Lin-Manuel Miranda might be the closest thing the arts industry has to a Renaissance man. While still without an Oscar, the Hamilton writer/composer/singer/actor has the Emmy, Grammy, and Tony (and MacArthur and Pulitzer to boot) and is moving from one high-profile project to the next. Before he steps back into the role of everyone’s favourite Federalist in the new Puerto Rico production, Miranda can be seen on cinema screens as Jack – the chimneysweep with the so-bad-it’s-wonderful Cockney accent – in Mary Poppins Returns. It is not Miranda’s first time acting on screen (check out bit parts in television’s The Sopranos, House, and How I Met Your Mother), but second billing behind Emily Blunt – not to mention filling Dick Van Dyke’s sizeable shoes – is no inconsequential position.
With this star debut on the horizon, it is time to celebrate some of the most notable performers who have become strongly associated with films – whether in a single iconic performance or a wide and varied range of roles – after debuting on the stage.
The Shakespearian: Ben Whishaw
Q, Paddington, and Miranda’s Mary Poppins co-star emerged onto the scene at 23 as the Old Vic’s youngest-ever Hamlet. The recent drama school graduate’s “raw and vulnerable” debut was universally feted by critics and audiences, garnering several awards nominations, including an Olivier nod. This was not his first ever stage or film role, but the high profile and sensational nature of the performance fast-tracked his ascendancy to fame.
The same year as Hamlet, Whishaw had a strong supporting role in Layer Cake, directed by Matthew Vaughn and starring his soon-to-be-Bond Daniel Craig. Indie success in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Brideshead Revisited, I’m Not There, Bright Star, Lilting, and The Lobster followed. His prickly, anguished Frobisher is a bright spot in the uneven Cloud Atlas adaptation. There are not many blockbusters on his CV aside from the 007 franchise and everyone’s favourite talking bear, but his career has been characterised by great nuance and range: he is equally convincing as a delicate poet and an unhinged man hellbent on finding a partner.
Many actors can claim the leap from Shakespearian stage acting to film stardom, including Ian McKellen, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, and Judi Dench; these careers have also been characterised by continual appearances on both stage and screen (Whishaw himself has been back on the West End consistently throughout the past decade). The Mary Poppins Returns star has, however, been singled out due to his versatility – while defined by an auspicious stage debut and skilful Shakespearian interpretation, he has moved beyond and between genres with ease.
The Icon: Julie Andrews
Before she became the original magic nanny, the English singer and actor was a West End sensation – making her first professional debut at the age of 12 and becoming the youngest ever solo performer in the Royal Command Variety Performance. In her 20s, she originated the roles of Eliza Doolitle in My Fair Lady and Guinevere in Camelot, both on Broadway. However, she was turned down for the role she created when My Fair Lady was adapted for film in 1964 – the Warner Bros. producers felt she lacked the necessary box office pull. A dubbed Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison (Andrews’ original onstage co-star) starred instead. Andrews, however, was cast in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins that same year, bringing her warm presence and golden voice to worldwide audiences. Andrews swept the awards that season – winning the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Actress – proving that Warner Bros. knew nothing of star power.
Andrews went on to star in The Sound of Music (which earned her another Oscar nomination, though not a win), Hawaii, Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Victor/Victoria (on stage and screen). Although a botched operation left her famous soprano – with which she preferred to sing “bright and sunny” songs – a shell of its former self, Andrews made an appropriately regal impression in the Princess Diaries franchise (her first Disney since Mary Poppins) and distinguished herself as a voiceover actress in the Shrek films, Enchanted, Despicable Me, and last week’s Aquaman.
The One-Hit Wonder: George Chakiris
The Greek-American actor was a true triple threat – singing, dancing, and acting his way from Los Angeles to London. His early screen appearances see him in dance ensembles behind Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas. On screen, however, he is best associated with West Side Story’s Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. He was cast after strong reviews from his performances with the original West End ensemble of Leonard Bernstein’s musical (where he played Riff, the leader of the rival Jets – the racial politics of this flexible casting says some damning things about Hollywood in the 1960s) and took seven months off this production to film the screen adaptation in New York and Los Angeles. He is the film’s only cast member to have sung all their own songs (Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn sang some and were dubbed in others, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood were almost exclusively dubbed).
Bernardo’s role was expanded on screen, providing a better balance between Jets and Sharks than in the stage version and showcasing Chakiris’ dance background. His Bernardo is prickly, suave, and always in control – acting as a more well-rounded foil to Tamblyn’s jovial Riff than is often seen in stage productions. After wrapping on set Chakiris returned to the West End and the Jets until flying back to Los Angeles for the Oscars ceremony, where he and his onscreen partner – the legendary Rita Moreno – won the Best Supporting Actor and Actress awards.
After the Oscars, Chakiris had a handful of small film and television roles but never found the same onscreen success as he had in Bernstein’s classic. His theatrical works – including the first US national tour of Stephen Sondheim’s Company – were another story, and he continued headlining theatrical productions until his retirement in 1996.
The New Arrival: Cynthia Erivo
Prior to 2018, the Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows actress had only been seen on stage – notably in The Color Purple on Broadway, where she won the Tony for Best Musical Actress in 2016 (she was the only musical theatre performer not appearing in Miranda’s Hamilton to win a Tony that year). She has made quite an impression in her debut film year with two electric performances, carrying the emotional heart of Drew Goddard’s neo-noir and balancing nerves of steel with a playful warmth in Steve McQueen’s heist thriller. The former film’s stroke of genius was casting her as a down-on-her-luck singer, necessitating several musical numbers that provide backstory, dramatic tension, and resolution as she navigates the shady worlds of her fellow motel guests.
Erivo will next be on cinema screens in Chaos Walking, a science fiction book adaptation starring Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, and Mads Mikkelsen, and then in a Harriet Tubman biopic scheduled for a 2019 awards season release. It can only be hoped that her thus-far explosive film career continues with the same success – perhaps Roxane Gay will get her dream casting for her North Country adaptation.