All of my ShenTens podcasts to date have concerned the living. Today I’m visiting the past, sometimes fairly recent, of my favourite past legends of musical theatre’s great Broadway leading ladies. I’ve confined my choices to those who have already left us — so even though Angela Lansbury, Julie Andrews, Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli and Carol Burnett, for instance, would undoubtedly qualify for all-time legend status, they’re not included here, as they’re happily still amongst us.
I’ve been lucky to have seen half of my choices live myself, but the other half I’m mainly acquainted with through the original cast albums they were part of, and of course some film work and surviving concert video. Thank God for YouTube!
1 Barbara Cook
I truly revered — even worshipped — Barbara Cook, the greatest theatrical soprano of her generation, and was lucky to have seen her countless times in concert and cabaret in both London and New York.
But I only saw her twice in actual shows: the ill-fated premiere production of Carrie (that she did at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1988, and was supposed to return her to Broadway after a 16 year absence — but from which she withdrew before it got there, and was replaced by Betty Buckley), and in the 2010 Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim that played at Studio 54.
Her golden age as a Broadway ingenue pre-dated my birth — she was the original Cunegonde in Bernstein’s Candide in 1956, originating the great aria ‘Glitter and Be Gay’.
She was also the original Marian Paroo in The Music Man (1957, for which she won a Tony Award) and starred as Amelia Balish in the original 1963 production of She Loves Me (but I missed that, too, as I was only a year old at the time!).
Until her comeback in Sondheim on Sondheim mentioned above, her final Broadway appearance in a musical was in 1972 in the flop show The Grass Harp; but in the intervening years she enjoyed a whole new career as a leading exponent of the Great American songbook, celebrating the songs of Harold Arlen (a particular passion of hers), Sondheim, Kander and Ebb and others. She packaged some of these programmes into Broadway events; others were done in more intimate cabaret settings at places like the Cafe Carlyle and Feinstein’s at the Regency.
In 1985, she appeared in the Lincoln Center concert revival of Follies, playing Sally Durant Plummer.
VIDEO: Performing ‘Losing My Mind’
She regularly came to London, too, starting with an appearance at the Donmar Warehouse in 1986 as part of David Kernan’s Show People seen there, that then transferred to the Albery (now the Noel Coward). That’s when I first saw her live for the first time, too, and from then on I saw her regularly in concert and cabaret on both sides of the pond, from venues large (the Metropolitan Opera House and the London Coliseum) to small (including a return season at the Donmar Warehouse in the inaugural 1998 Divas at the Donmar season that I helped programme).
In a New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/17/magazine/alone-again.html) interview in 2005, Alex Witchel wrote: “She is now, at 77, at the top of her game…. Cook’s voice is remarkably unchanged from 1958, when she won the Tony Award for playing Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. A few high notes aside, it is, eerily, as rich and clear as ever. As Marvin Hamlisch says, ‘With Barbara, you close your eyes, and she’s back to being the ingenue’.”
She died in 2017, aged 89; there was no one quite like her, to my eyes (and especially ears).
2 Ethel Merman
I never got to see Ethel Merman live, but what a career she had! She made her Broadway debut in 1930 in Gershwin’s Girl Crazy (a show later repurposed as Crazy for You), introducing ‘I Got Rhythm’.
Subsequent shows included playing Reno Sweeney in the original Anything Goes (1934), introducing such Cole Porter standards as ‘I Get a Kick Out of You,’ ‘You’re The Top,’ and of course the title song; followed by two more Porter scored shows, Red Hot and Blue (1936, singing ‘It’s De-Lovely’) and DuBarry was a Lady (1939, performing ‘Friendship” with Bert Lahr and Betty Grable).
VIDEO: Performing the title song to Anything Goes:
In 1946, she played Annie Oakley in the original Annie Get Your Gun, which featured her singing such Irving Berlin songs as ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, ‘Doin’ What Comes Nat’rally’, ‘You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun’, ‘I Got Lost in his Arms’, ‘I Got the Sun in the Morning’ and ‘Anything You can Do’.
