The easiest way for a celebrity to worm their way into my heart forever?
When they use their fame to boost the national (global?) profile of live theater.
The conventional manner to go about this is by gracing the Great White Way (or off!) with their attention-garnering presence.
But a rare — and holy! — breed accomplish the opposite: they bring live theater to a national (and global!) audience.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is one such ambassador — perhaps THE ambassador — of his generation, but an older head is getting into the game of late in a big bad way.
Or, should I say, he’s returning to the game of his youth in a wicked way.
Because something wicked this way comes.
A fledgling Denzel Washington began his career on the boards many moons ago, and A Soldier’s Story‘s journey from stage to Best-Picture-nominated screen catapulted him onto a trajectory that hasn’t slowed nor descended since. While he periodically ventured back to the land of on-screen theater with the likes of 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branagh is one of the gold standards for the sort of theater-turned-film-turned-theater maestros I’m honoring here), for much of his career, Denzel focused predominantly on building his brand of cool (and his bank account); theater is many things, but cool is rarely considered one of them (as for its profitability…the less said, the better).
(Which reminds me of an answer Michael B. Jordan gave when asked if he’d ever sojourn on Broadway: “Down the line. But right now, I want to take care of my family financially and grow my production company.” We waiting for you, Mikey!).
Since 2005, Denzel’s stopped by Broadway once every five or so years. The major shift occurred in 2016; six years after starring in it on Broadway, Denzel used his decades-worth of clout to bring Fences to the silver screen. Though it’s one of the most produced plays annually, Denzel probably brought more eyeballs to August Wilson’s masterwork than all of those revivals combined.
In other words, Denzel was doing the lord’s work.
Oooooooh but he wasn’t done yet! Far from it. In fact, he was only getting going.
Building off the success of Fences, Denzel has seemingly partnered with Netflix to produce the nine other plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle (which is one of the greatest large-scale achievements in the history of…well, I was about to write “of drama”, but “of everything” might be truer). First up — or, I guess, second up — was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and next will be The Piano Lesson.
And our god and savior Denzel is taking it a step further: The Piano Lesson will start on Broadway with Samuel L. Jackson (you may have heard of him), Danielle Brooks, and John David Washington (Denzel may have heard of him), and then the exact same cast will film the movie (I’ve had an article cooking for a while now about how money-in-need live theater and product-insatiable streamers make smart bedfellows; two pieces of content — and two revenue streams — through the funding of one!).
It would be understandable if Denzel rested on these laudable laurels here. But no! Along comes Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, with Denzel in the titular role, and Frances McDormand as his Lady.
And then there’s possibly my single favorite example of Denzel going out of his way to school the masses on all things theater, even the minutiae. Midway through A Journal for Jordan, his latest directorial outing (a slipstream with Apple’s buzzier Macbeth??), a character tours an NYC-newbie around the city. They stroll past the landmark Cherry Lane Theater (the story of off-Broadway cannot be told without it), and out of freaking nowhere, the New Yorker explains the difference between Broadway, off, and off-off.
In my experience, the vast majority of human beings are unaware that theatre size defines the distinguishing feature between the terms. As such, literally anyone watching A Journal for Jordon will walk away with deeper knowledge of live theater.
Which appears to be the modus operandi of Denzel’s career lately.
And, for that, I will always, eternally adore him.