When I was in high school becoming obsessed with musical theatre, my friends and I would fervently trade and share Broadway videos, particularly talk show performances by Broadway stars. Growing up in California, I only sometimes got to New York in time to catch an original cast, and the productions that played Los Angeles seldom featured the roles' creators. Television appearances were a golden opportunity to see the iconic performances of the era and our VHS recordings of these provided hours of pleasure rewatching. Ironically, now that I live in New York and rarely miss a new Broadway musical production, I'm far less excited about them. I absolutely think those happy times in front of the VCR cemented my passions in a way that made me who I am today. Click through to read my selections for Broadway's best talk show performances.
At the height of his glory starring in the film version of "Hedwig And The Angry Inch", author and star John Cameron Mitchell and composer-lyricist Stephen Trask paid a visit to "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" (a sorely missed staple of Broadway on television) for a chat and to sing "Wicked Little Town." Mitchell had previously appeared on "Rosie" another time to do "The Origin of Love" (in full Hedwig drag), but if I have to choose one, I'd go with the less commonly performed and equally moving "Wicked Little Town."
To promote her starring role in the film adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors, Ellen Greene stopped by "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" for some talk and a dynamite performance of "Suddenly Seymour." Of course, as the incomparable originator of the role of Audrey, Greene is brilliant in the movie, but it's a unique pleasure to experience the passion in her live in-studio version for Johnny.
9. Bernadette Peters, "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"
Bernadette Peters made numerous appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and was clearly one of his favorite guests. Only a small number of Peters' performances for Johnny are available online and I suspect some of the ones I can't find (like "Other Lady" specifically) would rank higher on this list, but still more than worth your three minutes are a stunning "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry":
A hilarious "Making Love Alone":
And a thrillingly belted, elaborate arrangment of Irving Berlin's "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy":
8. Jennifer Holliday, "The Merv Griffin Show"
In the midst of her Tony-winning triumph on Broadway in Dreamgirls, Jennifer Holliday stopped by "The Merv Griffin Show" to talk and sing her big number, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." While not quite on the life-changing level of Holliday's Tony Awards performance of the song in costume and character, sung to her co-star, Ben Harney, this talk show rendition is still an emotional cataclysm and superbly sung.
7. Liza Minnelli, "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"
Unsurprisingly, an international superstar (and well-deserved winner of the "EGOT" — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards) of Liza Minnelli's level had made multitudes of talk show appearances promoting her various stage and screen roles and innumerable concert appearances over a career spanning more than 50 years. Everyone will have their own favorites, but I think I would choose her 1986 delivery of Kurt Weill's "My Ship" leading into Gershwin's "The Man I Love" for the capture of this rich period in Minnelli's career. She is no longer the pixie gamine director's daughter pliable in the hands of Bob Fosse, but a world-class entertainer completely at home in her own skin and still at the peak of her powers.
6. Laurie Beechman, "Donahue"
Broadway's dear, departed Laurie Beechman made a couple of appearances on "Donahue." The first was during her early 80s run in Cats, singing "Memory" in full Grizabella get-up. It's a powerful performance, to be sure, but even more moving is her 1995 guest spot, late in her tragic battle with cancer, yet in the ne plus ultra of vocal prowess and interpretive depth. And, in a gift from Phil Donahue to Broadway fans everywhere, Beechman offers not one, but three songs, "Everybody Says Don't," "Long Before I Knew You" and an especially heart-stirring "Memory."
Barbra Streisand's legendary stage fright and privacy have both kept her away from the talk show couch for the better part of her long, storied career. A notable exception was her recent appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" promoting her new album of duets, "Partners." Fallon humorously imitated the various stars Streisand recorded with and brought out a warm, playful, relaxed Barbra still in remarkable voice — yes, like butter.
4. Bette Midler, "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"
Another world-renowned diva with an extensive résumé of talk show appearances, Bette Midler was unquestionably Johnny Carson's favorite guest on "The Tonight Show" and the star he handpicked for his final episode. All of Midler's many appearances are enjoyable and often thrilling to watch, particularly those from the exciting start of her career in the 1970s, but her final send-off to Johnny, serenading him with a special version of "You Made Me Love You" (with Broadway's own Marc Shaiman at the piano) is television history.
3. Betty Buckley, "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"
There is no bigger Broadway hit of the 1980s than "Memory" from Cats and there has never been a better rendition of "Memory" than Betty Buckley's Tony-winning original performance as Grizabella. Luckily for us, there are many Buckley "memories" to enjoy online and on disc. While I live for her thrilling in-costume performance on the Tony Awards, her "Tonight Show" "Memory" is equally commanding in voice and delivery of the entire song. Plus, she also sings "Over You" from her film role "Tender Mercies."
2. Patti LuPone, "The Merv Griffin Show"
Patti LuPone appeared on "The Merv Griffin Show" twice during her triumphant Tony-winning run on Broadway in Evita. The first revealed a giggly nervous, adorable young lady on the cusp of stardom, singing a lovely, light-voiced "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina." The second, at the height of LuPone's fame, is a taste of the monster diva who would dominate Broadway for decades to come. In a gold lamé jumpsuit Patti blazes through her Les Mouches nightclub solo version of "Rainbow High" in a terrifying, take-no-prisoners style that leaves a shell-shocked audience cowering in scorched earth ecstasy. Honorable mention to LuPone's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," a total departure from her angry in-character Gypsy version in its joyful explosion of voice and expression.
Two Broadway titans at the peak of their ferocity in Chicago, Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon preserved their unmatchable Fosse brilliance on "The Mike Douglas Show" with "Nowadays" and "The Hot Honey Rag." This is more than just theatrical history; it's a master class in economic movement, killer style and, of course, charisma. Almost equally wonderful is the interview also featuring their co-star, Jerry Orbach. They don't make ‘em like that anymore.
(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.)