Today, there is something of a diva-off at Musical Cyberspace. For this week’s Saturday list, we’re going to rank the multiple-Tony Award winners in the Best Actress in a Musical category, mentioning and sharing video clips of some favourite performances. Eleven actresses have won the Tony award in this category more than once, with Angela Lansbury leading the pack with four wins. But let’s kick off the list with one of the two Broadway divas with a triple win at the Tony Awards.
11. Mary Martin
The much-beloved Mary Martin won three Tony Awards, for her work on South Pacific, Peter Pan and The Sound of Music. With a fourth nomination in the bag, for I Do! I Do!, it is safe to say that she is one of Broadway’s golden age treasures. That said, of all those classic Broadway divas, Martin is one whose appeal doesn’t always resonate with everyone today – especially for those who have no memory of her performing live or who haven’t tracked down video footage of her in action. Nonetheless, her body of work can’t be contested and she put her stamp on a couple of other roles she didn’t originate, including Annie Oakley and Dolly Levi. And of course, if one goes back to the start of her Broadway career, it was her performance of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me! (with a book by Sam and Bella Spewack) that made her a musical theatre sensation. This performance of that song is from the 1946 film, Night and Day.
10. Christine Ebersole
Christine Ebersole’s first Broadway musical was On the Twentieth Century in 1978, where she was a replacement Agnes and an understudy Lily Garland. She then played roles like Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, Guenevere in Camelot and Gerta in Harrigan and Hart. She only received her first nomination in 2001, for playing Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street. Luckily, it was the one category to which The Producers – which swept that year’s Tony Awards – could not lay claim and Ebersole beat out Blythe Danner, Randy Graff, Faith Prince and Marla Schaffel to bring home the award. Ebersole’s most compelling role was still to come and in 2006, she started her run as ‘Little Edie’ Beale and Young Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale in Grey Gardens, racking up her second nomination and win. With many film and television credits under her belt too, it’s a pity that this great musical theatre actress hasn’t appeared on the Broadway stage more often in her musicals in a career that spans more than four decades. Here she is, performing “The Revolutionary Costume of Today” from Grey Gardens.
9. Sutton Foster
Many Broadway traditionalists are clutching their pearls at the idea of Sutton Foster’s current gig at the time of writing, playing the traditionally legit soprano role of Marian in The Music Man. As for me, I’m all for new interpretations when it comes to revivals and the buzz from the first previews was great – so let’s see. Foster won her first Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical playing the titular role in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Having covered roles like Sandy in Grease and Eponine in Les Miserables and appeared in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Annie, Foster then replaced Erin Dilly when Thoroughly Modern Millie transferred to New York. Her success in that show led to performances in Little Women, The Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein, Shrek and Violet, a set of musicals ranging in quality from mediocre to magnificent. Foster earned nominations for all of them, except Young Frankenstein. In 2011, Foster had her second win playing Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. Here is she performing “Show Off” from The Drowsy Chaperone, where she was nominated against Patti LuPone, Kelli O’Hara and Chita Rivera and lost the award to LaChanze, who won for her performance in The Color Purple.
8. Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall starred in just two Broadway musicals, Applause and Woman of the Year and won Tony Awards for both. One of the great movie stars, Bacall earned herself a third spot in musical theatre history, with her name dropped into “Rainbow High”, one of the songs in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita. That lyric would be sung on Broadway by another two-time Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award winner, Patti LuPone. It is a testament to how distinctive Bacall was as a star, her gravelly voice being unmistakable in the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams and John Kander-Fred Ebb songs that studded the scores of her two shows respectively. When she passed away in 2014, it was a loss felt by many in the entertainment industry. Here she is at the Tony Awards, singing the best number from Woman of the Year, “One of the Boys”.
7. Donna Murphy
In many ways, Donna Murphy is the thinking man’s diva. When Murphy takes the stage, you can be sure that you’re going to get a layered and beautifully acted performance. There are things that she finds in the roles that she plays that are surprising to see, even in a tried and tested show like The King and I. This trademark of Murphy’s performances was also evident in her ebullient turn in Wonderful Town. Murphy’s other Tony Award was for a role she created, the often but unfairly maligned Passion, in which her knack for getting deep under the skin of her characters was fully on display, as can be seen in the clip of “Loving You” below. Murphy’s most recent Broadway stint was as Bette Midler’s alternate in Hello, Dolly! Let’s look forward to the day we see her above the title in a vehicle suited to her talents once again!
