This week, as I get ready to open my new solo play, Bad With Money, I find myself looking back at some of the great solo theatre that has influenced and inspired me over the years. From autobiographical monologues to historical monodramas to multi-character plays to musical revues and song cycles, solo theatre is as diverse as theatre itself. With the range of solo work being done Off- and Off-Off-Broadway being so staggering, I turn with this list to solo shows that have run on Broadway. One person filling a Broadway stage may have once been a rare occasion, but in recent years, Broadway's seen a slew of solo turns from the likes of Bette Midler, Fiona Shaw, Holland Taylor, Billy Crystal and even Mike Tyson.
Click through to read my selections for the Top Ten Solo Shows That Played Broadway.
Playwright Doug Wright introduced us to real-life German transsexual Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and her Grunderzeitz Museum in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play I Am My Own Wife. For playing countless characters in addition to von Mahlsdoft (among them, Wright himself), Jefferson Mays won a Tony Award when Moises Kaufman's production moved from Playwrights Horizons to the Lyceum Theatre in 2003. One of the few solo plays in recent years not originally performed by its author, I Am My Own Wife continues to be produced all over the world, and Mays' spectacular performance will be recorded by LA Theatre Works later this season.
Created in 1983 in San Francisco, then-unknown Whoopi Goldberg's The Spook Show was brought to Broadway's Lyceum Theatre the following year by director Mike Nichols, retitled simply, Whoopi Goldberg. Taking us through a handful of original characters, Goldberg demonstrated not only her stunning skills as an actress, but also her original and insightful talents as a writer. In 2004, Goldberg returned to Broadway in a revised version of the piece (this time retitled again, even more simply, Whoopi), and both this and its 1984 counterpart were filmed for television, offering a unique look at the evolution of Goldberg's singular voice.
By the time Lily Tomlin went solo in Appearing Nitely at the Biltmore Theatre in 1977, she had already established herself as a comedic force to be reckoned with. Directed by and co-written with Tomlin's long-time partner, Jane Wagner (who also co-wrote Appearing Nitely), The Search For Signs... showcased Tomlin's breathtaking versatility, winning her a 1986 Best Actress Tony Award. Tomlin returned to her eclectic group of characters for John Bailey's film version of The Search... in 1991, and again once more in a 2000 revival at the Booth Theatre.
Broadway icon Elaine Stritch redefined solo shows on Broadway in 2002 when Elaine Stritch At Liberty opened at the Neil Simon Theatre. Directed by George C. Wolfe and co-written by Stritch and John Lahr, At Liberty was an undeniable gift to audiences the second it premiered at The Public Theater in 2001, launching a resurgence in Stritch's career that lasted up until her recent death at the age of 89. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Stritch charts her life and career, from "Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)", first performed in 1947's Angel In The Wings, to her triumphant, definitive, "The Ladies Who Lunch." The impeccable film of At Liberty, shot after the Broadway run at London's Old Vic theatre, is an invaluable document of Stritch's unmatched talents.
5. Tell Me On A Sunday
Though Andrew Lloyd Webber's idiosyncratic Song and Dance boasted a cast of nine dancers, its first act, Tell Me On A Sunday, is one of the few true one-person musicals ever to play Broadway. Bernadette Peters won her first Tony Award in 1985 for her portrayal of Emma, an English girl in New York, whose search for love spanned almost two dozen songs. After a revised London production in 2003 starring Denise Van Outen and a recent West End revival with the show's original London star, Marti Webb, this one's due for another shot in New York. Leslie Kritzer, who understudied Alice Ripley in the Kennedy Center production, is surely ready to breathe new life into now-classic numbers like "Unexpected Song" and "Tell Me On A Sunday."
6. Via Dolorosa
Lauded British playwright David Hare made his performing debut in this autobiographical docu-monologue about his 1997 travels through the Middle East. Directed by Stephen Daldry, Hare premiered the play at London's Royal Court before opening at the Booth Theatre on Broadway in 1999. Hare's haunting performance was preserved both for radio and for television, and his journals, published as Acting Up, are a fascinating insight into the process of writing and performing solo. Given the current state of the Middle East, the already powerful Via Dolorosa is especially worth a visit.
Having cut his solo teeth Off-Broadway in 1991's Mambo Mouth and 1993's Spic-O-Rama, actor John Leguizamo introduced Broadway audiences to his explosive storytelling style in 1998 when Freak opened at the Cort Theatre. A semi-autobiographical series of Leguizamo's family stories, co-written with David Bar Katz, Freak was filmed for posterity by the great Spike Lee. Leguizamo has since brought his own work back to Broadway with Sexaholic… A Love Story in 2001 and Ghetto Klown in 2011, solidifying his status as one of the great theatrical writer-performers.
Master monologuist Spalding Gray did more than break the mold; he invented his own form. Simply sitting behind a table, Gray started telling personal stories from his life to theatregoers in the late 1970's for The Wooster Group and continued to mesmerize audiences until his suicide in 2004. Gray's second solo show to play Broadway's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Gray's Anatomy, takes us through his 1994 saga with a rare ocular condition called Macular Pucker. A funny and profound exploration of a man's relationship to his sight, Gray's Anatomy was later inventively filmed by prolific filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh.
A pioneer in solo theatre, Anna Deavere Smith began her series of solo plays, On The Road: A Search For The American Character in 1992 with Fires In The Mirror, at the Public Theater. Using verbatim transcripts, Smith inhabits her interview subjects with chameleon-like accuracy, constructing a kind of theatrical documentary. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a bold look at events surrounding the Rodney King trial, opened at the Cort Theatre in 1994, directed by George C. Wolfe, and was filmed in 2000 by Marc Levin. Smith's most recent new work, Let Me Down Easy, was performed in 2008 at Second Stage and subsequently filmed for PBS.
Arguably one of the first in a wave of historically-based solo plays, playwright William Luce used diary entries and letters to tell the story of poet Emily Dickinson in 1976's The Belle Of Amherst. The legendary Julie Harris played Dickinson as well as 14 other characters in the Charles Nelson Reilly-directed production at the Longacre Theatre. Harris' Tony Award-winning tour-de-force performance was subsequently filmed for television, and Luce went on to become a major figure in solo theatre, penning Lillian in 1986 (starring Zoe Caldwell), Lucifer's Child in 1991 (reuniting the playwright with Harris), and Barrymore in 1997 (starring Christopher Plummer). The play returns to New York this season in a new production starring Joely Richardson.
(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 Nov. 6 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)