Since the beginning of the Golden Age of Broadway musicals, the booming sound of a bass/baritone voice filling a theatre has been a hallmark of musical theatre. In the somewhat intrinsic misogyny of music, female voices have been divided into the soft and the shrill, while males have had an easier time combining beauty and power. Perhaps this is why the virile aesthetic of the bass-baritone voice proved so ideal for this American art form through decades of shifting tastes in musical styles and fields of interest.
Click through to read my selections for the Top Ten Broadway Bass-Baritones.
10. Robert Goulet
Starring as Lancelot in Camelot on Broadway in 1960, Robert Goulet's impact was so immediate and immense that his handsome crooner persona became something of a joke as the Baby Boomer generation shirked traditional Tin Pan Alley music for the rock and roll sounds of the Sexual Revolution. One simply needs to revisit Goulet's original recording of "If Ever I Would Leave You" to understand his timeless prowess. A late career appearance in the 2004 revival of La Cage Aux Folles introduced Goulet to a new crop of theatregoers, and YouTube offers intrepid fans a treat in his decades of mid-career performances.
9. André De Shields
With central roles in such influential shows as The Wiz, Ain't Misbehavin' and The Full Monty, André De Shields is something of an undersung hero of musical theatre. Through it all, De Shields has brought a rock-and-roll sensibility to older styles of music, highlighting the rhythm-and-blues origins of rock, as well as the vitality of African-American culture in mainstream American music and theatre — arguably as important an artistic cause as there can be.
Richard Kiley was one of the last of the "they don't make ‘em like that anymore" breed of musical theatre stars, alongside Ethel Merman, Yul Brynner and Zero Mostel. Perhaps Kiley isn't as much of an eccentric as those three, but he brought similarly larger-than-life presence to his major roles and like them, became forever associated with his career-defining performance in Man of La Mancha. Kiley continued to revive and tour in Man of La Mancha for decades and no one has ever touched what he achieved in the part.
The actor and singer who came closest to Richard Kiley's Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha is Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, one of Broadway's brightest stars in the new millennium. Mitchell is a traditional leading man who can still make it in the era when musical theatre actors have to hold their own opposite non-musical dramatic stars. He proved worth his salt in various shows in the 1990s, including a high-profile replacement turn in Kiss of The Spider Woman opposite Vanessa Williams and then really rose the forefront in such productions as Ragtime and Kiss Me, Kate.
6. George Hearn
George Hearn was a reliable leading man in musicals and classical theatre and a host of other productions throughout the 1960s and 70s before becoming a star in Sweeney Todd. He may not have created the role and original title role in Sweeney (Len Cariou certainly has his devotees), but Hearn got to preserve the part on video, not once, but twice, both in the original broadcast of Hal Prince's production opposite the great Angela Lansbury and decades later, in Lonny Price's acclaimed symphonic concert staging opposite Patti LuPone's brilliant reinvention of Mrs. Lovett. The fire and power of Hearn's Sweeney only grew over the years. In between these performances, he also won Tonys for his brave Albin/Zaza in the original La Cage Aux Folles and as Max von Mayerling in Sunset Boulevard and made many other successful appearances contributing to his status as one of Broadway's most beloved stars.
5. Norm Lewis
Norm Lewis' career has been something of a sleeper hit. Since he began popping up in various roles in the late 1990s, there was always a completely unique and undeniable appeal about the guy. His smooth voice is like rich coffee ice cream, and he's viscerally attractive with an approachable quality that makes him extremely sexy. His seamless acting performances appear effortless and make him a treasure to both musicals and dramatic material. Lewis has certainly made it to the top now, with his Tony-nominated performance in Porgy and Bess and his history-making turn in The Phantom of the Opera, but I would bet his career ascent still has a lot of mileage to claim.
4. John Raitt
John Raitt may represent the epitome of the classic Broadway baritone. His handsome vulnerability and strength gave birth to that stalwart moment in musical theatre history, "Soliloquy" in Carousel. He revealed a contemporary flair in 1950s mega-hit, The Pajama Game and although Rosemary Clooney and Sammy Davis, Jr. got to have the Billboard hits with "Hey There," Raitt's smooth-as-silk version will forever be remembered by Broadway fans and anyone who watches the faithful 1957 film version, in which he also starred.
3. Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman may be the biggest star on Broadway today. He made his name in his native Australia and on the West End before becoming a movie star and then landing on Broadway with a splash in his 2003 Tony-winning triumph as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz. Broadway has seen him again a few times including a solo concert and this season's straight play, The River, and any Jackman performance is always standing room only. His millions of fans must wait patiently to be electrified once again by the singular thrill of Jackman's dynamism onstage in a musical.
2. Jerry Orbach
New Yorkers are familiar with the The Eye Bank of New York's subway ads proclaiming, "Jerry Orbach gave his heart and soul to acting, and the gift of sight to two New Yorkers." It's almost funny how unceasing Orbach's considerable contributions are. He became so ubiquitous in later years on the long-running TV series, "Law & Order" and in various film roles (including "Dirty Dancing") that many people may not even realize his major significance as a leading man in musical theatre. Orbach made it all seem easy, bringing an effortless charm and swagger and his buttery voice to such landmark shows as The Threepenny Opera; The Fantasticks; Promises, Promises; 42nd Street; and Chicago.
1. Alfred Drake
Edged out only by Ethel Merman singing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" as the definitive anthem of 20th-century musical theatre, Alfred Drake's original rendition of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" will forever be remembered as a cornerstone of the art form. This exemplary old-school leading man was equally at home in comedy and tragedy and had a classical heft to his voice that empowered his legendary turns in such genre-defining shows as Oklahoma!; Kiss Me, Kate; and Kismet, along with an impressively diverse variety of roles in a dizzying number of productions over a decades-long career on the stage.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, performs through Dec. 18 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)