Recently, I posted an article about five Broadway leading ladies whom I believe to possess some of the most distinctive voices in the musical theatre world. I believe that these extraordinary women (Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Idina Menzel, Lena Hall, and Kristin Chenoweth) have used their groundbreaking voices and singular styles to redefine women’s role within the musical theatre world and the musical theatre world in general. However, there are so many more women who have paved their own distinctive paths on Broadway, and some of our OnStage readers have helped remind me of that! By doing so, these powerful women also (subsequently and simultaneously) became role models for aspiring actresses and women in general who felt that there was no one they could personally relate to or feel inspired by on Broadway. These revolutionary women forged ahead with their memorable voices in tow, setting an example for and influencing future generations’ pursuit of their own unique performance styles (just like the first five I wrote about did). So why stop at just five when there are so many more distinctive voices/leading ladies worth discussing?
Here are five more of my picks (in no particular order):
Bernadette Peters, one of Broadway’s most applauded and deemed legendary performers (both by critics and the public), has maintained a career in show business that has lasted five decades thus far (and began when she was a mere ten years old). She has starred in musical theatre, films, on television, in concerts, and on recordings/albums (four of which have won Grammy Awards). In her career, Peters has received multiple awards and award nominations, and among them, she has received nominations for SEVEN Tony Awards, winning two plus an honorary Tony, and has been nominated for nine Drama Desk Awards, winning three. According to writer Alex Witchel (and the rest of the musical theatre world), Peters is “the premier interpreter” of the work of the famous Stephen Sondheim: she created the role of Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and the role of the Witch in Into the Woods (1987), appeared in a 1995 concert version of Anyone Can Whistle as Fay Apple, portrayed Mama Rose in the 2003 Broadway revival of Gypsy, participated in a reading of Bounce in 2006, starred in the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music in 2011 as Desiree Armfeldt, portrayed Sally Durant Plummer in Follies in 2011, and starred in A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair (the Sondheim and Wynton Marsalis staged concert revue) in 2013, all with flying colors. She also performed for Sondheim in his 1993 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. Sondheim himself said, “Like very few others, she [Peters] sings and acts at the same time. Most performers act and then sing, act and then sing…Bernadette is flawless as far as I’m concerned. I can’t think of anything negative.” Peters is known for surprising people; she is small in stature, but is known for her powerhouse voice and acting, signature alto/mezzo belt, and also her possession of some gorgeous soprano notes (which she has surprised people with over the years).
Although she has portrayed a few roles that were originated by Ethel Merman, she has managed to use her singularity to radically deviate from Merman’s style and become an originator in her own right. Her renditions of “Broadway Baby” and “Send in the Clowns,” among many of her other song interpretations, have become the stuff of Broadway legend. In 2012, New Dramatists presented Peters with their Lifetime Achievement Award, and said this (which I believe to be a fitting ending to my extensive Bernadette Peters rant): “She has brought a new sound into the theatre and continues to do so, in surprising and miraculous ways. By some sleight of magic, her singularity always manages to bring out the best and richest in the work of her composers and writers.”
Patti LuPone is a two-time Tony Award winner (having been nominated for six), two-time Grammy Award winner, 1985 Laurence Olivier Award winner, 2006 American Theater Hall of Fame inductee, Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle Award winner, Royal Shakespeare Company performer, and one of the most versatile, forceful, and fiery divas ever to grace the world of show business. (We also know her as one of the most vocal enemies of electronic distractions in live theatre.) After beginning her career in 1972 as a member of The Acting Company (founded by John Houseman and Margot Harley), LuPone made her Broadway debut in 1973 in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. She won the 1985 Olivier Award for her work in both the original London cast of Les Misérables as Fantine and in Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock as Moll. LuPone portrayed Eva Perón (which is a very challenging role emotionally and especially vocally) in the original 1979 Broadway production of Evita, which earned her the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical; her performance elevated her to stardom/legendary status (although she claims that her experience in Evita was the worst experience of her life).
Her other notable, praised stage performances include her Tony Award winning portrayal of Mama Rose in the 2007 revival of Gypsy, her Tony nominated portrayal of Lucia in the 2010 original production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, her Tony nominated portrayal of Mrs. Lovett in the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (in which she also played the tuba), her Tony nominated portrayal of Reno Sweeney in the 1987 revival of Anything Goes, and her Olivier nominated portrayal of Norma Desmond in the original 1993 London production of Sunset Boulevard. LuPone starred in the 2007 Los Angeles Opera production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny alongside Audra McDonald (and won the Best Classical Album and Best Opera Recording Grammy Awards in 2008 for it), and, on the other side of the spectrum, has received Emmy Award nominations for her work on television. She is also known for her perfectionism, “naturalistic fire” (The New York Times, 1997), her signature rendition of “Meadowlark” (The Baker’s Wife), and her rich, commanding mezzo voice, which assists LuPone in captivating audiences however and whenever she wishes.
