Grande Dames in Great Roles: Women Who Found a Second Career Onstage

Lists   Grande Dames in Great Roles: Women Who Found a Second Career Onstage We profile 10 women over 40 who found second careers in musical theatre.
Tyne Daly in <i>Master Class</i>
Tyne Daly in Master Class Photo by Joan Marcus

If you flip through the Playbills of the musicals running on Broadway at any given time, you're likely to see something you won't find in the movies or on TV: women over 40. Long-running hits from Hello, Dolly! and Mame to Sunset Boulevard, Chicago and Wicked have offered mature women the opportunity to strut their stuff, when few other outlets would. Indeed, on comedians Ryan O'Connor and Jason Powell's podcast, "LadyWatch," the casting discussion invariably centers on theatrical roles, usually in musicals.

Mainstream media has long been known to pander to a certain demographic of straight men between the ages of 18 and 30. The notion is that these men are only interested in seeing representations of women they'd find sexually attractive and the assumption is that these women will be young and adhere to a certain narrow definition of beauty, usually requiring Olympian exercise, anorexic dieting and some kind of surgical enhancement. A major exception to this has been musical theatre, where the mature woman is more often celebrated, and not for her looks, but for her strength and resilience, her wit and her spunk. Perhaps it's because women have traditionally made up the majority of the ticket-buying audience for Broadway shows and they supported work that dug deeper beneath the surface. Or maybe it's that the gay male fan base for musical theatre has looked to its female stars for something other than sex. Or it could be simply the undeniable, visceral thrill of a charismatic actress and singer commanding the stage live in front of you, a force that denies resistance.

Scroll down to read my thoughts on 10 Women Over 40 Who Have Found Second Careers in Musical Theatre.


10. Sally Struthers

Sally Struthers was one of the most familiar faces on television in the 1970s, winning two Emmy Awards for her performance as Gloria Stivic on the groundbreaking hit "All In The Family." With her babydoll voice and voluptuous curves, she became a sort of platinum-haired pin-up for the flower child generation, at least in the eyes of mainstream America and the conservative "Charlie Bunkers" of the world. In later adulthood, Hollywood had less use for her, having moved on to a sleeker style of "hot chick" for the 1980s and while Struthers worked steadily, she never found another major television role. Theatre, on the other hand, offered her many new opportunities to shine, beginning with Broadway turns in The Odd Couple (female version), Grease and Annie and ultimately encompassing starring roles in musicals from Fiddler On The Roof to Legally Blonde, all over the United States.

 

9. Brooke Shields

Another star to make the transition into musical theatre via a replacement gig in Broadway's long-running 1994 "Tommy Tune Production of Grease" was former child supermodel Brooke Shields. Where her previous acting roles had mostly exploited her youth and striking beauty, playing Rizzo in Grease allowed Shields to show off a more dramatic edge, comedic timing and a capable singing voice. The endeavor was so successful that she went on to star on Broadway in Cabaret, Chicago, Wonderful Town and The Addams Family.

 

8. Catherine Zeta-Jones

Catherine Zeta-Jones' only Broadway appearance so far was her Tony-winning turn as Desiree Armfeldt in the 2010 revival of A Little Night Music. A decade before that victory or her Oscar win as Velma Kelly in the movie version of Chicago, Zeta-Jones rose to international prominence in the late 1990s with the films "Entrapment" and "The Mask of Zorro," but, perhaps because she was already in her thirties (middle-aged for a woman by Hollywood standards) and married to the 25 years older Michael Douglas, she seemed to miss out on the chance to be "babe du jour" matriculating almost immediately into a sort of "cougar" position for which the industry has far less prominent use. Broadway musicals, however, celebrate such women and Zeta-Jones tops many a casting wish list. It's only a matter of time before we see her back on the boards starring in Mame, Bye Bye Birdie, another Sondheim show or perhaps a new musical.


 
7. Lauren Bacall

One of the great stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Lauren Bacall was widely known for her distinctive baritone voice and sultry glamour. If the edge that made her persona sassy as a young woman was no longer sought after in Hollywood once she matured beyond the sexy symbol phase, her stature only rose on Broadway as this Academy Award nominee became a two-time Tony Award winner, starring in the musicals Applause and Woman of the Year, as well as a touring production of Wonderful Town.