6. Gwen Verdon
Gwen Verdon is famous for two things. Firstly, there is the Bob Fosse link. For many years she was known primarily as Fosse’s muse and it is pleasing to hear increasingly more about her own agency in working with Fosse. Secondly, there is her distinctive voice. Like Judi Dench, she has that catch in her throat that allows the voice to ramp up the pathos or play things up for laughs as needed. Verdon introduced some fine solo character spots in her career, including “Whatever Lola Wants” in Damn Yankees, “If They Could See Me Now” in Sweet Charity and “Funny Honey” in Chicago, but it’s her two numbers with a whole bunch of boys that leave us with the biggest grins, namely “Roxie” (Ethan Mordden does a great breakdown of this number in his book, All That Jazz) and “I’m a Brass Band,” which performed in the clip from The Ed Sullivan Show below. Gosh, she knew how to own a stage!
5. Liza Minnelli
Perhaps if Liza Minnelli’s spot on this list were to be considered with only her two Best Actress Tony Award-winning performances in Flora the Red Menace and The Act in mind, she might not place this high. But Minnelli is a legend. She may not have spent the larger part of her career on Broadway, but in many ways, she represents absolutely the spirit of Broadway. She is “New York, New York.” She is her speech about Ethel Merman before her performance of “Some People” on My Favourite Broadway: The Leading Ladies. She is the great gay icon who dares to sing Sondheim songs in the style of the Pet Shop Boys. Few know how to build a number like Liza, something she’s always had. Here she is at 19, doing just that in “Sing Happy” from Flora the Red Menace.
4. Chita Rivera
With a staggering eight nominations in the Best Actress category at the Tony Awards over a career that spans more than seven decades, Chita Rivera’s wins came for her legendary performances as Anna in The Rink and Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Rivera is pure class and an absolute pro, elevating everything she lends her name to. She wrote the blueprint for the best kind of Velma in Chicago and scored two further nominations in the Featured Actress category when she wasn’t billed above the title. Rivera wasn’t nominated at all for her legendary breakthrough performance as the original Anita in West Side Story. That year, the Featured Actress category was filled out with some of the leading ladies of the season so she couldn’t get a look in. Anyway, here she is making everything look effortless in “Where You Are” from Kiss of the Spider Woman.
3. Bernadette Peters
Is it possible for anyone not to adore Bernadette Peters? Anytime she appears in a musical, she lights up the stage. And yet for everyone who loved her in Sunday in the Park like with George, there’s someone who didn’t love her Tony Award-winning turn in the title role of Annie Get Your Gun. And for every brickbat thrown her way on a musical theatre message board for her work in Follies, there are a dozen bouquets for her Tony Award-winning performance in Song and Dance. It’s a conundrum. Nonetheless, she’s warm and funny and by all accounts, a brilliant human being. And her concerts are amazing. Here she is in one of them at the Royal Festival Hall in London, performing “Unexpected Song” from that last-mentioned show.
2. Patti LuPone
Patti LuPone will take on anything from challenging roles (winning Tony Awards for Evita and Gypsy) to Andrew Lloyd Webber (enabling her to build The Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Pool after the Sunset Boulevard scandal) to photographers in the audience (earning the love and respect of theatregoers worldwide as they listened, somewhat ironically, to the bootleg of her having someone escorted from the house as she headed into “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy). Bless her, she is even doing her part to bring in audiences after the COVID-19 lockdowns by delivering safety messages as part of the marketing drive of the current Broadway production of Company in which she is playing Joanne. The winning thing about LuPone is how passionate she is about what’s close to her heart – and the theatre is very close to her heart. Her autobiography is an excellent read. Here are some clips from 1980 of LuPone in Evita. She’s a force of nature.
1. Angela Lansbury
Angela Lansbury always refers to herself as a character actress and attributes this as the main thing that has enabled her to play the wide range of roles she has played in her career. On the musical stage, she was definitive as Mame and Nellie Lovett. She is the greatest Rose. Those performances earned her three of her Best Actress in a Musical Tony Awards, the fourth coming from a second-tier Jerry Herman show, Dear World. That wasn’t her only musical flop, though. She started off her musical theatre career in the distinguished flop, Anyone Can Whistle, one of those shows that would have had a longer run had all the people who claimed to have seen it did. What a career transition that was! While her last Broadway musical was the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music, she’s still “bobbing along, singing a song” and introduced the finale of 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns, “Nowhere to Go But Up.” Here’s something from a bit further back though, the footage from her 1974 turn in Gypsy.
And that’s that! Who’s your favourite of these multiple Best Actress Tony Award winners? And who do you think will be next to double up? Head to the comments and let us know!