In 1950, she won her only Tony for a musical when she starred as the original Mrs Sally Adams in another Berlin scored musical Call Me Madam; before in 1959, crowning her considerable career by starring as Momma Rose in the original production of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, where her songs included ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, ‘Some People’ and ‘Rose’s Turn.’
VIDEO: Performing ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’
She was famously salty and always spoke her mind. While rehearsing a guest appearance on The Loretta Young Show, Merman exclaimed “Where the hell does this go?” Young, who was a devout Catholic, presented her with an empty coffee can, saying “Come on, Ethel. You know my rules. That’ll cost you a dollar.” To which Merman replied “Tell me, Loretta, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?”
What a dame! (though she might herself have preferred, “What a broad!’) She was also a good sport, producing a legendary Disco album in 1979, setting some of her most famous songs to a disco beat that’s a true collector’s item; and doing a cameo role in the 1980 spoof disaster film, Airplane!
3 Gwen Verdon
No performer was more indivisibly associated with a single director/choreographer than Bob Fosse, whom she was also married to from 1960 until his death in 1987; their stormy professional and personal relationship was brilliantly charted recently in the TV series Fosse/Verdon, in which the protagonists were respectively played by Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams.
Their partnership had begun on Damn Yankees, premiered in 1955, which he choreographed; in the 1958 film version, they perform ‘Who’s Got the Pain’ together.
VIDEO: ‘Who’s Got the Pain’
She also stopped the show with ‘Whatever Lola Wants’, for which she won her first leading actress Tony; she’d won her first supporting Tony for Cole Porter’s Can-Can in 1953, in which she played not Lola but Lilo. Tony Awards also followed for her for New Girl in Town (1957) and Red Head (1959), the latter marking Fosse’s debut as a director/choreographer.
She was also Tony nominated for another two of their collaborations, but didn’t win, for the original Sweet Charity (1966) and Chicago (1975, playing the original Roxie Hart).
VIDEO: performing ‘Nowadays’ with Chita Rivera on the 1984 Tony Awards:
She was actually with Fosse in Washington DC when he died of a heart attack in front of her as he was there to supervise a Broadway-bound revival of Sweet Charity. In 1999, she was artistic consultant to the Broadway revue Fosse, a compilation of his work that was conceived and directed by Richard Maltby Jr and Ann Reinking (Fosse’s long-time mistress); and in 2000, she died, as Fosse did, of a heart attack, aged 75.
4 Mary Martin
After becoming an overnight star for her Broadway debut in Cole Porter’s Leave it to Me! in 1938, in which she introduced ‘My Heart belongs to Daddy’, Mary Martin would go on to create such legendary musical theatre characters as Nellie Forbush in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1949, which she reprised in the West End in 1951), the title role in Peter Pan (1954) and Maria in The Sound of Music (1959). She won Tony Awards for the latter three.
VIDEO: Performing ‘A Wonderful Guy’ from South Pacific, accompanied by Richard Rodgers:
In 1966, she returned to London to take over in Hello, Dolly!, and in the same year starred opposite Robert Preston in the two-hander musical I Do, I Do! on Broadway.
Her last stage role was in James Kirkwood’s play Legends, starring opposite Carol Channing (see below) on an eventful national tour that didn’t get to Broadway, but was the basis of one of the greatest backstage theatre books ever written when Kirkwood chronicled the experience in Diary of a Mad Playwright.
She died in 1990, aged 76, of cancer. Her legacy lives on in the cast albums, of course — and as mother of TV legend Larry Hagman (who played JR in Dallas).
5 Elaine Stritch
I adored the fierce, funny, combative Elaine Stritch, a truly original performer in musicals and also a great actor in plays, who channelled her own demons into performances that were rich in texture and tension.
She made her professional debut in 1944, aged just 19, and her Broadway debut two years later. She was nominated for Tony awards four times — twice for plays (Bus Stop in 1956 and A Delicate Balance in 1996), and twice for musicals (Noel Coward’s Sail Away in 1962 and Sondheim’s Company in 1971, in which she introduced ‘The Ladies who Lunch’).
