“Imitative of No One”: Broadway’s Most Distinctive Female Voices, Part 3

Adriana Nocco

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? 


Carol Burnett, now eighty-two years old, was met with disapproval from her mother when she decided to focus upon performing (she originally thought she would pursue writing/playwriting as a sole career focus) as a college student at UCLA. Supposedly, her mother said to her, “you can always write, no matter what you look like,” for she did not believe that her daughter was attractive enough by conventional standards to make it as a professional actress at the time. However, regardless of her mother’s opinion, Burnett made the decision to pursue a career in the performing arts. Her distinctive look and distinctive, heavy mezzo belt alike helped her become a distinguished and successful performer and comedian. Burnett performed at various cabarets and nightclubs all over New York City before landing her breakout role on Broadway; in 1959, she made her Broadway debut as Once Upon a Mattress’s original, singularly quirky Princess Winnifred, a role for which she received a Tony nomination. After a thirty-year hiatus from Broadway, she returned to portray Charlotte in the 1995 Broadway production of Moon Over Buffalo, and was nominated for a second Tony Award for her performance. She has appeared in thirteen Broadway productions, the most recent of which was Love Letters in 2014.

Burnett is also well known for her extensive work in the film world (Pete ‘n’ Tillie, Annie, Noises Off, The Secret World of Arrietty, etc.) and television (The Twilight Zone, All My Children, Desperate Housewives, The Lucy Show, Law & Order: SVU, etc.). She is best known as the star of The Carol Burnett Show (which ran for eleven years, 1967 to 1978), an infamous variety show that included singing, dancing, and comedy alike, and created many alternate personas on the show that are still spoken of today. Burnett has garnered numerous Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations for her work, and has won six Emmys and two Golden Globes. She has earned many other prestigious awards and honors over the years (including the Kennedy Center Honors prize and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1985, and will receive the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in January of 2016.


When I was studying at AADA this summer, my Song Interpretation teacher, Christopher McGovern, constantly made it a point to emphasize the fact that “we are all mere mortals next to ‘the Big B;’ she is way up there, and the rest of us are down here. We all have to accept that. So please never sing a Barbra Streisand song at an audition…EVER.” Barbra Streisand is arguably one of the greatest, most unique entertainers of all time. Often referred to as “Queen of The Divas,” she is one of the very select few entertainers ever to have been honored with every single major industry prize: ten Grammy Awards (including the Grammy Legend Award and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award), two Academy Awards, four Peabody Awards, five Emmy Awards (including one Daytime Emmy), eleven Golden Globes, a Kennedy Center Honors prize, an American Film Institute Award, AND a Special Tony Award. Barbra is also known as one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold over 72.5 million albums in the United States alone and 245 million records worldwide (making her the best-selling female artist and the only female artist in the top ten). When Barbra went on a multi-city tour in the summer of 1994 (her first public concert appearances in twenty-seven years), tickets sold out in less than an hour; THAT’S how influential she is. Her concert tours, album and ticket sales alone are the stuff of legendary due to her unparalleled ability to evoke emotion through her unbelievable vocals and ability to lose herself in a song. Streisand is a mezzo-soprano known for her ability to sustain high notes and vibrato and belt with great intensity and control; her voice has actually been described as “semi-operatic” as a result (even though she is predominantly a pop and musical theatre singer). When she was young, people urged her to get a nose job in order to make it in show business, but she chose not to comply, and it’s a good thing, too; Streisand’s signature, immediately recognizable, nasally yet smooth vocal tone (which nowadays possesses a slight huskiness) might not have existed if she had, and her career would not have been the same without it.

