The Surprising Musical Theatre Pasts of Your Favorite Movie and TV Actors


I saw Matilda: The Musical on Broadway recently, and it was overwhelming. The set and songs were captivating, of course, but what truly had me floored was the titanic force of the child actors — many of whom were navigating their very first decade of life. They sang with more passion than some trained adults, and danced with that particular type of high-octane energy only available to schoolchildren on a sugar rush. It was impossible not to feel like the audience was being treated to a sneak preview of tomorrow’s superstars.

Musical theatre has long been an incubator for fledgling triple-threats. Many familiar faces on movies and TV got their start with The Broadway Kids, for instance, a Menudo-style rotating group of child Broadway actors that released a few showtunes CDs in the late ’90s and early 2000s. (Think Kidz Bop for baby musical theatre geeks, but with actual talent.)

So in this spirit, we present early performances by stars who, unbeknownst to their audiences, would later sing and dance their little selves onto screens everywhere.

Jesse Eisenberg

Jesse Eisenberg, perhaps The Broadway Kids’ most prominent alumnus, sang the part of Bye Bye Birdie‘s Harvey Johnson in this recording, the pubescent nerd who can’t get a prom date. Eisenberg, while a respected actor, is still continually typecast as a persistent geek… could this be why? (ALL Hollywood casting directors listened to The Broadway Kids, I promise.)

Kristen Bell

Can you imagine Veronica Mars earnestly belting show tunes onstage? Neither could we, until we saw this video of Kristen Bell playing Becky Thatcher in a performance from Tom Sawyer — a role she dropped out of NYU to take. (We shouldn’t have been surprised, then, by her amazing vocal talent in Frozen.)

Lea Michele

Obviously this one isn’t a surprise: if you’re a fan of Michele, you know she originated the role of Wendla in Spring Awakening. But long before that, she had another major part that often serves as a launching pad for future stars: Young Cosette in Les Misérables. Here she is at age nine, Rachel Berry bangs and all, singing “Castle on a Cloud.”

Sarah Jessica Parker

Before she innovated shoe storage in Manhattan apartments, Sarah Jessica Parker earned her fame playing another famous curly-haired New Yorker in Annie. Watch her describe getting the role above, then reprising one of her songs a few years later below. And yes, she looks exactly the same.

Natalie Portman

This video made the rounds a while back, but it’s always worth revisiting. Here’s a 15-year-old Natalie Portman performing in a summer camp production of Cabaret. That camp, by the way, was Stagedoor Manor, another famous breeding ground for young stars.

Christian Bale

Christian Bale has played more than a few notorious New Yorkers: Bruce Wayne and Patrick Bateman, to name a couple. But by far, the one that dances through our memory with the most rugged panache is Jack “Cowboy” Kelly from Newsies. (Fun fact: I rented Newsies so much as a child that the guy from Blockbuster told my mom to pretend we lost it and just keep the DVD.)

Jenna Ushkowitz

Glee showrunner Ryan Murphy might be the biggest fan of Spring Awakening out there. He pulled Lea Michele and countless Glee guest stars from the original cast, as well as understudy Jenna Ushkowitz (AKA Tina Cohen-Chang). Ushkowitz, also a former Broadway Kid, was featured in their version of “Bigger Isn’t Better” from Barnum. And as a bonus, here she is with the cast of Spring Awakening singing songs from Grease. (It’s all coming together!)

Anna Kendrick

Before inspiring thousands of YouTube “Cups” covers in Pitch Perfect, Anna Kendrick was nominated for a Tony award in 1998 for her portrayal of Dinah in the Broadway musical High Society. Here she is singing “Life Upon The Wicked Stage” with The Kit Kat Girls from Cabaret.

Lacey Chabert

It turns out one of the secrets hiding in Gretchen Wieners’s hair was her past life as a Broadway Kid. Feast your ears on Lacey Chabert’s recording of “The Girl I Mean To Be” from The Secret Garden.

Nick Jonas

Nick Jonas has spent most of his life as a famous singing child, but unlike many of his peers, he actually has the Broadway résumé to support his talent. Here he is at age 11 playing Gavroche in Les Misérables. Unfortunately, his Broadway attempts after Jonas Brothers fame have been less than successful: ironically, his run as the lead in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying ended in early closure due to poor ticket sales.