“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

Yitzhak: Teaching the Human Heart by Redefining Gender Identity

Adriana Nocco

Memory. A person that has struggled to conform to a forced gender identity for many years, dealing with loss and betrayal of all kinds along the way, has finally been liberated. They stand on a stage, bare and barely clothed, in a solitary pool of light, makeup that is no longer relevant smearing their face, for they are neither man nor woman, neither here nor there. They sing a song of rawness and freedom as their band’s rock music complements their newly discovered, true voice. However, all of a sudden, this person gestures to something out in the distance behind us, and as my fellow audience members and I quickly turn to find out what that something is, we realize that that “something” is actually a “someone.” That someone is a beautiful, radiant woman in a tremendous blonde wig and glamorous black and purple slit gown, gliding down the aisle, the gown’s train gracefully following suit. Her beauty is transcendent, for she has never before felt that she could embrace her true, womanly self, and the pure elation that she feels is apparent as she abandons her biological gender and reclaims her long lost femininity. She steps up onto the stage to bask in the light, and twirls giddily as flower petals fall upon her, signifying that she her true self has finally been allowed to bloom and will refuse to be suppressed from now on. This gender identity does not trap her; she belongs within it. She has chosen it for herself.

At 7:58 pm on a cold evening this past January, my boyfriend and I found ourselves jumping off the A-train at 42nd Street and sprinting towards Tkts (at 47th and 7th Ave) in order to claim two tickets to see John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch at 10 pm later that night. We’d been told to claim the tickets by 8 pm at the very latest, and fortunately were able to make it just in time to do so. I have been lucky enough to have attended upwards of sixty Broadway productions thus far in my lifetime, and I can say with absolute certainty that I have never seen ANYTHING quite like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Its electrifying, raw rock score and unique storyline, that of Hedwig, a (previously male) genderqueer rock singer who had taken on a female gender identity after having undergone a botched sex change operation in order to marry an American man and escape from East Germany while the Berlin Wall was still up (after World War II had ended), separate it from everything I’ve ever seen onstage on their own. However, we had the honor and privilege of witnessing the unparalleled John Cameron Mitchell perform the role of Hedwig and the endlessly incredible Lena Hall perform the role of Yitzhak, Hedwig’s husband, roadie, and human punching bag. These two incomparable performers delivered two of the most truthful and absolute best performances I have ever seen in my life; for the duration of the show, I legitimately forgot that Hedwig and Yitzhak do not actually exist. Five minutes after the show had begun, I turned to my boyfriend and whispered, “I already know that this is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on Broadway.”

Of course, Mitchell’s iconic portrayal of the cynical, jaded Hedwig was the focal point of the show, and it was apparently clear that no one knows Hedwig in the intimate fashion that he does or is capable of strapping on a pair of heels and taking ownership over the role in the way that he can (with all due respect to all the other Broadway Hedwigs). He was hilarious, hardened, and heart-wrenching, and I was putty in his immensely talented fingertips. However, Lena Hall (whom I haven’t been able to stop gushing about ever since), had never played Yitzhak before stepping into the role on Broadway, and she was nothing short of a revelation. Throughout Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hedwig does most of the talking and dishes out wisecracks and insults left and right, but Yitzhak’s language is an unspoken one. While John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig occupied center stage for most of the show, Lena Hall as Yitzhak stayed out of the spotlight, listening to Hedwig speak and adjusting Hedwig’s band’s equipment. Yitzhak would longingly stare at Hedwig as Hedwig basked in the spotlight, and then would turn his attention to one of Hedwig’s spare wigs, gently reaching out to stroke and caress it with his fingertips or bury his face within it. Yitzhak yearns to dress and perform in drag, and feels confined by his biologically male identity. I believe it takes a truly phenomenal actor to tell a story for the duration of a show almost solely using a subtle, nuanced, nearly wordless performance, and as a result, I gained an incredible adoration and respect for Lena Hall when I saw her in Hedwig for the first time (I loved it so much that I returned to see it a second time, which is something I very rarely do).

The female characters of Broadway musicals are often confined to gender binary, heteronormative boxes; in other words, they identify as female, biologically and otherwise, conform to the standards that society traditionally expects for women to meet, and are also straight. Leading ladies on Broadway also, more often than not, do not possess rock voices that break the classical soprano mold. However, the role of Yitzhak (although not a biologically “female” character) redefines what it means to be “female” on Broadway and otherwise, undoubtedly breaking those boxes and scattering the pieces, and (as Lena Hall showed me with her impeccable, astonishing vocal capabilities) forces Broadway to make room for a different type of leading voice, one that I absolutely love. I also believe that Yitzhak has the potential to help change both the mentality that is often used to think about casting roles in the theatrical world. Although Yitzhak is a character that is born biologically male, the role is always played by a woman, with each woman playing the character putting their own individual spin on what discovering true gender identity means to them. This shows that casting does not (and should not) need to be “biologically accurate” in terms of gender, and ironically and significantly enhances the message of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Yitzhak proves that one’s true gender identity should not continue to be defined by the biological parts that one is assigned at birth, but rather should be chosen for oneself. The role’s impact upon the theatrical community is very clear, especially since Fun Home, the first ever Broadway musical with a “masculinely” dressed-and-identifying, lesbian protagonist, is now the Tony-Award winner for Best Musical, and its modern-day relevance is also very clear (ex: Caitlyn Jenner’s courageous decision to transition).

The great Laurence Olivier once said, “I don’t know what is better than the work of an actor—to teach the human heart the knowledge of itself.” If this is true, then Yitzhak and the actresses who play this groundbreaking role are some of the best teachers ever to grace the stage, for they teach us all that what the human heart wants is the ability to pursue, well, what it wants, regardless of society’s expectations.