Broadway Divas: MVPs by the Decade
Broadway musicals and strong leading ladies walk hand in hand. Since the inception of the Broadway Musical, an actress who can command attention and generate box office revenue through her personality and talents is a sought after commodity. Somewhere along the way, the Broadway Musical Diva emerged and theatre fans became obsessed. I decided to examine each decade of musical theatre (starting with the 1920s) and weigh contributions, reviews, awards, career escalation, and the other je ne sais quois that make an actress unique and decipher who was the most-valuable player of that ten year span. Part of my rules for writing the piece was that no actress could appear on the list more than once, though many of these talented ladies’ careers span several decades. Read on and enjoy. I look forward to your comments and debates.
1920s: Marilyn Miller
Most people no longer recall Marilyn Miller, let alone understand what an important Broadway star she was in the teens and the 1920s. Much of her relative obscurity may have to do with her untimely death at the age of 37 from complications of nasal surgery, but Miller was in fact already in retirement. This does not diminish, however, the fact that in the 1920s, she was Broadway’s brightest (and highest paid) star of the decade. In 1920, she played the title character in the rags to riches Jerome Kern musical Sally. One of her songs in the show, “Look for the Silver Lining” would become one of the biggest hits of the decade. She would also play Peter Pan in a 1924 revival. Sunny (1925) led her back to her next Jerome Kern hit (this time with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II). Playing a circus queen, Miller had another success with the popular song “Who?” Miller was known for her beauty, but she was a respected (and well reviewed) actress and singer who was a favorite of Florenz Ziegfeld (until a falling out). Had she lived longer, one wonders if Miller would have come out of retirement and dazzled us further as musical theatre evolved toward the Rodgers and Hammerstein model.
1930s: Ethel Merman
Though her career lasted several decades, the powerhouse belter Ethel Merman really exploded onto the scene in the 1930s. In those days, theatres did not have elaborate sound systems, and a Broadway star needed to be able to sing over a full orchestra and ensure a song reached the people in the cheap seats. Merman did this better than anyone. In 1930, Merman made her Broadway debut in the George and Ira Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. Playing café singer Kate Fothergill, Merman introduced the song “I Got Rhythm,” making it a hit (and a song with which she would forever be associated). Moving back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood, Merman would eventually land the juicy role of evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney in the shipboard musical comedy Anything Goes (1934). This would begin her association with composer Cole Porter for whom she starred in a handful of other musicals including Red, Hot, and Blue (1936) co-starring with Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope. Her greatest role would prove to be Mamma Rose in the musical Gypsy (1959), the brass balls stage mother, a perfect fit for Merman’s persona.
1940s: Celeste Holm
There were many great stars beginning to evolve in the 1940s, but the decade really belongs to Celeste Holm. In 1943 she was offered the plum role of Ado Annie Carnes in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking musical Oklahoma! Though it was a supporting character, Holm walked away with the show, bringing down the house with the saucy “I Cain’t Say No.” Her success in Oklahoma! made her a sought-after performer (by the end of the decade she’d become a regular presence in Hollywood. She was Academy Award nominated for her role as socialite Karen Richards in All About Eve). Her next Broadway venture would be the 1944 Arlen and Harburg musical Bloomer Girl, where she played Evelina, a suffragette and abolitionist during the American Civil War. Celeste Holm received rave reviews for this star turn and the musical had a heathy run of 657 performances. A stunning lady with a patrician glamor and unique singing voice, Holm would remain a constant presence in theatre, film, and television until her death in 2012 at age 95.
