LOS ANGELES – If Emma Stone sees Oscar gold Sunday, she will become the first leading actress in a musical to win since Liza Minnelli for 1972’s “Cabaret.”
But the “La La Land” star’s expected victory would follow a recent pattern of the Academy Awards celebrating actresses who can do more than just act. Natalie Portman pirouetted her way to the podium for “Black Swan.” Marion Cotillard may have lip-synced her vocals in “La Vie en Rose,” but that’s really Reese Witherspoon belting out the lyrics in “Walk the Line.”
In the supporting category, recent honors went to singing actors Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) and Anne Hathaway (“Les Miserables”). And while none of Meryl Streep’s three Oscar-winning roles required singing or dancing, her biggest box-office hit was the jukebox singalong “Mamma Mia!” and she’s now nominated for the 20th time — as a singer who really can’t sing in “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
Doing it all may not be required to win respect — but it certainly seems to help these days, in film and on TV.
According to the New York Times, there are roughly 20 musicals in the works at major studios, including a highly anticipated live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” and a sequel to “Enchanted” starring Chanhassen Dinner Theatres alum Amy Adams.
On the small screen, live musicals such as “The Sound of Music” and “Hairspray” have delivered boffo ratings, and seemingly every show outside of “Meet the Press” has experimented with song-and-dance numbers. Late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and James Corden are more than capable of harmonizing with guests or breaking into a soft-shoe routine.
“The line has become so blurry,” said Fred Armisen, the “Saturday Night Live” veteran who now leads the house band on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” while helping create material for himself and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein on “Portlandia” for IFC. “It’s been going on for a long time. Johnny Carson was a drummer. But it does feel like there’s a lot more of it these days.”
While actors and comics may want to be taken seriously as musicians, the reverse may be even more true. The list of Forbes’ top 30 highest paid rock performers in 2016 includes eight who need to be taken seriously as thespians, including Rihanna, who will appear as Marion Crane in the final season of A&E’s “Bates Motel,” and One Direction’s Harry Styles, whom Christopher Nolan cast in his upcoming war epic “Dunkirk.”
Going their way
While Hollywood has a long history of embracing pop stars — Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley were major box-office draws in their prime — audiences can be slow to accept them as working thespians.
“I think it took two seasons of ‘Portlandia’ and appearing on ‘Transparent’ before people realized I had the chops,” Brownstein said.
Some artists have a hard time making the adjustment. Rockers have a lot more autonomy in the recording studio and on stage than they do in front of a camera.
“You’re part of a family on set, and understanding that it’s just not about you as an artist is so important and humbling,” said Nick Jonas, who rocketed to fame as one of the Jonas Brothers and now punches the clock as a cast member of “Kingdom,” a gritty drama on the Audience Network. “It’s a tough transition for everybody, but I think it really helped me in a lot of ways.”
Throw dancing into the mix, and expect to be even more overwhelmed.
Stone and fellow Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling may get needled for looking at their feet while dancing in “La La Land,” but it’s a challenge for even seasoned performers such as R&B star Luke James, who had a hard time staying in step during dance rehearsals for the biopic “The New Edition Story.”
“It was boot camp,” said James, who portrayed Johnny Gill in the BET miniseries. “I didn’t feel any kind of love in a Hollywood kind of a way. I mean, they turned off the air conditioning.”
The transition is particularly difficult for actors who take a stab at live musical theater, where eight shows a week are the norm and rehearsals don’t come with first-class catered goodies.
“We see a lot of A-list television stars who want to sink their teeth into Broadway,” said Tony nominee Stephanie J. Block, who just wrapped up a New York revival of “Falsettos” that will be featured on PBS. “Some absolutely thrive. They love the forum, the whole communal feel. For others, it’s a rude awakening.”
Jennifer Lopez will add musical theater to her diverse résumé this fall with NBC’s live adaptation of “Bye Bye Birdie.” She is starring in NBC’s cop drama “Shades of Blue,” producing a new dance competition series and headlining concerts in Las Vegas.
“I do one thing at a time and put my full attention on whatever I’m doing at that moment,” said Lopez, who in 2001 became the first woman to simultaneously have the nation’s No. 1 album (“J. Lo”) and No. 1 movie (“The Wedding Planner”).
“Even when I’m filming all day on ‘Shades of Blue,’ at lunch, if I know I’m not in the next scene, I’ll do a voice session to learn a new song for ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ Then I’ll close that up and go back to the set. I’m just able to compartmentalize that way.”
Tough choice for some
Performers can grow tired of trying to keep several balls in the air. Mandy Moore, who first came to prominence as a pop star, hasn’t released an album in eight years. These days her focus is on her Golden Globe-nominated performance in NBC’s “This Is Us.”
“This is my first priority,” she said. “It doesn’t mean I’m done with music forever. I’ll just sort of have to fit it in when the schedule allows.”
Katharine McPhee can relate. The 2006 “American Idol” runner-up and former star of NBC’s musical drama “Smashed” hopes to release an album this year, but the material will be strictly classics from the American Songbook. Writing new material while starring in CBS’ “Scorpion” wasn’t realistic.
“The TV schedule is really grueling,” said McPhee. “I don’t say that as a complaint, but there’s only so much energy you have for something that’s a completely different project.”
Being a triple — or even double — threat may eventually wear on actors. But don’t tell that to some of Sunday’s Oscar nominees.
Stone is attached to “Cruella,” a musical prequel to “101 Dalmatians.” Gosling got another chance to polish his vocal and piano skills in Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song,” set in the Austin, Texas, music scene and co-starring fellow nominee Natalie Portman. Michelle Williams (“Manchester by the Sea”) has a musical about P.T. Barnum and a Janis Joplin biopic on her docket.
And in the best-song category, Justin Timberlake will appear in Woody Allen’s next project, “Wonder Wheel,” while “Hamilton” creator and “Moana” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda has a starring part in “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Don’t be surprised if these roles lead to future Oscar invitations.