"Sing Out, Louise!" Our Top Ten Musical Theatre Diva Vehicles

By Ben Rimalower
August 5, 2013

Playbill.com contributor Ben Rimalower presents his list of the top ten musicals that are vehicles for divas.



This was not an easy list to make, and I know I'm going to get hate mail for some of my choices. You can't please everybody, and when it comes to divas, passions run high. I may even send myself a nasty comment or two in a couple of weeks when I look back, but here goes.

Honorable mention must be given to a few shows that don't make the Top Ten. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black's Song and Dance (or, rather, its first act, Tell Me On a Sunday) is an exciting showcase for a diva and it won Bernadette Peters her first Tony, but for me, it's sort of cheating to call a one-act song cycle a diva vehicle. Part my personal litmus test for a diva vehicle is how much a diva can shine across the breadth of an entire show.

Similarly, the Tony-nominated musicals Grey Gardens and Wicked don't make my list because they require their leading ladies to share the spotlight with a co-starring role of nearly equal size. You could argue this doubles the pleasure, but being a diva isn't about sharing. What's wonderful about Grey Gardens and Wicked ultimately lessens their ranking as singular diva vehicles. And finally, Bells are Ringing is an honorable mention because, as a diva vehicle, I like it just a little bit less than the Top Ten, but it's clearly still a truly great diva vehicle.

Click through to read the Top Ten Diva vehicles in musical theatre.

Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music"

10. The Sound of Music

Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote many great leading roles for women from the beginning of their collaboration, but The Sound of Music stands out as a diva vehicle because Maria is the lead, not just the leading lady, not just the girl that is gotten by the guy, but the protagonist. This is Maria's story. The plot and most of the songs revolve around her. As a diva vehicle, The Sound of Music loses some stature by setting Maria's songs in the soprano range. Musical theatre is the home of the belt, but it's hard to quibble with such classic numbers as "My Favorite Things," "Do Re Me" and the title song. And Julie Andrews' voice was so pure and clear in the movie version, that in my book, it almost counts as belting.

Betty Buckley in Sunset Boulevard.
Photo by Joan Marcus

9. Sunset Boulevard

In some ways, Sunset Boulevard should be the ultimate diva vehicle. The source material is Billy Wilder's masterpiece movie about a faded film star and the music is by the pop opera power ballad prodigy Andrew Lloyd Webber. Indeed, there are moments in Sunset Boulevard — Norma's first big "aria," "With One Look" about the power she has over an audience, the "New Ways To Dream" sequence where she revisits her past triumphs and, most undeniably, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," her Greek tragedy-esque love song to the Paramount Pictures soundstage only she believes is welcoming her back. It's the rest of Sunset Boulevard that drags it down for me: All the repetition of lyrics harping on hollow themes as stock characters take stage time away from the main event, which is, of course, whoever is playing Norma Desmond.

Alice Ripley in Next to Normal.
Photo by Joan Marcus

8. Next to Normal

In the New York Times, Ben Brantley called Next to Normal, "something much more than a feel-good musical: it is a feel-everything musical." True dat! As an audience, we relate to bipolar principal character Diana's yearning to feel it all again, the highs and lows she's sacrificed to medication, in this modern musical's unique spin on the classic "I want" song, "I Miss The Mountains." Diana's decision to go off her meds gives the actress inhabiting her chance demonstrate those peaks and valleys in a tour-de-force role that won Alice Ripley a Tony and cemented her status in the pantheon of Broadway divas.

Bernadette Peters
Photo by Carol Rosegg

7. Annie Get Your Gun

I prefer my divas decked out in glamorous fineries rather than bustling with country charm, but it would be impossible to exclude Annie Get Your Gun from this list. In fact, with Irving Berlin's mile-high stack of bonafide hits and a script whose spirit is saturated with brash pre-feminism, Annie Get Your Gun offers divas such an appealing vehicle that most have essayed the role of Annie Oakley at one point — or at least, wished they had. Besides being created on Broadway and played on tour by the two founding mothers of musical theatre, Ethel Merman and Mary Martin, respectively, revivals and concert versions and regional and stock productions of Annie Get Your Gun have starred everyone from Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone to Reba McEntire and Suzi Quatro. Maybe "you can't get a man with a gun," but it must be awfully fun to try!

Natasha Richardson

6. Cabaret

As Sally Bowles in the original Broadway production of Cabaret, Jill Haworth's billing was below the title, but Liza Minnelli's Oscar-winning performance in the film adaptation left long-lasting lash-prints on the role, to the point where to this day, Sally is certainly considered the lead, with no less than Natasha Richardson starring in Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's hit 1998 revival (opposite male diva Alan Cumming's star-making performance as the Emcee), followed by a line of star replacements (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Gershon, Brooke Shields, Jane Leeves, Katie Finneran, Molly Ringwald and on and on) the likes of which Broadway hadn't seen since the star-driven 1960s. Those divas knew a vehicle when they saw one.