VIDEO: Performing ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’
But she would have to wait until 2002 to win a Tony, when she was awarded a Tony for best special theatrical event for her solo autobiographical revue Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, which began its life at the Public Theatre in 2001 before transferring to Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre in 2002. It was credited as ‘constructed by John Lahr, reconstructed by Elaine Stritch’, about which she remarked: “The reconstruction means I had the last say. Damn right I did.” In the show, in which she was dressed in a shirt and black leggings only, she described herself as “an existential crisis in tights”.
She was famous for speaking her own mind and taking no prisoners. When she brought At Liberty to London’s Old Vic (an event recorded on video), I interviewed her at the Savoy Hotel — a place she’d made her London residence when she lived here in the 70s — and they provided an empty restaurant for us to do it in privately. At one point, she wanted to order a diet coke, but as the restaurant was shut, there was no waiter service. She became increasingly agitated by this, and eventually turned to me and said: ‘I know what I’ll do’! She proceeded to shout, loudly, “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!” She got a waiter — and her diet coke.
One of her earliest roles was understudying Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam — a story she tells in At Liberty with great aplomb as she simultaneously got a job in a featured role in a Broadway-bound revival of Pal Joey that was trying out in Boston; she’d get clearance that Merman (who was famous for never missing a show) was on for that evening’s performance before jumping on the train to Boston, making it with minutes to spare.
But Merman taught her a valuable lesson: as Michael Riedel recalled in a column for the New York Post after she died,
From Merman, she learned the key to longevity in the theatre.
“Elaine,” Merman told her, “if you want to be a Broadway star, you gotta live like a fuckin’ nun!”
Stritch tried — but, though Catholic, the convent wasn’t for her. She had flings with a number of actors (though she turned down a one-night stand with Marlon Brando), and she began drinking to calm her nerves.
“I put up this facade of being terribly sure of myself,” she once told me. “But underneath I had an enormous fear of going on stage, of losing my talent, of — hell, I was afraid of everything.”
What she drank depended on what play she was in.
“For Tennessee Williams, it was vodka,” she said. “For Neil Simon, scotch. Champagne for Noel Coward. Bourbon for Edward Albee. I guess you could say I was a method drinker.”
And that’s the measure (in every sense) of the woman.
VIDEO: Performing ‘I’m Still Here’ from Follies in the Sondheim 80th birthday anniversary concert at Lincoln Center in 2010.
In 2010, she made her final Broadway appearance as Madame Armfeldt in the revival of A Little Night Music that had transferred for London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, taking over during the run from Angela Lansbury, while Bernadette Peters took over as her daughter Desiree, from Catherine Zeta-Jones.
And in 2013, she finally left New York behind her, to return to her native Michigan — and Riedel writes,
“When she left New York, she told me it was because she was tired of showbiz and its phoniness.
Through clenched teeth and in a voice dripping with acid, she said, “I love the theatre— and . . . all . . . the . . . charming . . . people . . . in . . . it.”
A final priceless anecdote (via Wikipedia):
In the Modern Family episode Schooled, Mitch states that school was difficult for him because of having a name that rhymes with “witch, snitch, bitch, Elaine Stritch” to which he adds, “Not all bullies are straight.”
6 Madeleine Kahn
The great Madeleine Kahn may have been best known for her comedy roles in film — particularly in the Mel Brooks’s classics Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety and Blazing Saddles — but she also had a Broadway musical and play career, winning a Tony Award for her role as Dr Gorgeous in Wendy Wasserstein’s 1993 play The Sisters Rosensweig, .
She made her Broadway debut in 1968, and two years later was in the cast of Richard Rodgers’s Noah’s Ark musical Two by Two; but it is for originating the role of Lily Garland in Cy Coleman’s On the Twentieth Century (1978) that she was both thrilling and notorious: the stunning comic brilliance she brings to ‘Never’ (and a coloratura fury she directs at her former lover who is trying to entice her to work for him again) is one of the great recorded performances.