1950s: Mary Martin
One of Broadway musical’s most beloved stars, Mary Martin captured the hearts of America with her winsome charm and ability to take risks in choice roles. Though she had already been around in many musicals including Leave it to Me! (1938), One Touch of Venus (1943), and Lute Song (1946). It wasn’t until 1949, however, that Martin really blossomed into a full-fledged star in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1949). Playing a WWII US Navy Nurse who is confronted with her own prejudices garnered Martin a Tony Award. This opened the door for the 1950s to be her decade, first securing her the title role in Peter Pan (1954), a part she would win a second Tony Award for and then go on to recreate television. The end of the decade saw her return to Rodgers and Hammerstein, originating the role of Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1959). She won a third Tony Award for portraying the spirited nun-turned-governess. That is three Tony Awards in the span of ten years.
1960s: Angela Lansbury
For two decades, Angela Lansbury had been a film actress, often playing villain types in pictures like The Harvey Girls and The Manchurian Candidate. In 1964, she made her Broadway musical debut playing Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper in the notorious Stephen Sondheim musical flop Anyone Can Whistle. Two years later, Lansbury would venture into the world of Broadway musicals again, playing the title character in the Jerry Herman blockbuster Mame (1966). Proving brassy and vital, she introduced songs like “It’s Today”, “Open a New Window”, “We Need a Little Christmas”, and “If He Walked into My Life.” Mame won Lansbury her first Tony (one of five so far in her career). 1969 found her starring in another Jerry Herman show, albeit a quieter, more reflective role than the boisterous Auntie Mame. Tony Award #2 was the result, delivering a deliciously quirky performance as Countess Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot in Dear World. Of course, the following decade would bring her additional Tonys for Gypsy (1974) and Sweeney Todd (1979) but it was the 60s that gave her to us and revealed her as a true Broadway star. She also won a Supporting Actress Tony for her work in a revival of Blithe Spirit (2009).
1970s: Patti LuPone
One of Broadway’s most enduring and revered divas, Patti LuPone is as active a player on Broadway today as when she burst on the scene in the 1970s. Known for her versatility, signature articulation, commanding presence, electrically-charged voice, and her relentless war on cell phones in the theatre (I’m glad someone is), LuPone may be the pinnacle of what we term “Broadway Diva.” Not to diminish her subsequent work, her Tony-winning performance as Eva Peron in Evita (1979) is one of the great “rocket to stardom” stories in Broadway history. Her ability to hold an audience in rapt silence as she delivered “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” is the thing that legends are made of. One forgets, though, that Ms. LuPone played Rosamund in The Robber Bridegroom (1975) scoring a Tony nomination. She also stepped into the ill-fated The Baker’s Wife, one of musical theatre’s most beloved flops. Her tour-de-force performance of the song “Meadowlark” continues to make a case for the troubled show. Both performances came before Evita, demonstrating that Ms. Patti was already on her way supreme divadom. Her work in Anything Goes (1987), Sweeney Todd (2006), Women on the Verge…(2011), and War Paint (2017), all led to additional nominations, but it was her portrayal of Mamma Rose in the 2008 revival of Gypsy that won her a second trophy.
1980s: Bernadette Peters
Bernadette Peters had been around, starring in Broadway musicals since the 1960s, but it was in the 1980s that her talents truly shined. Peters had appeared in the musicals George M. (1968), La Strada (1969), On the Town (1971 Tony nomination), and Mack & Mabel (1974). Though film and television beckoned along the way, Peters would make her way back to the theatre, and the 1980s offered her opportunities to show what a deeply nuanced actress she truly is. In 1984, she originated the role of Dot in the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George. Though she was nominated for another Tony, it would not be until her starring role in the 1985 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Song & Dance that she would take her first statuette home. Perhaps her most well-known role is playing the complicated character of the Witch in the 1987 Sondheim musical Into the Woods, where she introduced the haunting “Children Will Listen.” Peters won another Tony Award for playing sharpshooter Annie Oakley in the 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun. Peters is particularly adept at playing vulnerable characters who mask their insecurities with a tough exterior, such as her performances as Paula in The Goodbye Girl (1993), Rose in Gypsy (2003), Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music (2009 revival, replacing Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Sally in Follies (2011).
