Audra, Patti, Bernadette, Chita, Ethel or Angie: Why Do We Love Our Broadway Divas?
Musical Theatre is an exciting world where we love to revere our divas and put them up on a pedestal. In fact, try to find a Broadway musical fan who doesn’t vociferously defend and overtly adulate their leading lady of choice? It is a big part of the musical theatre landscape, always has been and always will be. The question, however, is “why” do we elevate these women into the stratosphere and never really feel compelled to do the same for the men who work so hard in this profession?
I assume that everyone reading this understands that this is pure speculation, and not any attempt to impose concrete rules on such a subjective matter. I feel the need to state this because I know that everyone has their very personal reasons for their likes and dislikes of certain performers, but I would like to speculate on what draws us to these “Grande Dames of the Theatre”.
Longevity in the Business:
One thing that we continually admire about many of the women who become our divas is their longevity in the business. There are divas who have been around for decades. Talents such as Chita Rivera and Angela Lansbury have been treading the boards for a very long time. Rivera has been in a major Broadway musical every decade since the 1950s and just starred in her latest endeavor The Visit last spring. That’s sixty years that Chita has been singing, acting and kicking those glorious legs high the air. Lansbury didn’t come to Broadway quite as early on, but she was working in Hollywood well back into the 1940s appearing in such film musicals as The Harvey Girls and Till the Clouds Roll By. In the 1960s, she reinvented herself as a force of the musical stage, winning Tony Awards for Mame, Dear World, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd. Both have proven stalwarts of show business, building a following with each coming generation.
There is so much to be said for the colorful personality that can light up the stage, and two actresses that come to mind in this category are Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. Peters’ scratchy, kittenish voice, matched with her kewpie doll face and her effervescent personality, make her instantly recognizable onstage. She is larger than life in a loveable, intimate way. True, she occasionally steps outside of type and reveals a deeper, darker side of herself (Into the Woods), but mostly we think of Bernadette Peters as funny, friendly and sexy. Patti LuPone is, perhaps, the anti-Peters, recognized for her bold interpretations of strong women. She is no-nonsense (see cell phone fiasco of 2015) and she exudes a hard-as-nails persona that is both magnetic and intimidating. We love our divas to have bite and Ms. Patti has never let us down, from Evita to Sunset Boulevard, from Sweeney Todd to Gypsy. She is a force to be reckoned with.
Startling Unparalleled Singing Voice:
Some divas have a singing voice that is instantly recognizable (I could probably say that about most of the women on this list), but a few stand out for their ability to evoke their own special brand of sound waves, setting them apart from the rest. Ethel Merman made a name for herself for her signature brassy, Broadway belt that could be heard quite plainly over the orchestra. The way she added nasal verve, volume and crisp enunciation to her turns in Girl Crazy, Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy (among many others) has become synonymous with the sound of the Broadway belter. Who doesn’t immediately break into a Merman impersonation when they hear the phrase “the Broadway sound”? Another distinctly unparalleled voice is that of Audra McDonald. Ethereal, often ghost-like, sending a chill up and down our spines, Lady Audra is equally at home with operetta, musical comedy and jazz, having proven her appeal, time and again, in musicals such as Carousel, Marie Christine, Ragtime, 110 in the Shade, Porgy and Bess, and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Her voice doesn’t need the pyrotechnics of today’s over-miked shenanigans. Her voice is the real thing and its haunting tones radiate throughout the theatre, inducing a euphoria in most theatregoers. You know it is Audra from the first note.
Broadway Musical Roles for Women
There is something that Broadway does more often for women than it does for men, and this contributes to the elevation of divas to goddess-like proportions: musical roles for women are far more compelling and larger-than-life than those written for males. I don’t mean to assert that this is always the case, but I think it is fair to say that 80% of the great musical theatre roles were written for women. Who doesn’t want to play Rose, Mrs. Lovett, Eva Peron, Norma Desmond, Miss Hannigan, The Witch, Maria Von Trapp, Fosca, Mame, Dolly, Reno Sweeney, or Elphaba over the male counterparts in their respective shows (okay, Sweeney Todd aside, making that one a stale-mate)? Musical theatre writing has almost always asserted that females are more complex of emotion, more richly nuanced, and better conductors of musical storytelling than men are. Great roles make for optimum conditions for a great performer to step in, show off their craft and talents, and soar to the firmament where they will blaze away in divadom. When the conditions are better for the ladies of theatre to shine, is it any wonder that we have revered them as the stars that burn the brightest?