AUDIO: Performing ‘Never’ on the original cast album:
However, she gave so few performances in the role that she was eventually let go and replaced by Judy Kaye. She was Tony nominated for the role, though, and also for two more plays, Boom Boom Room (1974) and Born Again (1989).
She died in 1999, aged just 57, of ovarian cancer. Her husband donated a bench in her honour in Central Park, located near the reservoir on 87th street.
7 Carol Channing
The larger-than-life Carol Channing was like her Al Hirschfeld cartoon sketch come to three-D life: typically caricatures are bigger versions of the people they portray, but Channing was a bigger version of her caricature.
She first played the role of Dolly Levi that would come to define her career in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! in 1964, for which she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical; she would return to it again and again, on the road across the US and including two more Broadway returns (in 1978 and 1995), as well as a London run at Drury Lane in 1979, which is when I first saw her.
VIDEO: Performing Hello, Dolly! in London in 1979:
She was also nominated three more times: The Vamp (1956), Show Girl (1961), and Lorelei (1974), and starred in the original 1949 production of Jule Styne and Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, introducing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’.
In 1967 she was also Oscar nominated for her supporting role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, and in 1995 received a Lifetime achievement Tony Award.
8 Gertrude Lawrence
Britain’s first transatlantic theatre superstar, Gertrude Lawrence was born in Newington, London in 1898 (near where I currently live!), and died, aged just 54, of liver and abdominal cancer, soon after scoring her last Broadway triumph — and a Tony Award — as Mrs Anna Leonowens in the original 1951 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.
Poignantly, she was buried in the champagne-coloured gown designed by Irene Sharaff and worn for the “Shall We Dance?” number in that show; she was also the first person for whom house lights dimmed on Broadway to mark her death, which would then become a tradition.
AUDIO: Performing “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I:
Her career was almost derailed when she was just 20, and did a full Martine McCutcheon –while signed off from a job in West End after contracting lumbago, she was seen by her producer at a party of Ivor Novello’s two days before she was cleared to return to work. She was immediately fired, and unable to find other work as this news spread, she turned to nightclub work instead.
But in 1923, the same producer Andre Charlot employed her to appear in Noel Coward’s first revue London Calling, and the following year Andre Charlot’s London Revue of 1924 took her to Broadway in a company that also included Beatrice Lillie and Jack Buchanan. They were all reunited on Broadway in Charlotte’s Revue of 1926 two years later.
In 1926, Lawrence also starred in the title role of Gershwin’s Oh Kay!, becoming the first British star in an American musical on Broadway, introducing the now-standard ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’; in 1927 she transferred with it to the West End.
She starred with Noel Coward in the original 1930 West End production of his now-classic comedy Private Lives, taking it to Broadway in 1931; and the original 1935 production of Coward’s Tonight at 8.30, a cycle of ten one-act plays, that they also reprised on Broadway in 1936. In 1941, she starred in the original Broadway production of Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark, in which she introduced the song ‘My Ship’ and for which performance New York Herald Tribune critic Richard Watts dubbed her “the greatest feminine performer in the American theatre”.
AUDIO: Performing “My Ship”
In a biographical film made about her life and career in 1968 called Star!, she was played by another star who had a transatlantic career like she did: Julie Andrews.
9 Lena Horne
The great Lena Horne’s 70-year-career began as a singer at the legendary Cotton Club when she was just 16, and included appearing on Broadway in Harold Arlen and E.Y Harburg’s 1967 musical Jamaica, in which she played a character called Savannah and introduced songs like ‘Push the Button’,’ ‘Take it Slow, Joe’, ‘Ain’t it the Truth’, ‘Pretty to Walk With’ and ‘Napoleon.’
In the 40s she had a film career, appearing in such MGM films as Panama Hattie (1942) and Stormy Weather (1943, whose title song was also the work of Harold Arlen), but she never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that her films had to be re-edited for showing in cities where theatres would not show films with black performers. As a result, most of Horne’s film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline.
