“Imitative of No One”: Five of Broadway’s Most Distinctive Female Voices

Adriana Nocco

I find it amazing that for many years, women were banned from performing on the stage altogether and now, women drive musical theatre culture; theatrical auditions for women are, more often than not, extremely competitive. Within the world of professional musical theatre, the most noteworthy women are powerhouses who have completely revolutionized and redefined the field, and are role models for every woman (and some men, I’m sure) who decides to pursue a career in musical theatre in the hopes that they will have the opportunity to do the same.

As both a theatre lover/performer and woman who is part of a culture that has oppressed women in numerous ways over the years, I am continually in awe of and inspired by Broadway’s legendary leading ladies. Their monumental, emotionally charged performances and soaring voices make me cry and leap to my feet, and their complete domination of the craft triggers my passion; it motivates me to be the best performer I can possibly be. They make me feel as if the world is my oyster. 

I believe that attempting to name the supposed “best” Broadway actresses within the realm of musical theatre is, in a way, pointless. In my opinion, every actress who has made an infamous name for herself on Broadway stands out in a unique way and for unique reasons. How could we possibly compare women who not only have found their own Broadway niches, but also have created said niches for themselves? So instead, I have decided to discuss some of the actresses whom I believe possess the most distinctive voices within the musical theatre world. Their exceptional voices move us on stage, are individualized, and also reflect the personal styles of the actresses they belong to. Whenever I hear any of them on cast recordings, Youtube, the radio, etc., I immediately know who is singing, and feel the specific emotions I associate with their performances all over again. Below is a list of five extraordinary Broadway actresses whose voices possess these qualities and are, in my eyes, some of the most distinctive I have ever heard (in no particular order). 

5.) ETHEL MERMAN: “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (written for Annie Get Your Gun), “Anything Goes” (Anything Goes), “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (Gypsy), and “Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy) are just a few of the show tunes that this woman lent her voice to and made famous. The late great Ethel Merman, a huge part of the foundation upon which modern theatre has been built, originated the roles of Annie Oakley, Reno Sweeney, Mama Rose, and many more. She was a mezzo soprano known for her signature belt, has been called “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage,” and many would argue that, although she was an incredible actress as well, her singular voice shaped the course of her entire career. In addition to a Drama Desk Award (Hello, Dolly!) and a Golden Globe, she won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical in 1951 (Call Me Madam), and was presented with a Special Tony Award in 1972 (although I believe she deserved more for all she accomplished). In a review of George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy (1930), The New Yorker said that Merman was “imitative of no one,” and I think most musical theatre fanatics would agree. 

4.) ANGELA LANSBURY: Angela Lansbury, amazing star of stage and screen, is currently eighty-nine years old. After seven decades, her career in show business is still intact, which is a phenomenal feat in and of itself. Within the realm of musical theatre, Lansbury originated and made famous the role of Mame Dennis in Jerry Herman’s Mame (1966) and the groundbreaking role of Nellie Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979, directed by Hal Prince). She also notably portrayed Mama Rose in Gypsy in 1973. Lansbury has been nominated for and won countless awards, including (but not limited to) five Tony Awards (WOW), an Olivier Award, six Golden Globes, and an Honorary Oscar. She is an immensely successful and acclaimed actress who has transformed theatre and transfixed all who have born witness to her, and also has an unmistakable voice. Even those who are unfamiliar with Angela Lansbury’s numerous accomplishments as a film, television, and stage actress would recognize her voice if they heard it. She even lent her voice to the role of Mrs. Potts (the teapot) in Disney’s 1991 animated film, Beauty and the Beast, and due to its distinctive quality, her performance was a standout. 

3.) IDINA MENZEL: I have idolized Idina Menzel for most of my life, and when I met her in 2012 after her concert at the Mann Center in Philadelphia, I was tongue-tied. Idina originated and made famous the role of Maureen Johnson in Jonathan Larson’s RENT, the role of Elphaba in Stephen Schwartz/Winnie Holzman’s Wicked (and won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the latter), and the role of Elizabeth in Brian Yorkey’s If/Then. She typically plays strong, independent women, which is one of the many reasons I adore and idolize her. Menzel boasts many notable theatre credits, which include her portrayal of Kate in The Wild Party (2000), Amneris in Aida (2001), and Florence Vassy in Chess in Concert (2008). Idina is known for her wide vocal range (and her voice type is often debated because it is so versatile), impressive, signature belt, and distinct sound. She has also done sporadic work on television and in the film world, and when she lent her distinctive voice to the role of Elsa in Disney’s Frozen (2013), her character’s anthem, “Let It Go,” became a worldwide sensation and staple of popular culture. Menzel has performed for many distinguished audiences (including President Obama and the First Family), and has embarked on multiple concert tours; she actually just kicked off a World Tour earlier this year. Fun fact: she loves to sing barefoot during her concerts, and believes heels hinder both her comfort level and her voice.

2.) LENA HALL: After seeing her in Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch this past January, I became obsessed with Lena Hall. Her nuanced yet brilliant performance and impeccable vocals completely captivated me, and I later proceeded to watch every Youtube video of her that I could find. (Also, she looks incredible whether she’s dressed as a man or as a woman, but that’s beside the point.) Lena Hall is a phenomenal vocalist who makes every single song (no matter the style) she performs completely her own; no matter what, she stays true to who she is as an artist, and I have an immense amount of respect for that. She is both a rock singer and an incredible musical theatre performer, and I can honestly say that I have NEVER heard a voice like hers within the world of musical theatre before. Her voice is rocky, soulful, and boundlessly powerful, and I believe that it (she) breaks the mold of what musical theatre audiences have come to expect from Broadway’s leading ladies. Hall made her Broadway debut in 2000 (Cats as Demeter) and gained various other professional theatre credits before originating the role of Nicola in the original Broadway cast of Kinky Boots (2012). However, her voice is so distinctive that it took fourteen years for the right role to come along (Yitzhak in Hedwig) and allow it, and her, to truly shine on a Broadway stage. Look out, world, because I’m telling you: Lena Hall is a truly special performer. 

1.) KRISTIN CHENOWETH: The bubbly, hilarious, mega talented Kristin Chenoweth has shaped a rather successful career for herself in film, in television, and on the stage. She is a classically trained coloratura soprano who is capable of nailing notes that most people can only dream of hitting, and is also capable of producing a mean belt and a flawless, distinctive vibrato. However, both her speaking and singing voice ironically possess a certain nasality that is often frowned upon by classically trained singers, but this nasality has actually proven itself to be a valuable asset to Chenoweth. Part of Kristin’s infamous, trademark persona is calling upon said nasality during performances in order to enhance their comedic nature; this persona, combined with her unparalleled vocal control and versatility, has made her a much beloved star. She won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Sally Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown on Broadway, as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards. Chenoweth was nominated for the 2004 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical (as well as various other awards) for her performance as Glinda in Wicked, but lost the award to costar Idina Menzel. Chenoweth most recently starred in the 2015 Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century as Lily Garland, and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance (as well as Drama League, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk Awards; she won the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk).                   

Which other Broadway leading ladies do you believe possess the most distinctive voices? Which leading men? Please comment; I’d love to read your thoughts concerning others who are worth discussing