I've often said that musical theatre is the domain of female performers, at least as far as my heart is concerned. Decibel for decibel, men may tend to have more vocal power than women, but there are few pleasures in life more thrilling than witnessing a great lady of the stage blow the roof off a theatre. As has often been the case historically in musical theatre, more is more. Why stop the show with one actress singing when you can stop it that much more dead in its tracks with two actresses singing?
Of course, musicals are not just fun rides; they tell a story, and not every musical can have a female-female duet. When they find a place to fit one in, though, I guarantee you it's a highlight of the show. It was very easy to come up with my favorite female-female duets because they are all so memorable. I ruled out "Every Day A Little Death" from A Little Night Music because — even though it is one of the greatest songs ever written — it's mostly a solo with a secondary part alongside it. I've also disqualified two wonderful pop opera duets, "I Know Him So Well" from Chess and "I Still Believe" from Miss Saigon, as the characters singing them don't interact, which is half the fun of a duet. An Honorable Mention is due my 11th choice, "Class" from Chicago, which may also hold the honor being the female duet to bring down a Broadway house more times than any other.
10. "For Good" from Wicked
Winnie Holzman's excellent book for her and Stephen Schwartz's musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire's "Wicked" is at its irresistible best when it explores the dynamic, multi-layered relationship between its two heroines, Elphaba and Glinda. The story traces their long journey from petty rivalry to deep, loving friendship. At the end of the show, the pair comes together one last time to share what they've learned about themselves and each other in this moving gorgeous duet, "For Good."
9. "Marry The Man Today" from Guys And Dolls
Guys And Dolls features two female characters at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. One, Sarah Brown, is a temperance missionary and the other, Adelaide, is a show girl mistress to a gangster. The plot throws different hurdles at these two woman, but they wind up coming to the same kernel of wisdom by the end, which is to "Marry The Man Today." Frank Loesser's deceptively conversational lyrics offer a pungent commentary on mid-twentieth century values and allow Sarah and Adelaide to act a comedic scene in song.
8. "I Will Never Leave You" from Side Show
The engine that powers the action in Side Show is conjoined twins, the Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, being stuck in a Catch 22. They want to get out of the circus side show, but their only means to get anywhere is by performing in the circus side show. A major concern for them is the possibility of separating, perhaps to lead normal lives, unattached. "I Will Never Leave You" is their impassioned declaration of commitment to each other.
7. "The Grass Is Always Greener" from Woman Of The Year
John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote many more better-known musicals than Woman Of The Year, but it's hard to imagine any duet having more impact than "The Grass Is Always Greener" from that show. Marilyn Cooper received a Tony nomination for one half of the song — literally. That was the entirety of her role in the show.
6. "Baby, Dream Your Dream" from Sweet Charity
Some feminists might take issue with Sweet Charity, the story of an unlucky-in-love dance hall girl, but what sets the show apart from such criticism is the female friendships that form the bedrock of Charity and her co-workers' lives. This is especially true of her two best gal-pals, Nickie and Helene. We all adore our "Sex And The City," "Golden Girls" and "Designing Women," but the original lovefest was this inspiring song of encouragement by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields.
5. "Don't Ah Ma Me" from The Rink
Kander and Ebb's short-lived 1984 mother-daughter musical, The Rink, starring Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, featured several fabulous duets for its two leading ladies. Any one of them could have made perfect sense on this list, but since the first time I played the album, I've had "Don't Ah Ma Me" stuck in my head. Anna's berating of her daughter is so full of character and life and set to such jauntily exasperated music, and Angel's stammering defense makes for a completely satisfying counterpoint, especially at the end, when she holds a big note on "Ah, Maaaa….." as Anna's pissed-off patter comes to a climax.
4. "If Momma Was Married" from Gypsy
Speaking of mothers and daughters, of course the classic musical on the subject is Gypsy. Not long after Baby June and Baby Louise make the transition to Dainty June and nondescript Louise, these two sisters we've been watching interact for an hour without revealing anything about their relationship are finally left alone onstage. Only Stephen Sondheim could fashion a lyric that stops the show so entertainingly while offering a complex psychological portrait of family life.
3. "Ohio" from Wonderful Town
Another pair of sisters that stop the show are Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, around whom Leonard Bernstein and Comden and Green's 1953 hit, Wonderful Town, is centered. The pair moves to New York from Ohio and suffers a very rough go at it upon their arrival. Has their ever been a lyric more powerful in its simplicity than "Why, oh why, oh why, oh — why did we ever leave Ohio?" The melody manages to convey both the tender yearning for country life and the harangue of the big city all at the same time.
2. "A Boy Like That"/"I Have A Love" from West Side Story
Perhaps the most dramatic duet for any combination of genders is "A Boy Like That"/"I Have A Love" from West Side Story. Maria's boyfriend has killed her brother and her best friend Anita is enraged that Maria could stay with him. Their thrilling argument in song rivetingly exploits both Anita's powerful belt and Maria's soaring soprano, which then assumes the lead position and they transition into the stunning ballad, "I Have A Love."
1. "Bosom Buddies" from Mame
"Bosom Buddies" from Mame may be the most famous of all the female-female duets in musical theatre. It's certainly the most fun! Only Jerry Herman could write a song so bitchy and backstabbing with such tremendous warmth and love emanating from every note. Oh, to have seen Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur introduce this number in their Tony-winning turns in the original production of Mame… Nonetheless, "Bosom Buddies" remains a showstopper, whether it's a regional revival of Mame, the movie with Lucille Ball (and Bea Arthur) or your high school talent show.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed solo plays Patti Issues and Bad with Money, running in repertory through April 29 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)