Although it seemed as if the odds were against her due to her unconventional look and disapproving mother, Barbra was determined to become a star. She started out as a recording artist and cabaret/nightclub singer, gradually making her way onto the New York stage (Another Evening with Harry Stoones was her debut) and national television (The Tonight Show, Ed Sullivan Show, etc.), and her first album, The Barbra Streisand Album (1963), made the top ten on the Billboard chart, won three Grammy Awards, and made her the best-selling female vocalist in the country at the time. In 1964, Barbra portrayed Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and her esteemed, legendary performance made her a star overnight; she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, and even appeared on the cover of Time magazine (all at twenty-one years old). She repeated her role in London’s West End in 1966, appeared in her first four solo television specials from 1965 to 1967, and received an honorary “Star of the Decade” Tony Award in 1970. Barbra’s renditions of the show’s musical numbers, particularly of “Don’t Rain On My Parade” and “People,” have become timeless, infamous, and signature songs of Barbra’s. Other signature songs include “Happy Days Are Here Again” (duet with Judy Garland), “The Way We Were,” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (duet with Neil Diamond). Barbra’s film career began when she repeated her most famous role, Fanny Brice, in the successful 1968 film adaptation of Funny Girl (directed by William Wyler). She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role that year, and shared the award with Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter). Other films include The Way We Were, Hello, Dolly!, The Owl and the Pussycat, A Star Is Born (Academy Award for composing music for “Evergreen,” making her the first woman to be honored as a composer), Meet the Fockers, Little Fockers, and Yentl, the latter making her the first woman ever to write, producer, direct, and star in a major studio film. Yentl won Oscars for Best Motion Picture Musical and Best Score, and Streisand won the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, which made her the first and only woman to date ever to win that award. 


Judy Garland (born Frances Ethel Gumm) was an extremely versatile entertainer and middleweight contralto whose vocals possessed one of the most signature sounds in show business. Her lower range was especially velvety, rich, and dark, made it nearly impossible not to recognize her voice, and certainly helped shape the course of her entire career. Sadly, she struggled her entire life to overcome difficult personal obstacles, which many argue stemmed from film executives’ relentless criticism of her appearance in addition to financial instability and issues in her personal life. Garland died in 1969 at a young age from a barbiturate overdose; she was constantly given amphetamines to stay awake and barbiturates to help her sleep as a young entertainer in order to keep up with her rushed filming schedule, and this led to Garland’s lifelong addiction issues. Regardless, Garland was (and still is) considered one of the greatest cinematic stars and singers who ever lived.

In fact, in 1997, she was posthumously presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1999, the American Film Institute ranked her among the ten greatest female stars in the history of American cinema. Garland started out as a vaudeville star, part of a trio with her two sisters called “The Gumm Sisters” (later “The Garland Sisters,” and Frances Ethel Gumm changed her name to “Judy Garland”), and as a teenager (thirteen years old), was signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios as a solo artist. MGM created a sort of “girl-next-door” image for Garland (which, although it would change later on, haunted her throughout her life), and paired her with Mickey Rooney in a string of “backyard musicals” for a while, which included Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, Love Finds Andy Hardy, and Babes in Arms. Garland was cast as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939, based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s book), a role which she is infamous for, and her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (which she sang in the film) would become her most famous and signature song. Other films include Strike Up the Band, Little Nellie Kelly, Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, For Me and My Gal, Presenting Lily Mars, The Clock (1945, her first straight dramatic film), and The Harvey Girls (in which she introduced an Academy Award-winning song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe”). Garland’s infamous portrayal of Esther in the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis introduced three more of her signature songs (“The Boy Next Door,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “The Trolley Song”), and was one of her most successful films for MGM. Other signature songs include “Get Happy” and “The Man That Got Away.” She also costarred with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade (1948), which was also immensely successful, and with Gene Kelly in Summer Stock (1949). Garland parted from MGM in 1950, but embarked on a four-month, sold-out, successful comeback concert tour across Ireland and Britain in 1951. She also performed in a one-woman show for a four-week limited engagement at the London Palladium and at the Palace Theatre (NYC) in 1951, which received rave reviews, what went down as the loudest ovations in history, exceeded theatre records, and was considered Garland’s “rebirth.” She was nominated for an Academy Award for her starring role in the musical remake of the film A Star is Born (1954) for Warner Bros., but lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (although most people had expected her to and believed she deserved to win). Garland later starred in multiple other films, performed at Carnegie Hall (considered by many to be “the greatest night in the history of show business”, and the two-record Judy at Carnegie Hall won four Grammy Awards and was certified gold), and her weekly television series, The Judy Garland Show, was nominated for four Emmy Awards. She also garnered a Juvenile Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Special Tony Award during her lifetime.