 

6. Harriet Harris

One of the most versatile stage actors in the United States, Harriet Harris graduated from the Drama Division of Juilliard School and began her career touring with John Houseman's The Acting Company, in a variety of classic plays. Her subsequent career in New York Theatre encompassed both small and large parts, both on and Off-Broadway in works ranging from Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey to William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Her inspired combination of demented daffiness and cutting believability have made her an asset everywhere, including film and television roles, but it has ultimately been Broadway musicals where she's earned the most renown, winning a Tony for Thoroughly Modern Millie and slaying 'em in the aisles in Cry-Baby, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and this season's It Shoulda Been You.

 
5. Vanessa Williams

Former Miss America Vanessa Williams has become such a beloved recording, television and theatre star, it's hard to remember the scandal during which she abdicated her "throne." It's a particularly egregious example of "slut shaming" wherein pageant media sponsors pandered to puritanical interests and pressured Williams to resign, while her unauthorized naked pictures brought Penthouse Magazine a record $14 million. Of course, by today's standards of sexting and sex tapes, Williams' black-and-white art photographs hardly seem worthy of footnote, and Broadway can proudly claim to be one of the first platforms to welcome Williams post-scandal, with the Grammy-winning songstress starring in productions of Kiss of the Spider Woman, St. Louis Woman, Carmen Jones and Into The Woods long before Hollywood came calling with her television triumphs on "Ugly Betty" and "Desperate Housewives."
 


4. Christine Ebersole

Christine Ebersole began her career as a quirky ingenue on Broadway in such 1970s productions as On The Twentieth Century, Oklahoma! and Camelot, but soon moved to California where she found steady work on film and television, although almost always in supporting roles. When, nearing 50, she returned the theatre, Broadway welcomed her with open arms, and two Tony Awards, for 42nd Street and Grey Gardens, as well as a host of other engagements in theatres and nightclubs and as a major star on the benefit/concert circuit.

 
3. Alexis Smith

Alexis Smith was adored by the masses as a statuesque Warner Brothers glamour girl who specialized in playing tall, leggy clothes horses, ice maidens and trophy wives. Then she outgrew those parts and her whole era of Hollywood faded away. What could come next? Broadway presented the answer in Hal Prince's groundbreaking 1970 production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies, in which Smith was cast as a tall, leggy clothes horse/ice maiden/trophy wife who had outgrown her role as a Weissman chorus girl while the vaudeville/variety show era faded away. Her Tony-winning verisimilitudinous performance, proving the substance beneath her style, brought her a whole new brand of stardom (landing her on the cover of Time Magazine) and she went on to appear in the musicals Platinum and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

 
2. Tyne Daly

Tyne Daly's career ascent was the rare rise to fame based purely on talent. After paying her dues for years in supporting roles on stage and screen, she became a television legend and feminist icon, playing a female detective depicted primarily in her professional environment (as opposed to home in family life) on the long-running "Cagney and Lacey," for which she won four of her six Emmy Awards. As Daly has continued to lead the charge for women's liberation, eschewing cosmetic resistance to aging, she has forged a major career on Broadway and particularly in musical theatre, including her Tony win for the 1989 revival of Gypsy.

 
1. Angela Lansbury

Before Tyne Daly, Broadway's previous Tony-winning Mama Rose was Angela Lansbury, who starred in the show's 1974 revival, amidst an almost 20-year streak of headlining one after another of many of the most important musicals on Broadway. From her early days on the silver screen, she tended to be cast older than her actual age; in 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate," she played mother to Laurence Harvey' Raymond Shaw — only three years her junior. Although Lansbury was nominated for an Academy Award for that film and was acclaimed for much of her movie work, she has said she felt unchallenged by the minor roles she was being offered and gravitated toward the theatre, where she got the chance to take on beefier material. Even now at 89 years old, she is enjoying a prolific career "fourth act" in theatre, winning a fifth Tony for Blithe Spirit and currently seen on the PBS Great Performances broadcast of Driving Miss Daisy.


(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed solo plays Patti Issues and Bad with Money. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)

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