The multitalented star of stage, screen, and television in both England and the U.S. by the name of Dame Julie Andrews (made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 for her services to the performing arts) used to possess a legendary four-octave vocal range (an incredibly rare, tremendous feat). Andrews was a coloratura soprano known for her gorgeous, sweet, elegant and pure tone, and also boasted perfect pitch; as a child, she was dubbed “Britain’s Youngest Prima Donna,” and a throat specialist even told her that she already possessed a near adult larynx. She was actually encouraged to pursue opera, but felt that her light vocal tone was much more suited to musical theatre. Andrews appeared on the West End in 1948 (at age thirteen), and in 1948, became the youngest solo performer ever to be seen in a Royal Command Variety Performance at the London Palladium (performing for members of King George VI’s family). In 1954, Andrews made her U.S. Broadway debut in The Boy Friend as Polly Browne, and was the highlight of the show. In fact, she was asked to audition for My Fair Lady on Broadway near the end of her run in The Boy Friend, and landed the role of Eliza Doolittle (which would earn her a Tony nomination).
She was then featured in the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1957 television musical, Cinderella, due to the fact that Richard Rodgers was so impressed by her. Unfortunately, ever since she underwent surgery to remove non-cancerous nodules from her throat in 1997, her range and ability to sustain notes have been limited, but that hasn’t stopped her from performing; her distinctive performance style stems from her voice, but also stems from her specific, poised acting. She has won an Academy Award for her famous portrayal of Mary Poppins in Disney’s 1964 feature film, Mary Poppins. Additionally, throughout her career, she has garnered two Emmys, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Disney legend honor, a BAFTA, three Grammys, and five Golden Globes. Andrews is also famous for her starring roles in the 1963 production of Camelot on Broadway as the original Queen Guenevere (which earned her another Tony Award nomination) and in the 1965 movie musical The Sound of Music as the imaginative Maria (which earned her the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Musical and also happened to inspire numerous Internet memes).
Carol Channing’s voice isn’t a beautiful one by usual standards, but ironically, its lack of supposed “beauty” is where its beauty lies. Its individuality, rasp and almost gravelly quality have truly distinguished her as one of the most distinct musical theatre stars in history and have helped mold her extensive stage, television, and screen career. Channing is now ninety-four years old, and has a career that has been active SINCE 1941! She gained her first job on a New York stage in 1941, but didn’t gain stardom until she was cast in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as Lorelei Lee in 1949 (and made “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” famous). Ironically, she later received her fourth Tony Award nomination for her starring role in the 1974 musical Lorelei, which was a re-imagination of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
In 1956, Carol Channing was nominated for her first Tony Award for her portrayal of Flora Weems in Vamp. She was nominated for four Tony Awards in total and won two; the other Best Actress Tony Award that she received was for her legendary portrayal of Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly! in 1964 (a portrayal which still lives in infamy today, along with her rendition of the title song). She has sung in many cabarets and concerts, has appeared on many variety shows on television, and has also appeared in many films, including the 1967 American musical film Thoroughly Modern Millie as Muzzy Van Hossmere (which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress). (Channing appeared in Thoroughly Modern Millie alongside Julie Andrews). Channing won a Special Tony Award in 1968, was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981, and received a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 1995.
Where do I even begin when it comes to Audra? First of all, she is probably one of the most versatile performers ever to walk the earth. For her brilliant, famous contributions to the theatre, she has won a record SIX TONY AWARDS, and is the only person in theatre HISTORY to have won Tonys in all four acting categories: Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, 1994, and Sarah in Ragtime, 1998), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play (Sharon in Master Class, 1996, and Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun, 2004), Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Bess in Porgy and Bess, 2012), and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play (Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, 2014). For her extensive, groundbreaking work on the stage, on television, and in the music and film worlds, Audra has also garnered multiple (*inhales deeply*) Drama Desk, Theatre World, Outer Critics Circle, Ovation, Drama League, and NAACP Image Awards, as well as the Sarah Siddons Society Award (2013), the Emmis Communications/Hot-97 “KISS-FM” Phenomenal Woman Award (2005), a Grammy Award (Best Opera Recording), and has been nominated for two Emmy Awards. (Please do not try to say all of that in one breath like I did.) Notably, in May of 2000, McDonald portrayed The Beggar Woman in a concert version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street that took place at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center (alongside George Hearn as Sweeney and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett). In addition to her theatrical work, she is known for her starring role on ABC’s Private Practice (as Dr. Naomi Bennett), and has recorded multiple solo albums. It is rare for a performer to be so phenomenal at what they do that they somehow manage to revolutionize and simultaneously earn both critical and commercial acclaim for nearly every project/role they get their hands on.
Audra McDonald is one of the few performers in the world that has managed to achieve this feat, and is, in my opinion, one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed upon the performing arts in general. She studied classical voice under Ellen Faull at the Juilliard School, and still maintains ties with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the New York Philharmonic in addition to singing solo at various renowned concert halls throughout the country (including Carnegie Hall). McDonald’s incredibly broad vocal range has helped her incredibly versatile career to take shape, and is known for her ability to sing low, smooth jazz just as well as she can hit a high C, emit a beautiful, classical soprano tone, and sustain a jaw-dropping vibrato.
I’d love to continue to hear readers’ feedback, so feel free to comment with any thoughts/opinions!