 

Carol Channing in Hello Dolly!
photo by Joan Marcus

5. Hello, Dolly!/Mame

All right, I'm cheating by sandwiching together Hello, Dolly! and Mame, but is anyone really going to complain about this sandwich? The belting, the comedy, the eyelashes! (And that's just the chorus boys!) Those star-driven 1960s I was just talking about reached their pinnacle with the landmark, long runs of Hello, Dolly! and Mame on Broadway. According to legend, no one could ever touch the larger-than-life, over-the-top stage presence of Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury in those roles, but that didn't stop millions of theatregoers from reveling in the magnificence of Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Ann Miller, Phyllis Diller, Celeste Holm, Ginger Rogers and the many other actresses who stepped into these juggernauts. It's time to pass on the torch once again. I know who's got my vote.

4. Dreamgirls

I mean, duh. Could any role be more diva than Effie White in Dreamgirls? Jennifer Holliday's earth-shattering performance of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" on the 1982 Tony Awards changed the rules of the game for divas on Broadway and certainly set the standard for all Tony Awards diva performances — mind you, this is me talking, the guy who stars in a one-man show about his obsession with Patti LuPone. Facts are facts. Jennifer Holliday was brilliant, but also she had material that showcased her virtuosity. Dreamgirls gives the actress playing Effie the chance to stand at center stage and sing for the heavens. The genius of Dreamgirls is that it does this in a way that serves the story and character development and keeps the evening zipping along. It's not just a diva vehicle. It's air-tight!



Patti LuPone in Gypsy.
Photo by Joan Marcus

3. Gypsy

If it's diva showcasing ingeniously wed to compelling drama you're after, however, look no further than Gypsy. Often cited as the perfect American musical, the masterpiece of American musical theatre, Gypsy was something of a trick concept, a twofer to begin with. As they had done with Leonard Bernstein and West Side Story, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim (now working with composer Jule Styne) sought to tell a modern story through sophisticated music and lyrics, integrated with contemporary dramatic writing and elements of modern dance (and vaudeville in this case as well). The other element they added to the mix for Gypsy was to create a vehicle for Broadway's biggest diva, Ethel Merman. In writing powerful scenes and songs for the belter who supposedly couldn't act, they wound up creating the role considered to be the "King Lear" of musical theatre, the standard by which all diva's chops would be measured. It's over 50 years, several generations and four Broadway revivals later and the bar has held.

Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.
Photo by Henry Grossman

2. Funny Girl

Also with music by Jule Styne and dances by Jerome Robbins, and also a show business story, Funny Girl one-ups Gypsy on the diva vehicle list. Not because it's a better show — on the contrary, dramaturgically speaking Funny Girl isn't fit to lick Gypsy's high-button shoes (anyone?). Funny Girl is a better diva vehicle than Gypsy because it's a diva vehicle about a diva, literally a female star of the musical stage. Thus, many of Fanny's songs are set performance pieces (where the character Fanny is singing) and some blur the line enough to give more "real" moments that extra oomph. We get a list of songs including "I'm The Greatest Star," "People," "Don't Rain On My Parade," "The Music That Makes Me Dance," "Who Are You Now?" and "Cornet Man." That's a diva vehicle so powerful Barbra Streisand was able to ride it all the way to Hollywood, winning an Academy Award and ultimately becoming one of the biggest international superstars of the century. No wonder women everywhere are eager to star in a revival.

1. Evita

My choice for Number One Top Diva Vehicle is Evita. Evita is a diva vehicle 24-7. The character rarely leaves the stage (after a delayed diva entrance, of course). Moreover, when Eva in Evita is onstage, she's always singing. As a sung-through, quasi-operatic work, Evita has basically no spoken dialogue. So, even relatively inconsequential moments in the narrative, connective tissue between big numbers and minor expository statements all call on the actors to sing. This means that Evita, as a diva vehicle delivers more belting per minute (BPM) than any other diva vehicle. That alone might earn Evita first place on this list, but add the fact that the big numbers are such vocally and dramatically thrilling pieces as "Rainbow High," "Buenos Aires" and "A New Argentina," and you've got a diva vehicle for the ages. It's no surprise it made an "instant queen" out of Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige, in the original Broadway and London productions, or that a star of no less magnitude than Madonna would choose the role for a rare major motion picture foray. People can quibble with Evita's politics or literary or musical merit (or lack thereof), but as a diva vehicle, it is nirvana.

(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues now playing off Off-Broadway. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)