How HBO’s The Gilded Age Cast Broadway Royalty

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the gilded age cast members on set

Photographer: Alison Cohen Rosa

Audra McDonald. Kelli O’Hara. Denée Benton. Christine Baranski. A Broadway fan watching HBO’s The Gilded Age could lose track trying to keep up with the sheer volume of theater talent on screen. Co-creator Julian Fellowes assembled a slate of young British stars when he debuted Downton Abbey in 2010, but the new series, set in the wealthy Manhattan of the late 1800s, gave him the opportunity to work with top New York talent.

Oddly enough it was the pandemic, and the shutdown of theater that ensued, that made the whole thing possible. “Michael Engler, who’s one of the producers and one of the two directors of the first series, reminded us that because of COVID, the whole of Broadway was dark and all these marvelous actors were sitting at home in New York where we were,” says Fellowes. “There was no immediate prospect of the theaters reopening so we looked to the Broadway actors for our supporting cast and a wonderfully rewarding number of them said yes. We had these stars of Broadway, and I think they’ve enriched the show wonderfully. I think they’re a marvelous group of players. We’re the winners on that one.”

The series focuses on struggles between New York City’s wealthy establishment and the newly rich who threaten to disrupt it. On the old money side are a pair of sisters, played by Tony winners Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski, who are joined in their home by their niece Marian and her friend Peggy, played by Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812’s Denée Benton. On the new money side are the Russells, played by Carrie Coon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and Morgan Spector (A View From the Bridge), whose arrival in New York causes a stir. Celia Keenan-Bolger (To Kill a Mockingbird), Debra Monk (four-time Tony nominee, one-time winner), and Michael Cerveris (Assassins, Fun Home, Tommy) play household staff members while theater luminaries Kelli O’Hara and Donna Murphy play society doyennes.

carrie coon in the gilded age

Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell in The Gilded Age.

Photographer: Alison Cohen Rosa

Coon was part of the theater contingent and saw how it helped bring the cast together. “There’s an ease of ensemble building that comes with theater actors, because the rhythm of that, is such that you come together in the room, you rehearse for a few weeks, you know you’re going to be doing this project together every night for a certain period of time, or maybe an indefinite period of time,” she explains. “I felt that everybody gets on board for building those relationships right away, which is not always the feeling you get on a TV and film set. Sometimes they’re a lot more isolating than that.”

For Coon, theater actors often fall strictly into either the musical or straight play realm, but The Gilded Age was a unique chance to bring the two sides together. “There are so many actors on the show that are primarily in the musical theater, which means I’ll never have the chance to work with them because I can’t do what they do,” she says. “It’s such a pleasure to get to work with them because I don’t know that I would normally run into them in my theater life. It’s just a tremendous pleasure.” One that Broadway fans, eager to catch up on over a year of darkened theaters, are likely to love.

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