The Greatest Stars: Broadway Musical Divas Who Can Act as Well as They Sing
Broadway musical divas: we live for them. From their signature looks to their distinctive voices, over the last century, Broadway audiences have been drawn to their talents and their energy. To be a Broadway diva is a special thing, but not every member of this exclusive club has necessarily been known for their acting chops. It is especially exhilarating to witness one who has the nuance and variety to create an indelible performance that is based in the craft of acting. In these cases, their interpretations bring rich texture to the music and three dimensional characters emerge as memorable and relatable. Today’s column is a tribute to the finest among out divas, the ones who move outside of the realm of performer and enter the world of legend.
Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! is, no doubt, inspired casting of the title character, but you will pardon me for being just as excited that Donna Murphy will be playing the role on Tuesdays. Donna Murphy makes bold choices, is equally adept at handling dramatic roles (Anna in The King and I, Lotte Lenya in LoveMusik), playing sophisticated comedy (Ruth in Wonderful Town) and even delights in zany comedies (Song of Singapore). She’s an actress who can convey so much from a simple gesture. Her entrance down a long flight of stairs in her Tony-winning turn as Fosca in Passion remains singularly one of the most arresting, effective moments in musical theatre history, her carriage suggesting an emotional weight and unsteadiness that defined the character long before she ever spoke. (Murphy will be playing Dolly on individual Tuesday evening starting on June 13th, and will also play these additional performances, which include vacation weeks that Midler is taking: July 27th - July 2nd, July 5th-July 9th, July 30th (Sunday evening), September 6th-September 10th, October 15th (Sunday evening) , October 30th (Monday evening), November 1st-November 15th, November 24th (Friday matinee), December 26th (Tuesday matinee), and January 7th (Sunday evening).
You don’t win as many Tony Awards as Audra McDonald has for being an acting slouch. Indeed, she has proven herself as a nonpareil actress in musicals and non-musicals, supporting roles and leading roles. For musical roles, she lets the songs wrap around her while her internal electricity builds and sparks until song and performer ignite in glorious fireworks. As Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, she stole the show almost immediately with her nuanced rendition of “Mr. Snow”. Her Sarah in Ragtime bled emotion, especially in her visceral outpouring of “You Daddy’s Son”. As half of the titular duo in Porgy & Bess, she brought an achingly quiet grace to every Gershwin number her voice box put forth. Her range of emotion and clear, out-of-the-box choices make her an indelible presence of every show she is in.
What actress of our day has demonstrated more versatility in roles that Laura Benanti? She is equally comfortable at playing dramatic roles (Maria in The Sound of Music, Claudia in Nine, Louise in Gypsy), comically complex characters (Amalia in She Loves Me, Cinderella in Into the Woods), to outright comedic (Candela in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Julia in The Wedding Singer). Each character is a stunning creation, richly textured and full of surprising choices that buoy every production she appears in. A special note: wishing her a “hearty congratulations” for her newest role as “Mom”.
It’s been a while since Ms. Buckley has appeared in a Broadway musical and can we please rectify this fact? Buckley remains one of our brightest living actresses, unusual and eccentric in her choices which always make her characters come to life with glorious color. Whether she was singing “Memory” for her Tony Award-winning performance as Grizabella in Cats, slinking gargoyle-like down a staircase in Sunset Boulevard, cross-dressing with masculine aplomb for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, zealously rabid as Mrs. White in Carrie, or aristocratically controlled as Hesione in Triumph of Love, each performance trembles and crackles with fire.
I have never witnessed (before or since) an actress who could mine the complexity out of a simple phrase as Joanna Gleason managed playing her Tony-winning role as The Bakers Wife in Into the Woods. With all due respect to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, Gleason elevated the role to greatness through her carefully thought out gestures, facial expressions, and inflections. This is indicative of every role she takes, whether it was Monica in I Love My Wife, Muriel in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Nora in Nick & Nora, or Arlene in Happiness. Gleason just has an inherent understanding of words, their flow, and how to deliver them in a way that so much meaning and understanding can be gleaned. How I wish one great musical could be written that effectively employs her talents in another starring role.
Who would you add to this special circle and why? Share with us in the comments section below.