish divorcee who lands a job in publishing by pretending to be a twentysomething.
There was a time, and a pretty long time it was, when no musical star shone brighter on Broadway, or more frequently, than Sutton Foster. But playing a lead role in a TV show comes with all-consuming time commitments. Her last Broadway show was seven years ago.
Contrast that with the pace Foster set in the decade before that. From 2002, when she embarked on a two-year run in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” that vaulted her into the ranks of headliners, to 2014, when she played the title character in “Violet,” Foster performed in seven Broadway shows. The others were “Little Women” (2005), “The Drowsy Chaperone” (2006-07), “Young Frankenstein” (2007-08), “Shrek the Musical” (2008-10), and “Anything Goes” (2011-12).
Then television came calling, with Foster landing the lead role in ABC Family’s “Bunheads” (2012-13) as a former ballerina and Las Vegas showgirl who teaches aspiring young dancers in a small-town ballet school. After “Bunheads” was canceled, Foster returned to Broadway for “Violet,” demonstrating a depth as the disfigured title figure that no previous role had allowed her to show.
Then, in 2015, came another shot at TV: “Younger.” This time, Foster’s foray into television proved to be a lasting one. Her buoyant presence was largely confined to the small screen for a far-too-protracted period. However, mirabile dictu, Foster will return to the stage this winter. She is slated to portray Marian Paroo opposite Hugh Jackman’s Harold Hill in “The Music Man” at the Winter Garden Theatre.
To which the Broadway-loving theatergoer can only say: Welcome back, Sutton — and don’t stay away so long next time.