My weekly ShenTens podcast, in which I count down my top ten favourites in a particular category, is inevitably subjective — but few theatrical terrains are as hotly contested as this one: whom I consider to be my favourite Broadway leading ladies. It’s also a constantly evolving list, too, as new talents come (and older ones retire, or we bid farewell to them).
So the first important thing is to establish my criteria for inclusion. I’m only including people who are still regularly active on Broadway — or at least were when the theatres shut down nearly a year ago — so there are no names from the past or who’ve not been on Broadway in a long while, like Liza Minnelli or Barbra Streisand, who’re both amongst the most magnetic stars who’ve ever graced a Broadway stage.
But Streisand was last on Broadway in 1964, in the original run of Funny Girl; while Liza Minnelli was last there in a musical in Victor/Victoria (when she took over from Julie Andrews in the title role in 1997), though she’s done two concert appearances since, at the Palace Theatre on Times Square in 1999 and again in 2008.
Nor have I included the likes of Bette Midler, who although she made a triumphant return to Broadway in 2017 in the title role of Hello, Dolly!, had previously appeared in a musical there fully forty years before when she took over the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof, three years into that show’s original run in 1967. (Again, like Liza, she has also done some concert shows on Broadway in-between).
So who is on my list?
Listen here to find out:
1. Audra McDonald
The reigning Queen of Broadway is Audra McDonald, who happens to have earned a record six Tony Awards — more than any other actor in history, and across all four acting categories (twice for Featured Actress in a Musical and Featured Actress in a Play, and once each for Best Actress in a Musical and Best Actress in a Play).
In addition, she has been nominated for three more Tony’s that she didn’t win. She has only failed to be nominated for a new production on two occasions — and during the second one, when she was starring in Shuffle Along in 2016, she won an even more unexpected prize, when at the age of 46 she fell pregnant with her second child, Sally James McDonald-Swenson.
But a side effect of the latter occurrence was that Scott Rudin, the producer of Shuffle Along, summarily shut down the show when she had to leave because of her pregnancy, even though he’d previously agreed to a hiatus in her contract for her to come to London to bring her Tony winning performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill to London for a run in the summer of 2016 (which was in turn postponed to 2017 as a result of her pregnancy). That remains her only West End appearance to date, though she has done a Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in 1999, when she played Eileen in a concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town.
Apart from her Broadway debut taking over in The Secret Garden in the early 90s, and her appearance as Lady Percy in Henry IV at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 2003, I have seen every single one of her Broadway roles to date, many of them multiple times. The most heartbreaking I’ve ever seen her was in 110 in the Shade, an utterly gorgeous musical about a woman blossoming as she discovers her own beauty in love, in which at a certain point in the second act I started crying and literally didn’t stop until the end of the show.
I’ve also seen her in concert and cabaret appearances many times, at venues ranging from London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1999 (where she was featured in the second year of the annual Divas at the Donmar, a series I had helped to initiate) and Provincetown’s tiny Arthouse Theatre to its larger Town Hall in 2019, as well as appearing as a guest in concerts as various as an outdoor charity fundraiser in a private home in Croton-on-Hudson (the town on the Hudson River that she calls home), the Metropolitan Opera House and a New Year’s Eve concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
And — being the obsessed fan I am — I also travelled to Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2015, when she appeared there in a production of O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, starring with her husband Will Swenson (pictured above, from left to right, Will Swenson, myself, Broadway photographer Bruce Glikas and Audra McDonald, backstage after we saw — and they appeared in — A Moon for the Misbegotten).
Given that she’s only just reached her first half century in age — she turns 51 in July — I look forward to enjoying many, many more years of seeing her live.
2. Patti LuPone
There’s no more fiery — or committed — actor on the planet today than Patti LuPone, who is as consistently forthright as she is brilliant. Asked on the Tony red carpet in 2017, she was asked why President Trump should come see War Paint, the musical that she was starring in at the time, she replied thus:
That entirely sums her up, and I love her for it. (In the podcast, I re-tell a story she told in a live interview at London’s Leicester Square Theatre in 2013, when an audience member asked her about the failure on Broadway of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the punchline of which involved the c word).
She made her first big mark on Broadway in 1979 when she starred in the title role of the original Broadway production of Evita — her performance of Buenos Aires on the 1981 Tony Awards telecast is still a thing of wonder.
But if Andrew Lloyd Webber contributed to one of the high points of her career, he was also responsible for its lowest, when she was summarily dismissed from recreating the role of Norma Desmond that she originated in the West End in 1993 on Broadway, despite it having been contractually agreed; she subsequently sued and in her autobiography refers to the settlement as funding what she has dubbed the Andrew Lloyd Webber memorial pool at her Connecticut home.