1990s: Donna Murphy
Another actress who had been kicking around already, but found their momentum in a particular-decade, is the eclectic Donna Murphy. Audiences were gob smacked by her tangible melancholy and fierce determination as Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Passion (1994). Her protracted entrance alone, inching down a long staircase, burned with a festering heartache and relentless focus. She deservedly won her first Tony Award. Next up, Murphy made a Tony-winning triumph out of playing Anna Leanowens in the 1996 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, delving deep into the complexities and internal struggles of this character. In 2003, she would bowl us over again, this time expertly navigating musical comedy in a revival of Wonderful Town. Her tongue-in-cheek delivery and pure abandon where physical comedy is concerned made her Ruth Sherwood one of the most delicious musical comedy performances of the 21st Century. She received a Tony nomination. Other significant roles include Lotte Lenya in LoveMusik (2007) and Bubbie/Raisel in The People in the Picture (2011). She is currently Bette Midler’s alternate in the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!, a performance we are all dying to see.
2000s: Audra McDonald
Though her popularity really began to flourish in the 1990s, winning Tony Awards for supporting roles as Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel (1994), Master Class (1996), and as Sarah in Ragtime (1998), it was the 2000s when Audra McDonald moved into the role of leading player. Her fierce portrayal of the title character in Marie Christine (2000) established her as diva extraordinaire and secured her a Tony nomination. Another supporting actress award came her way for her work in the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, and in 2007 she was nominated again for Best Leading Actress for a revival of 110 in the Shade. McDonald had the Midas Touch where Tony Awards are concerned, she has also won Best Actress in a Musical for Porgy & Bess (2012) and Best Actress in a Play for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. McDonald holds the record for the most Tony wins by an actress (6) and she also has the distinct honor of winning Tonys in all four acting categories (musical and non-musical).
2010s: Jessie Mueller
Though it is too soon to measure her durability and legacy, Jessie Mueller seems to have all her ducks in a row to claim MVP diva status for the 2010s. In 2011, she gave a stand-out supporting performance in the short-lived revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. In 2013, she shined as the mysterious Helena Landless in the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The following year (2014) Mueller would win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical playing Carole King in Beautiful. A chameleon-like performer, Mueller embodied King and even managed to perfectly capture the singer/songwriter’s voice. 2016 found Mueller starring in the Sara Bareilles musical Waitress, where she portrayed the pie-making Jenna, securing a Tony nomination. Next up for Mueller is the eagerly-anticipated revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel slated for later this year where she will play the stoic Julie Jordan. It will be exciting to see where her career takes her, since the talent and versatility are there and ready to be put to the test.
Diva of the Century: Chita Rivera
No actress in the pantheon of divas has enjoyed the longevity and opportunity of Ms. Chita Rivera. In fact, Rivera has appeared in a major Broadway musical for every decade since the 1950s. Her luck has run hot and cold, with hits and flops along the way, but as true creature of theatre, she continues to press on. Let’s take a look at her phenomenal run:
1952: Call Me Madam
1951: Guys & Dolls
1955: Seventh Heaven
1955: Shoestring Revue
1956: Mr. Wonderful
1957: Shinbone Alley
1957: West Side Story
1960: Bye, Bye, Birdie (Tony nomination)
1975: Chicago (Tony nomination)
1981: Bring Back Birdie (Tony nomination)
1983: Merlin (Tony nomination)
1984: The Rink (Tony Award – Best Actress in a Musical)
1986: Jerry’s Girls
1993: Kiss of the Spider Woman (Tony Award – Best Actress in a Musical)
2003: Nine (Tony nomination)
2005: Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life (Tony nomination)
2012: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
2015: The Visit (Tony nomination)
Rivera is also a Kennedy Center honoree and she has also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. She is revered by the theatre community for team player attitude and her love of the gypsies in the chorus. Rivera is the ultimate triple-threat (singer/dancer/actress) who is so generous of spirit and love for what she does. She is Broadway’s living legend.