Send in the Clowns: The Best Flat-Out Comedic Roles in Broadway Musicals

Send in the Clowns: The Best Flat-Out Comedic Roles in Broadway Musicals

We all love to laugh. There is nothing better than a deep, gut-busting release to make us feel a little bit better about the world we live in. Broadway musicals, especially those written in the Rodgers and Hammerstein format, usually had a serious lead couple and then a supporting pair who were there for comic relief. There are a lot of funny roles in musical theatre that performers would give their eye teeth to have a crack at. Today, I celebrate the “Top Ten Best Comedy Roles in Musical Theatre”. 

Vera Charles – Mame

Acerbic, dry and, at times, thick, this self-centered diva of the Broadway stage named Vera Charles steals every scene she is in. Whether waking up with a hangover in Mame’s bathtub and proclaiming “Someone’s been sleeping in my dress!” or tartly telling Mame “I have an astronomical discovery for you: The Man in the Moon is a bitch”, Vera is a dream role for any character actress of a certain age who can extol vitriol as an art form. Let’s not forget, too, that Vera gets two plumb numbers: the operetta pastiche “The Moon Song” and the barb-slinging duet “Bosom Buddies.”

Harvey Fierstein & Marissa Jaret Winokour in Hairspray

Edna Turnblad – Hairspray

Not only is Edna Turnblad blessed with some of Hairspray’s best one-liners, she is also written in a way that makes her loveable and sympathetic. This has us rooting for her from the very beginning. Much of her humor is self-deprecating and linked to her zaftig appearance, but this fragility and lack of self-worth makes her all the more accessible to audiences. We love when she gets overly protective and show’s her mama claws. When she finally breaks loose and comes out of her shell in the show’s finale, celebrating who she is in her verse of “You Can’t Stop the Beat”, we are laughing with her and not at her. She deserves that Christmas ham and she has earned it! 

Pseudolus – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Every comic actor wants to play Pseudolus, the self-serving servant of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum who is a master- conductor of all things farcical and fun. Pseudolus, in an effort to gain his freedom, must adjust to complication upon complication to reach his goal. Along the way, he makes pithy remarks and delivers delicious one-liners. He also gets to play off some terrific supporting characters who could easily make this list as well.  

Ado Annie Carnes – Oklahoma!

No slut-shaming here, Ado Annie Carnes is the promiscuous girl of the prairie who makes us laugh at every turn as her libidinous urges get her into trouble. Her advertising slogan comes in the form of her delightful character song “I Cain’t Say No.” Torn between two men, a naïve cowboy who wants her desperately, and a Persian peddler who wants nothing to do with her, Ado Annie makes the third in one of musical theatre’s most comedic of l love triangles. 

Harry MacAfee – Bye Bye Birdie

If you have a character actor who is over-the-top, twitchy and great at pulling off exasperated, Harry MacAfee from Bye Bye Birdie is the role for him. The father of the rock and roll addled teenager Kim MacAfee, Harry has his house overtaken when teen idol Conrad Birdie and his entourage arrive in the small town of Sweet Apple for a publicity stunt. Unable to comprehend his children, their peers or their music, he personifies the generation gap with the musical rant “Kids”, but isn’t above getting on the publicity train with the reverent “A Hymn for a Sunday Afternoon” when presented with an opportunity to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show.  

Yente – Fiddler on the Roof

Yente the matchmaker is the ultimate busybody. We all know someone like her, quick to spread gossip and who delivers quips with a frank humor that is both cutting and verging on brutal honesty. The denizens of Anatevka all rely on her and she knows it. This reliance gives her an open door to say whatever she wants, even if she is cutting down a prospective bride or groom. She’s the old Jewish mom caricature that we have all grown love, so we forgive her for her barbs. Right? Of course right! 

Dolly Levi – Hello, Dolly!

Dolly Levi has such a zest for life and she is so full of energy that it is easy to adore her. We sometimes forget, however, just how funny this character is when she gets caught up in the overall situation comedy that is Hello, Dolly! Whether it’s playing coyly clueless when dealing with the uptight Horace Vandergelder once second, and then running roughshod over him the next, her chameleon-like manipulations are hilarious. Then, of course, she has one heck of an eleven o’clock number in “So Long, Dearie” where she gets to tell the crusty old fart off. “And on those cold winter nights Horace…you can snuggle up to your cash register. It’s a little lumpy, but it rings.”      

 Carol Channing and company in  Hello, Dolly!

Carol Channing and company in Hello, Dolly!

Mr. Applegate – Damn Yankees

Full of sass and snark, Mr. Applegate from Damn Yankees may not be the nicest fellow in musical theatre when he attempts to buy the soul of the altruistic Joe Boyd, but we sure do appreciate the humor with which he delivers his evil plans. Sarcasm drips from his forked tongue like sulfuric acid mixed with honey and we revel in his dastardly elation during his delivery of “The Good Old Days.” The fact that he occasionally gets to step out of the action and deliver his humor directly to the audience, treating us as his co-conspirators, makes him all the more fun. 

Bud Frump – How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying

Oh, how we love a character that is fun to hate, and Bud Frump from How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying does not disappoint. Usually, villains are not much for laughs, but Bud, who is the boss’s nephew, fails so miserably in his attempts to thwart J. Pierrpont Finch’s ascent at the World Wide Wicket Company, we delight in his weaseling. A conniving buffoon who is not above blackmail, a highlight of the show is his reprise of “It’s Been a Long Day” where he catches his uncle in a compromising situation with the bubble headed secretary Hedy LaRue and uses the opportunity to secure himself a promotion.       

Emily Skinner singing "Gooch's Song" in the musical Mame

Agnes Gooch – Mame

I started this list with a character from the musical Mame and it is only appropriate that I finish the list with one, since the musical just bubbles over with comedy. Agnes Gooch, the dowdy nanny who gets unwillingly dragged into the larger-than-life, slightly debauched world of Mame Dennis, is comedic gold. A staunch Catholic, shy, awkward, she gets one of the musicals best numbers “Gooch’s Song”, a tour de force lament for Agnes when she decides to throw her reserve aside and embrace Mame’s mantra that “Life is a banquet and most sons-of-bitches are starving to death.” And what is the result of her six-month spree of drinking and partying? She returns to Mame, ready to bust with child as she has been knocked up, a side effect of her adventure. Each of her predicaments grows funnier and funnier as the show goes along.    

There is NOTHING better than a great musical theatre comedy moment, and these are some of the best.

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