I recently wrote about a few of my favourite leading ladies and leading men in West End musicals, and now that I just returned yesterday from my Tony week on Broadway, it’s a good opportunity to think about some of my favourite performers over there.
This Tony year has deservedly honoured my long-time favourite Broadway leading lady of them all: the incandescent Audra McDonald, who won her fifth Tony for Porgy and Bess, and is the singer whom I seriously regard to be the greatest to be born in my theatregoing lifetime.
But though that’s quite some accolade, I don’t think I could go as far as the young fan who I overheard exclaiming the other day as we both passed the Richard Rodgers Theatre where Porgy is playing, “She’s the best singer that ever existed!”
My own personal veteran but still living performer who may just qualify for an accolade like that is Barbara Cook. It may be a question of my own taste, of course, but both Cook and McDonald share the same kind of operatically trained vocal purity; but their warm, clear tones also access the emotional truth and channel the truthful emotion of whatever they are singing about.
Both of them set the bar so high that it’s difficult for anyone else to come near. But this year a name new to me, Cristin Milioti, is doing something extraordinary in Once that in any other year, without Audra also on the Tony nominations slate, would have been more than worthy of an award. In fact, the entire slate for Best Leading Actress in a Musical is notable: as well as these two, Jan Maxwell was also nominated for a dazzling performance as Phyllis in the revival of Follies that outshone everyone else on the stage, including Broadway darling Bernadette Peters and an equally veteran troupe of other players.
Then there was Kelli O’Hara, one of the brightest and best of the ingenue performers that have emerged in the last few years, but who was a bit miscast in Nice Work if You Can Get It (and was also let down by co-star Matthew Broderick, with whom it was impossible to strike sparks given how hard he was concentrating on simply getting the steps right). Rounding out the category was Laura Osnes for her performance in Frank Wildhorn’s Bonnie and Clyde, which was a flop but like other Wildhorn stars like his former wife Linda Eder and the wonderful Christiane Noll (both in the original Jekyll and Hyde) and Scarlet Pimpernel’s Christine Andreas before her, also deserve a name check on any Broadway favourites list.
In fact there are so many terrific Broadway leading ladies that one is tempted to merely list them. So to stop us being here all day, I will: amongst other favourites I have to include Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley, as much for the force of their quirky personalities that they pour into their voices as for their singing; and also add Victoria Clark, Dee Hoty, Donna Murphy, Christine Ebersole, Donna McKechnie, Carolee Carmello, Rebecca Luker, La Chanze, Marin Mazzie, Liz Callaway, Melissa Errico, Alice Ripley, Julia Murney, Laura Benanti, Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster.
Amongst a younger or still emerging generation, three performers who’ve also been seen in London in the last few years, Sierra Boggess, Caissie Levy and Patina Miller, all stand out. If I had to select my top five out of these favourites, I’d name LuPone, Buckley, Carmello, Mazzie and Murney.
But in a class of their own, too, are veteran leading ladies Angela Lansbury, Elaine Stritch and Chita Rivera — and all of them still performing at the ages of 86, 87 and 79 respectively! Lansbury is even now starring on Broadway in The Best Man (a play not a musical), but she played Madame Armfeld in the Broadway transfer of the Menier’s A Little Night Music two years ago — and was succeeded by Stritch! And Rivera returns to Broadway in the autumn in a revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
There are simply so many great Broadway leading ladies; and if I’ve left anyone off the list, it may be intentional but is more likely to simply be an oversight. When it comes to the male side, however, the choices become more limited, as they did in London. Once again, I’m tempted to lead the list with the newest discovery, Once’s Steve Kazee, who just took this year’s Tony for Leading Actor in a Musical, and has arrived with the same irresistible force of glamour and swagger as Adam Pascal did in the original production of Rent. (Disappointingly, Pascal appears to have lost some of that danger — along with his now long absent chest hair, which disappeared sometime during the previews of Aida — in the years since).
For whatever reason, though the men either simply don’t make as much of an impression or last as long as the ladies do. Jere Shea, a striking arrival in the original production of Passion in 1994, for instance, has entirely left the business. Of course, there’s always the exception that proves the rule like John Cullum (still working in musicals at the age of 82). By and large, though, actors who’ve made it in musicals often leave it for pastures new (I’m thinking Jessie Tyler Ferguson and Matthew Morrison, to name two leading men who’ve become TV stars, while Christian Borle — now in TV’s Smash — is back on Broadway in Peter and the Starcatcher for which he has just won a Tony Award, but its not a musical), or make it somewhere else first before doing musicals.
Hugh Jackman, the biggest musical male star on Broadway of the last decade, arrived there already trailing star dust from his film career, but proved that his early days in Australian musicals stood him in good stead to return to them. The charisma factor also gave Antonio Banderas’s appearance in a Broadway revival of Nine a thrilling quality that also served the character.
But the pickings of homegrown Broadway musical leading men, born and nurtured there and blossoming into maturity on the stage, are comparatively slim. Mandy Patinkin travelled that route, for sure, but hasn’t done an original musical on Broadway now since The Wild Party 12 years ago, though he did return last year in a concert show with Patti LuPone. Otherwise, the leading men who deserve the claim (and acclaim) to the title, I’d count Norm Lewis, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Norbert Leo Butz, Brian D’arcy James and Michael Cerveris as the leading contenders.
Amongst younger arrivals, there’s Aaron Tveit and Adam Chanler-Berat (both so good in Next to Normal), Will Swenson and Gavin Creel (both notable in the revival of Hair that they subsequently reprised in the West End), and Jeremy Jordan (currently in Disney’s Newsies but who had a remarkable year on Broadway that also saw him headline Bonnie and Clyde and was undiminished by its fast failure, simply segueing back into Newsies that he had done the earlier Paper Mill Playhouse try-out of).
There are no doubt others, and again, your stand-out performers may be different to mine. Feel free to post your own comments below.