In the same autobiography, she quotes a letter that Trevor Nunn, who directed Sunset Boulevard, wrote to her after her firing, in which he said:
“I am now about to start rehearsing in London with half a new cast, knowing the pallor of unhappiness and the whiff of moral inadequacy hang over the enterprise”.
And once she processes it all (with the help of Prozac and therapy), she writes, “Sunset Boulevard was a devastating experience, and it had nothing to do with theatre, nothing to do with the reason I perform onstage. It was something else altogether — one man’s megalomania and insecurity crushing an actor behind deceit and greed.”
If that was a uniquely unhappy experience, there have been many better ones in a Broadway career that has spanned musicals like a hit revival of Anything Goes in 1987 (when it subsequently came to London in 1989, Elaine Paige made sure she secured the role for herself instead of LuPone by becoming one of the co-producers of the show, having lost the role of Eva Peron to her on Broadway).
But London has also welcomed LuPone, first in 1985 when she won the Olivier for best actress in a musical for appearing in both The Cradle will Rock at the Old Vic and the original production of Les Miserables at the Barbican (in which she originated the role of Fantine), and then in Company in 2018, when she won a second Olivier for best actress in a supporting role in a musical for playing Joanne, a role she was due to reprise in the production’s Broadway transfer that was suspended during previews owing to the Coronavirus pandemic, and is yet to re-open.
LuPone has also starred in a couple of David Mamet premieres on Broadway — The Old Neighborhood in 1997 and the (very) short-lived The Anarchist in 2012 — as well as the transfer of Terence McNally’s Masterclass to the West End in 1997 (also short-lived). She has also appeared in the Divas at the Donmar season (in 1999, the same year as Audra McDonald, a season I’d helped initiate the year before).
3. Kelli O’Hara
Kelli O’Hara has been Tony nominated for each of her seven Broadway appearances since 2005, and won the award for Best Actress in a Musical in 2015 for playing Mrs Anna at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, where she’d previously starred in the original production of The Light in the Piazza (2005) and also starred as Nellie Forbush in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (2008). Both of those R&H revivals came to London, but Kelli didn’t do South Pacific; she made her West End debut instead when she headlined the transfer of The King and I to the London Palladium in 2018.
I’ve seen every single one of her Broadway appearances except her debut (as an understudy, then takeover, in the original production of Jekyll and Hyde in 2000), including Follies (in a 2001 revival, where she played Young Hattie before taking over as Young Phyllis), Nick Hytner’s production of Marvin Hamlisch’s short-lived Sweet Smell of Success (2002, her first featured role) and Dracula, the Musical (2004).
And I’ve also seen both her appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House — in The Merry Widow in 2014 and Cosi fan tutte in 2018. When I went to see the latter, she invited me backstage to meet her (pictured above), and was grace itself — even though the next morning she was committed to doing a school run, and then spend the day on the set of a TV series!
4. Bernadette Peters
Bernadette Peters made her Broadway debut, aged just 10, in a revival of The Most Happy Fella in 1959; she became a staple — and then a star — there in the succeeding decades, with her first featured role in On the Town in 1972 (for which she received her first Tony nomination) and then her first starring role in the original unsuccessful production of Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel in 1974 (in which she played Mabel Normand).
A decade later, in 1984, she finally came out as a fully-fledged star as Dot in the premiere of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George; two years later, she won her first Tony starring in the Broadway premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance (though her English accent, heard on the original cast album, is simply risible).
VIDEO: Move On from Sunday in the Park with Geroge, sung by Bernadette Peters in concert with Mandy Patinkin (her original co-star) for Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert at Lincoln Center in 2010.
In 1987 she was the original Witch in Sondheim’s Into the Woods (but failed to be nominated for the Tony), but won again in 1999 for playing Annie Oakley in a revival of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. In the years since I’ve also seen her play Momma Rose in Sam Mendes’s 2003 revival of Gypsy, the transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of A Little Night Music (in which she took over in 2010 from Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree Armfeldt), the transfer of the Kennedy Center’s revival of Sondheim’s Follies (in 2011, playing Sally Durant Plummer), and Hello, Dolly! (in 2018, taking over from Bette Midler).
5. Betty Buckley
There’s hardly a more unique or idiosyncratic voice on Broadway than Betty Buckley, or a performer of more vocal and theatrical power. Alas she has not been showcased on Broadway nearly as often as her immense talent warrants or deserves.
