There's a kind of homecoming happening at Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont right now with Jose Llana replacing Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam in the Tony-winning revival of The King and I, after having made his Broadway debut as Lun Tha in the 1996 revival of the show. (It's also a reunion for Llana and this revival's Lun Tha, Conrad Ricamora and Lady Lady Thiang, Ruthie Ann Miles, who starred together last year in the Public Theater's Here Lies Love.) For Llana, stepping into the role of the King can be seen as a rite of passage. Over the last two decades, he has established himself as a formidable romantic leading man in musicals and one of the most prominent Asian-American actors on Broadway — and he's been an obvious choice any time casting called for "young lovers." But now, at 39 years old, he steps up into a more dynamic role. For those of us who've been following his career all along, there's no doubt he's up to the challenge. This type of maturing into a part is only one of the reasons an actor can "graduate" from one role into another within a show. Sometimes, it's just a matter of a performer having the requisite versatility. Other times, they may prove their talent or grow their fame to the point where they earn a more starring opportunity.
10. Judy McLane, Mamma Mia! In 2004, Drama Desk nominee Judy McLane took over the role of Mamma Mia!'s vampy Tanya (originated by Karen Mason). It was a natural fit for the statuesque McLane who has played her share of lookers, in a long career starring in musicals on Broadway and all around the country. In 2012, when the producers recast her in the leading role of Donna, she got the chance to shake more than her booty, as her powerful voice continues to raise the roof eight times a week singing one ABBA hit after another, culminating in "The Winner Takes It All."
Velvet-voiced Davis Gaines is nationally renowned for having played the title role in The Phantom of the Opera over 2,000 times in L.A., San Francisco and on Broadway, but his journey with the show didn't begin wearing the mask. Relatively early in the show's Broadway run, Gaines replaced Steve Barton as Raoul, the Phantom's rival for the affections of Christine Daaé. Appropriate as the young and handsome star was for the part, his commanding presence and booming baritone made his ascension to the role of Phantom almost inevitable.
Two roles in a musical that seem like they would have been played by many of the same actors are sisters Elphaba and Nessarose in Wicked. In a sense, anyone who can play Elphaba can play Nessarose, although the opposite may not be true. Elphaba flies while Nessarose is wheelchair-bound and if their vocal ranges are similar, the extensive belting pyrotechnics required of Elphaba certainly make Nessarose's minor musical track look like a "light sing." So it's surprising more Elphabas haven't gotten their start as Nessaroses — or perhaps it's not. One exception, though, is Marcie Dodd who played Nessarose on tour before starring as Elphaba on Broadway.
A double graduation happened at the St. James Theatre when original cast members Roger Bart and Brad Oscar matriculated to the leading roles of Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock in The Producers. Oscar had begun his journey with the musical in the chorus during the show's pre-Broadway "out-of-town tryout" in Chicago. When the actor playing Franz Liebkind was waylaid by a knee injury, Oscar was bumped up into the part of the buffonish Nazi. About two years (and one Tony nomination) later, he was starring above the title in the role originated by Nathan Lane. Roger Bart was also Tony nominated for creating the role of Carmen Ghia ("Springtime for Hitler" director Roger De Bris' hilariously mincing "common-law assistant"), and then found himself joining Oscar above the title, in the part created by Matthew Broderick. Word on the street was that the laughs just kept on flowing.
Versatile triple-threat Priscilla Lopez has been kicking up her heels on Broadway since her days in the chorus of various 1960s musicals. She started winning fans as a replacement in the original productions of Company (as Kathy) and Pippin (as Fastrada, Pippin's mother) and went on to make history creating the role of Diana Morales in A Chorus Line and to win a Tony for A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine. Many years and many roles later, Lopez returned to Pippin, taking over as Berthe (Pippin's grandmother) in the recent revival of the show. In this new production, it's the role for which Andrea Martin won the Tony and stopped the show nightly, dazzling audiences with her talents, both theatrical and acrobatic. Lopez was well up to the challenge.
5. John Rubinstein, Pippin
Another graduation from the original production of Pippin to the revival was Tony winner John Rubinstein. He famously created the title role, singing "Corner of the Sky" and all the other classic Stephen Schwartz songs on the indelible cast album (on legendary Motown Records). Years later, now a distinguished middle-aged leading man of stage and screen, Rubinstein stepped into the role of Charlemagne (Pippin's father) taking over from Terrence Mann, his co-star in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1996 comedy thriller, Getting Away With Murder.
Barbara Cook is widely hailed for creating roles in such landmark Golden Age musicals as The Music Man, Candide and She Loves Me. Around that time, she also starred in several revivals of musicals that, due to their creative and chronological proximity to those shows' original productions, have faded from general awareness. One of these was Carousel, in which Cook starred at City Center twice, in 1954 and 1957 as Carrie Pipperidge and Julie Jordan, respectively. I can't imagine anyone more glorious in either part! If I had a time machine, a video crew and an editing facility, I'd cut together a video of Carousel starring Barbara Cook and Barbara Cook!
A particularly poignant musical matriculation was Chip Zien playing the Mysterious Man in the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival's 2012 Delacorte Theatre production of Into The Woods. Zien had memorably created the role of the Baker in the original Broadway production (preserved for eternity on Image Entertainment's DVD/Blu-ray release of the show's American Playhouse broadcast). The Mysterious Man is the Baker's estranged father, who abandoned him in childhood, and their final confrontation in the song "No More" is the turning point in the Baker's struggle to be a father himself. This beautiful moment, arguably the heart of the show, never played more powerfully than when Zien essayed the role of the father he never had to a man who literally used to be himself.
Yet another generational crossover occurred when Judy Kuhn replaced Lea Salonga (who had replaced Daphne Rubin-Vega) as Fantine in the 2006 revival of Les Misérables. Kuhn was, of course, no stranger to the show, having received the first of her four Tony Award nominations (including the most recent for starring in 2015 Best Musical winner Fun Home) as Cosette in the original production. It must have been intense for Kuhn to sing Fantine's dying lullaby "Come to Me" with her own decades-old history as Cosette looming.
Bebe Neuwirth won her second Tony Award playing Velma Kelly in the (still-running) revival of Chicago in 1996. The singer-dancer-actress extraordinaire was no stranger to the work of Bob Fosse, having starred on Broadway in two of the master director-choreographer's final productions, Dancin' and the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity starring Debbie Allen. Over Chicago's long run, hundreds of leading ladies of stage and screen have stepped into the roles of Roxie and Velma and you have to imagine producers Barry and Fran Weissler racking their brains to come up with star replacement ideas. What fabulous, famous lady could sing Roxie? Dance Roxie? Act Roxie? Surely, Neuwirth must have kept coming to mind. The only conceivable reason not to cast her as Roxie had to be the fact that she was their first Velma. Ultimately that just wasn't a good enough reason to cross her off the list; Neuwirth enjoyed a personal triumph playing a limited engagement as Roxie. More recently, she achieved the trifecta, completing her Chicago triple crown, when she took over the role of Matron "Mama" Morton and brought her voice to the showstopping "When You're Good To Mama." Perhaps future revivals will boast "in the style of Bob Fosse and Bebe Neuwirth"?