In the 1950s, she stepped away from film, saying she was “tired of being typecast as a Negro who stands against a pillar singing a song. I did that 20 times too often,” though she returned to a starring role in The Wiz in 1978, playing Glinda. In-between, she had a hugely successful nightclub career, performing seasons at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
In 1980, she formally announced her retirement, but the following year she returned to Broadway to star in a one-woman show on Broadway: Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. It was booked for a four week run at the Nederlander Theatre, but ended up being extended to run for over a year, becoming the longest-running solo show in Broadway history (with 333 performances), and winning her a special Tony Award. It closed on her 65th birthday, and she then took it on the road, touring to 41 cities across America and Canada. In 1984, she brought it to London’s Adelphi Theatre, where I finally saw her for the first time, too, and was thrilled to have been able to savour her story as well as supreme vocal artistry.
VIDEO: Full performance of Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music on Broadway.
10 Rebecca Luker
The gorgeous and talented Rebecca Luker died in February, aged 59, after suffering ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Her husband Danny Burstein, meanwhile, was hospitalised in her final year with COVID. He survived; she did not.
In a wonderfully moving tribute to her in the Hollywood Reporter, he wrote of his late wife,
“Becca was complicated and serious, insanely beautiful and silly, and funny and sexy and strong and stubborn and brilliantly talented. She was my wife. We were partners for 23 years and married for over 20. Lucky me. When we first started dating people would say to me, “You’re dating Rebecca Luker?’ I knew what they meant, even if it stung. She was always appalled by those remarks because she would tell me that she was the lucky one in the relationship. Not true. I was.
She came to New York to sing on Broadway. And she did for many, many years. But she also came to New York to escape, as she often talked about, the difficulties of a girl growing up in the South….
When I described her singing, I used to say, “She opens her mouth and her heart falls out.” That’s exactly how it felt. I know of no other singer who’s had that same effect on me. She had some innate connection to her soul when she sang that made the listener instantly feel the deepest emotions.
…Rebecca went from show to show, recorded album after album and worked her ass off. But it never seemed like a chore. She was living her dream and she knew it. We both were. We would meet after our respective shows at Joe Allen and have burgers and a round of beers. We couldn’t wait to see one another. And it was like that for years.”
Towards the end, she was offered a tracheotomy to deal with her illness, but rejected it, because it would mean that she would never speak or swallow again. As Danny also wrote,
“She was extremely weak but told the doctor that she didn’t want to live attached to a machine that way. She told him, “If I don’t have my voice, I don’t know who I am. My voice is everything I am. I’ll take my chances.” I broke down sobbing next to her when she said that. I’ve never witnessed anything so brave in my life.”
She began her career on Broadway as understudy to Sarah Brightman in the original 1988 transfer of the London hit The Phantom of the Opera; she would also become a replacement Christine in the show.
VIDEO: Performing “All I Ask of You” from Phantom in a concert with Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
She first originated a role in the 1991 musical version of The Secret Garden, playing Lily; then earned her first Tony nomination for playing Magnolia in the 1994 revival of Show Boat, directed by Hal Prince.
In 1998 she played Maria in a revival of The Sound of Music, and in 2000 starred as Marian Paroo in The Music Man, opposite Craig Bierko in the title role in Susan Stroman’s revival, for which she was again Tony nominated, as she was for originating the supporting role of Mrs Banks in the Broadway transfer of Mary Poppins (2006) from London. Her final roles on Broadway were take-overs — replacing Victoria Clark as the fairy godmother in Cinderella (2013) and replacing Judy Kuhn in Fun Home (2016).
After looking at stars of the past, I now turn my gaze very much to the present. To celebrate the imminent return of live theatre to British theatres, I will be turning my focus onto my favourite regional theatre venues.
Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design
The post ShenTens: My favourite Broadway leading ladies of the past first appeared on Shenton Stage.