Since making her Broadway debut over half a century ago — as the original Margaret Jefferson in 1776, premiered in 1969 — she has created leading roles (and therefore been heard on the cast albums of) the US premiere of Cats (winning the 1983 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical, and giving one of the signature performances of that show’s ‘Memory’), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985, in which she was the original Alice Nutting) and Triumph of Love (1997).
She also originated the role of Margaret White in the now-notorious transfer of the RSC’s musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie to Broadway in 1988 (taking over from Barbara Cook who had originated the role at Stratford-upon-Avon). It was, alas, not recorded, but you can watch her singing “When There’s No One’ online last year, over 30 years later, with a blazing intensity that demonstrates just how brilliant she is as both singer and actor. (She’d incidentally also had a featured role in the unrelated film version of Carrie).
Following another British theatre debacle she was not originally part of, when Patti LuPone was dismissed from reprising her role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway, Buckley came to London to take-over from LuPone; and she immediately put her own stamp on this now iconic role, going on to reprise it on Broadway as a replacement in 1995. More recently, she headlined the first US tour of the Hello, Dolly! revival, which I caught in Boston in 2019.
Her concerts are also amazing experiences. Here she is singing Stephen Schwartz’s Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife:
6. Sutton Foster
There’s something entirely delightful about Sutton Foster: even her name makes you smile! Between her first Tony award — for her first starring role on Broadway, in the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002 — to her last Broadway appearance in the title role of a revival in Violet in 2014 (both of which featured scores by Jeanine Tesori, as did her 2008 entry Shrek in which she was the original stage Princess Fiona), she has captivated with her open-hearted charm, but Violet also showed a more dramatic side to her personality.
I’ve seen her in all but one of her Broadway roles since 2002 — the one I missed was Little Women in 2005, though I caught each of her roles in the following three years when she managed to get a starring role every year: The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006, Young Frankenstein in 2007 and Shrek in 2008, before she won a second Tony for a revival of Anything Goes in 2012.
VIDEO: Singing the title song of ‘Anything Goes’ in concert.
I last saw her in an off-Broadway revival of Sweet Charity in 2016, in which he was hilarious and heartbreaking.
VIDEO: If My Friends Could See Me Now from Sweet Charity, performed at Signature Theatre on W42nd Street in a New Group production.
She was due to be on Broadway right now, headlining a revival of The Music Man in which she is going to play Marion Paroo opposite Hugh Jackman in the title role — but it has been postponed now till 2022.
7. Liz Callaway
There’s hardly a lovelier, more lilting voice in the world than that possessed by Liz Callaway, who for me is right up there with Karen Carpenter in the sheer purity of her sound. She’s sadly not really had the Broadway career she should have — it began with a bona fide flop in the original 1981 production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, when she was just 20; her most recent Broadway credit, The Look of Love, also flopped in 2003.
In-between the two, she was Tony nominated for featured actress in a musical for creating the role of Lizzie Fields in Baby, in which she originated Maltby and Shire’s glorious The Story Goes On:
She subsequently had a long stint as Grizabella in Cats, and also featured in the original Broadway transfer of Miss Saigon.
But she’s still a very active concert and cabaret performer, and in 1998 I was privileged to be able to be partly responsible for bringing her and her older sister Ann Hampton Callaway to London to offer the West End premiere of their cabaret show Sibling Revelry at the Donmar Warehouse as part of the inaugural Divas at the Donmar season that I initiated and helped programme. (Our paths have crossed regularly in the years since; above, we are pictured in Provincetown in 2019).
VIDEO: She sings David Frost, Carole Bayer Sager, Alberto Testa and Tony Renis’s The Prayer with her son Nicholas Callaway Foster in cabaret at the New York nightclub 54 Below (I was in the audience that night!):
I, alas, missed her early appearances in Merrily and especially the 1985 Lincoln Center concert version of Follies (in which she played Young Sally to Barbara Cook’s older Sally). In 1997, she also provided the singing voice of Anastasia in the animated musical feature of the same name, and became the first person to sing Journey to the Past — Ahrens and Flaherty’s Oscar-nominated song from the film.
8. Melissa Errico
The second of my top ten to have appeared in the 2004 flop Dracula — the other is Kelli O’Hara — Melissa Errico is another of my absolutely favourite Broadway singers, even if her Broadway track record has been only in shows that have run less than six months, and in some cases far less. These include a 1993 revival of My Fair Lady as Eliza Doolittle, opposite Richard Chamberlain’s Professor Henry Higgins (which I didn’t see), as well as High Society (1998), the delightful Michel Legrand show Amour (2002), Dracula (2004) and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (2009), all of which I did see.
