It's the most wonderful time of the year for theatre lovers. The Tony Awards are just a few weeks away, and Broadway is abuzz with high hopes — and high anxiety. Regardless of who takes home the trophies, this season has been packed with thrilling performances by some Tony-winning veterans making grand returns to the Great White Way.
Of course, I'm talking first and foremost about Chita Rivera, but there's also been tremendous fan excitement over main stem turns by fellow gold-holders Kristin Chenoweth, Victoria Clark and Tonya Pinkins, among others, not to mention all the talent onstage in non-musicals (and all the men, but that's another column). With next year's crop of new productions still yet to completely materialize, there's always the hope we'll see more of our favorite Tony champs back where they belong in the near future. How exciting that we can look forward to the possibility of Lea Salonga in Allegiance, Jessie Mueller in Waitress and Audra McDonald in Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. What other Tony-winning musical actresses might pop up?
10. Heather Headley
The fiercely beautiful Heather Headley commands a stage like few other performers. She won hearts for creating the role of Nala in the original cast of The Lion King and then won a Tony blowing the roof off Broadway's Palace Theatre as Aida. Her facility with these Elton John tunes presaged her future success as a Grammy-winning recording artist. She recently conquered London in the stage version of The Bodyguard and whether it's that role or another, we eagerly await her next venture on our boards.
In the song "I Want It All" in the 1984 musical Baby, the three ladies sing, "I wanna be Donna McKechnie, Donna Summer, Donna Reed." It was totally appropriate for Richard Maltby, Jr. to include the A Chorus Line Tony-winner in this trifecta of pop culture icons. A Chorus Line was a watershed hit, and Donna was perhaps the definitive Broadway star of the 1970s. A true triple-threat and also the picture of the post-sexual revolution modern woman, she possesses not only virtuoso skills, but compelling vulnerability and deep reserves of power. One of the greatest Broadway performances that never happened was Donna's revelatory Sally in the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse production of Follies. She is currently standing by for Chita Rivera in The Visit, but I'm holding my breath for Donna's "turn."
8. Donna Murphy
Another Tony-winning Donna, the history-making Fosca in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion and an acclaimed Anna Leonowens in the last revival of The King And I, Donna Murphy's taken home the gold twice. She won Drama Desk Award for Lovemusik and Wonderful Town and has been stellar in many other productions. What will be next? She and Patti LuPone have been workshopping War Paint, a new Scott Frankel/Michael Korie/Doug Wright collaboration (the team that gave us Grey Gardens) based on the rivalry between self-made cosmetic magnates Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Sparks are certain to fly!
Speaking of Grey Gardens, one of the most iconic star turns of the last few decades was certainly Christine Ebersole's Tony-winning triumph as two generations of Edie Beales. In fact, no less than the late, great Elaine Stritch commented on Ebersole's performance, "That's coffee." Was that a reference to an old commercial? Was Stritch saying you know the genuine article real deal when you see it? That is certainly true of Christine. Her presence lights up the stage and her acting and singing skills are exemplary. Next up for Christine is the role of Cinderella's stepmother in Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich's new musical adaptation of Ever After, beginning at the Paper Mill Playhouse May 21.
Lillias White turned heads as an original-cast-quality replacement star in Once On This Island, Dreamgirls and Barnum, before going on to create roles in Fela and The Life, among other musicals. There is simply no ignoring the dynamic Lillias on stage or screen — or even on the street. Her enormous presence is absolutely mesmerizing and that is to say nothing of a beautiful and elastic voice that can pretty much sing anything. Whenever Lillias appears in a show, it's an event not to be missed.
5. Sara Ramirez
Broadway had its chance with Sara Ramirez. She was in a few shows, including The Capeman and A Class Act, before winning the Tony for her screamingly funny, thrillingly sung Lady of the Lake in Monty Python's Spamalot. Then she was gone. Why haven't we thrown more roles at her? There's nothing she can't do. The majorly gifted actor has a voice from the gods, capable of heart-wrenching beauty and spine-tingling power. Alas, she has gone on to television stardom and we can only wait. In the meantime, let's at least come up with some great roles for her. How about Evita?
4. Randy Graff
Speaking of A Class Act, star Randy Graff is something of an anomaly in musical theatre. While the original Broadway Fantine can shake the rafters like the best of them and certainly showed her comedy chops in her Tony-winning turn in City of Angels, Randy has the rare ability to be completely natural on stage. Her performances never feel put on or fabricated, but just like an opportunity to witness human behavior through a fourth wall that's more like a portal to another world. There aren't many musicals that even require this unique skill, but when we are fortunate enough to catch Randy in one of them, the experience is transporting.
If being transported is what you're looking for, look no further than Broadway legend Betty Buckley. Betty's intricately crafted performances transcend acting or singing, elevating the proceedings to a spiritual plane of communion with the audience. The fact that her ravishingly steely belt voice leaps into the stratosphere with singular strength is almost secondary. Almost. It's hard to know what exactly hit you as you leap to your feet when Betty stops the show. This pleasure must be brought back to the New York theatre as soon as possible.
Bernadette Peters is Broadway royalty in the deepest sense. Seeing her onstage is a privilege. In the Kennedy Center's 2011 production of Follies, when she sang Sally's first song, "Don't Look At Me," it felt like not just another revival, but like a Sondheim original cast performance. Many people imitate Bernadette's idiosyncratic style, but none can touch her. She is incapable of singing a false note and can you make you laugh and cry and look like she's not even trying. As we move through the 21st century, I am very excited to see the next chapter in this eternally youthful star's career.
1. Patti LuPone
There's everybody else, and then there's Patti LuPone. She's the modern-day Ethel Merman, equally at home belting on Broadway and rocking out downtown with Bridget Everett. She is David Mamet's go-to gal. She has old-world musical pedigree (her great-aunt Adelina Patti was Verdi's favorite singer!). She trained and toured in classical repertory theatre. All of this and still, the versatile leading lady of theatre, movies, television, opera and concert halls (she's even starred with the New York City Ballet!) can be found chewing gum, shootin' the breeze in the alley with the stage door guards and crew. As in her star-making role of Evita, Patti is the people's goddess, a salt-of-the-earth diva. Only Patti, with this staggering range of personas (not to mention that age-defying voice, a national treasure) can fill out the far-flung requirements of today's massively diverse musical theatre (Jule Styne one season, David Yazbek the next). She is hilarious, she is frightening, she is completely spontaneous in the moment, dangerous and exciting. When you see Patti LuPone onstage, you feel like the only thing that matters in the world is what she's doing in the room in front of you. She seems to embody the "go big or go home" philosophy and with Patti, tonight is always the night. What will her next Broadway show be? Maybe War Paint. Regarding the hotly anticipated duel of the divas, she told Playbill, "It's a gay man's dream — and with Donna attached — it's a wet dream." Truer words were never spoken.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed solo plays Patti Issues and Bad with Money, running in repertory through June 21 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)