How Often Do Actors Go On to Write Musicals?

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: Jan. 14, 2024
How Often Do Actors Go On to Write Musicals?
Enter Your Email to Unlock This Article

Plus, get the best of BroadwayWorld delivered to your inbox, and unlimited access to our editorial content across the globe.

Existing user? Just click login.

Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This time, the reader question was: What is the history of theatre actors who later wrote musicals as well? 

With Gavin Creel’s Walk on Through having just made a splash off-Broadway, the question came up of how often someone who is known firstly as an actor also has musicals produced as a writer.

Of course, the arts and entertainment business is filled with multi-hyphenates, professionals who wear more than one hat. Many talented folks both perform and write, often specializing in performing their own work. Some of the most successful figures of the past decade on Broadway, from Lin-Manuel Miranda to Sara Bareilles, are known for both performing and writing. 

However, there is a unique subset of this multi-hyphenate group that includes artists that are primarily and initially known as actors, and who later in their career branch out to write musicals. (Of course there’s also the fact that many of these folks have been writing for years, but getting a musical produced is technically harder and takes longer than landing a job performing in one!) 

Gavin Creel’s Broadway career as an actor has contained a wide range of different roles and varying styles of music. From his Tony Award-winning turn as Cornelius in the classic Hello, Dolly! (2017) to his activism-fueled lovable take on Claude in Hair (2009) to his wickedly funny contemporary performance as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon (2015), Creel has shown many sides of himself to New York audiences over the past two decades. His charming Broadway debut, originating the role of Jimmy in Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002) won audiences over and he’s rarely left the spotlight since that time. 

Along the way, Creel released two albums featuring his writing, Goodtimenation (2006) and Get Out (2012). He has performed his own work as a writer, including the songs on those records. Walk on Through, currently being produced at MCC Theater, marks the first time a full-length work by Creel has been theatrically produced in New York City. The show, about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was originally commissioned by the Met.

How Often Do Actors Go On to Write Musicals?
Scene from Walk on Through. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Rewinding to an earlier era in theatre, Martin Charnin started out as a Broadway performer in the 1950s. He appeared in the original Broadway cast of West Side Story in 1957, originating the role of Big Deal and playing it for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway and beyond. Charnin racked up two more credits as a Broadway performer before his career transitioned into being known as a writer of musicals. 

His first Broadway writing credit was as lyricist of the troubled 1963 Judy Holliday-led musical Hot Spot. (The show is largely forgotten now, other than the opening number that Stephen Sondheim ghost wrote as a favor to composer Mary Rodgers, “Don’t Laugh”.) Charnin followed this with several other high profile projects, including Two By Two (1970) a collaboration with Richard Rodgers, that all yielded disappointing results. But then, in 1977, Charnin was one of the major forces, as director and lyricist, behind Annie. The game-changing hit musical that has now been an audience favorite and a touchstone show for generations of young people, has now been one of the most popular American musical titles for over four decades. Charnin never returned to performing full-time in a production after he started writing on and off- Broadway. His career also included many notable revues, and he directed and wrote shows prolifically until his passing in 2019.

Another notable figure in theatre history who was well-known as a performer before their career took off as a writer was Micki Grant. Grant was an exceptional pioneer in musical theatre, who appeared on and off-Broadway in several shows in the 1960s, including Fly Blackbird, The Cradle Will Rock, and Tambourines to Glory, penned by Langston Hughes, a major influence on Grant. In 1966, Grant became the first Black actor to hold a contract role with a main storyline on a daytime soap, when she joined Another World. At the same time, she began achieving major success as a jingle writer for television. 

Although Grant’s acting career may have launched in a more visible way first, she was actually a published writer of both poetry and pop songs during her teenage years. Her major accolades as a writer came in 1972 when Grant wrote book, music and lyrics for Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, which she also starred in. She was the first woman to solely write all three of those elements for one Broadway musical. The show won a slew of awards and ran for over 1,000 performances on Broadway, a very significant milestone at the time. Grant followed her hit song cycle about the Black experience in America with many other musicals she penned or contributed writing to, including Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, Working, I’m Laughing, But I Ain’t Tickled, and It’s So Nice To Be Civilized.

How Often Do Actors Go On to Write Musicals?
Scene from Everyday Rapture. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

In more recent years, revered Broadway actor Sherie Rene Scott has made several forays into writing. Scott’s career on and off-Broadway has included originating leading roles in Aida, The Last 5 Years, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Little Mermaid, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and she is well known for her perceptive, finely tuned acting choices and killer vocal performances. 

In 2008, Scott premiered a semi-autobiographical show called You May Now Worship Me, co-written with Dick Scanlan, to much acclaim. The musical, including existing songs reflecting on Scott’s early life in Kansas and later years in New York City, was later expanded into the musical Everyday Rapture, featuring Scott and three other cast members. The show played off-Broadway in 2009 before transferring to Broadway. Also with Scanlan, Scott wrote the critically praised off-Broadway play Whorl Inside A Loop. Her other writing work includes several original cabarets.

Those are just a few examples of artists who were well known as performers before their professional New York debuts as musical theatre writers. With all of the current emphasis on multi-hyphenates in the theatre industry, we will certainly see more in the next decade.