VIDEO: With Malcolm Gets, her co-star from Amour, in a concert in Times Square, singing a song from the show:
More recently I’ve seen her Off-Broadway, in a 2013 revival of Sondheim’s Passion (2013, at Classic Stage Company) and twice at Irish Rep, in productions of Finian’s Rainbow (in 2016) and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (in 2018). And I’ve also seen her in cabaret in Provincetown (pictured above in 2017), New York and London.
VIDEO: Performing Children will Listen from Sondheim’s Into the Woods in cabaret at 54 Below:
9. Chita Rivera
Delores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, to give Chita Rivera her full name, is a living legend of the Broadway stage, whose career has spanned nearly 70 years there. She was the original Anita in West Side Story in 1957 (introducing the song ‘America’) and the original Rose Grant in Bye Bye Birdie in 1960, both before I was born; she was also the original Velma Kelly in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago (1975), which I again was too young to have caught. (I did, however, see her return to Chicago in 2009, when she came to London to star in the revival production, swapping roles to star as Roxie Hart). But I did see her next three Kander and Ebb musicals on Broadway — The Rink (1984, playing Liza Minnelli’s mother!), Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1993) and The Visit (2015, taking over a role originally written for Angela Lansbury).
VIDEO: Performing Love and Love Alone from The Visit:
I’ve also seen her on Broadway in revivals of Nine (2003) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012), as well as a retrospective of her own career, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life (2005).
She turned 88 last month; she’s indomitable. Despite a 1986 accident in which a car she was travelling in collided with a cab, and left her with injuries to her leg that required eighteen screws and two braces to mend, she was soon back on stage.
10. Angela Lansbury
I missed the heyday of Lansbury’s stage career of the 1960s and 1970s, when she originated leading roles in Mame (1966) and Sweeney Todd (1979, in which she was the original Mrs Lovett).
VIDEO: The Worst Pies in London, performed by Angela Lansbury at the 1979 Tony Awards:
I also missed the short-lived 1983 revival of Mame — I made my first trip to New York that summer, and — in the days before the internet — went to the box office to try to buy a ticket, but was told it had closed the previous weekend.
VIDEO: Bosom Buddies from Mame, performed with Bea Arthur:
There followed a long hiatus for the stage, as she starred in the long-running television detective series Murder She Wrote; before she returned to Broadway in 2007 in Terrence McNally’s play Deuce (opposite Marian Seldes), which I eagerly rushed to see. Ditto her next appearances in Blithe Spirit (2009, which she subsequently reprised in the West End in 2014); the transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of A Little Night Music (2009); and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (2012).
She’s now 90, and it would be greedy to expect her to appear on Broadway again. But I live in hope.
I’ve inevitably left out even more people than I’ve included. Amongst the most egregious omissions are Kristin Chenoweth (a particular delight in Roundabout’s 2015 revival of On the Twentieth Century), though I make no excuses for not including her fellow Wicked alumnus Idina Menzel, who for my money has a fierce but metallic voice.
I’m also sad not to have had room to include Victoria Clark (so ravishing in The Light in the Piazza), Joanna Gleason (last on Broadway in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in 2005, but before that the original Baker’s Wife in Sondheim’s Into the Woods in 1987) and Donna Murphy (the original Fosca in Sondheim’s Passion in 1994, a wonderful Mrs Anna in The King and I in 1996, a hilarious Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town in 2003 and a brilliant alternate for Bette Midler, twice a week, in Hello, Dolly! in 2017, whom I made a special effort to catch).
I’d also like to find room to include some more personal favourites: the wondrous Judy Kuhn (who starred in the short-lived Broadway production of Chess in 1988 after originating the role of Cosette in the Broadway transfer of Les Miserables in 1987, and most recently starred in the original production of Fun Home in 2015, each of which she was Tony nominated for; pictured above with me in Provincetown in 2018, when she appeared in cabaret there), Alice Ripley (so stunning as Diana in the original 2009 production of Next to Normal), Carolee Carmello (brilliant in Jason Robert Brown’s Parade in 1998, and one of the best Donna Sheridan’s I ever saw in Mamma Mia! in 2004) and Dee Hoty (stunning in The Will Rogers Follies in 1991, and another great Donna Sheridan take-over in Mamma Mia!, but whose other original Broadway musicals have been less notable entries like the fast flops The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public in 1994, Gigi in 2015 and Bright Star in 2016).
NEXT WEEK: I’ll count down my Top Ten Favourite West End leading ladies, before I return to Broadway for my leading men, then the West End’s leading men.
To tune in, don’t forget to subscribe on your favourite listening platform. And come back here every Friday for this weekly feature with more background information and commentary on each choice, plus links to clips in which you can watch them in action.
Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design