Bring On the Men: A Look at the Leading Men of Broadway
By Ben Rimalower
Playbill.com correspondent Ben Rimalower offers a look at some of Broadway's current leading men.
Let's face it: Broadway can be a woman's world. Just like in the opera, which ain't over til the fat lady sings, in musical theatre, the sun often rises and sets on the leading ladies — even if it's the baritone who sings about the beautiful morning. It's difficult to navigate any career in the performing arts, but the Great White Way is particularly perilous for its leading men, as the changing face of new shows offers little in the way of a mold. In a cult of personality, it's a popularity contest with no rules.
Click through to view some of my favorite Broadway leading men.
Raul Esparza's intelligence, sensitivity and versatility have helped him succeed in a variety of roles, both musical and non. While he has yet to create the lead in a major new Broadway musical of note, his work in revivals like Company and in Off-Broadway's tick, tick... BOOM! have demonstrated he is a musical leading man of no small significance. His intense singing style makes his song performances exciting in the way male performers rarely are. Raul Esparza is both an actor and a diva.
A favorite scene stealer and replacement lead for years, Christian Borle surprised no one when he bit into the leading role of Black Stashe in Peter and the Starcatcher with aplomb, winning the Tony the same season he was delighting Broadway fans as the composer Tom on TV's "Smash." Borle is "Saturday Night Live" funny — truly original and inspired — and he offers song and dance talents that would have made him a star in another era and is rare indeed today.
When Michael Cerveris replaced Hedwig and the Angry Inch writer and original star John Cameron Mitchell in the title role of that show, I was one of many people astonished at how well he followed in Mitchell's footsteps. We needn't have been. Cerveris' eclectic career has spanned Shakespeare, musicals and contemporary comedies and dramas — and he tours with his own rock band. He is both a jack-of-all-trades and virtuoso, and the years since "Hedwig" have further demonstrated there is little not squarely in his wheelhouse.
Matthew Broderick made his name starring in such landmark non-musicals as Brighton Beach Memoirs (Broadway), Biloxi Blues (Broadway and film) and as the iconic title character in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and has consistently delivered high-quality work on stage and screen in the three decades since. While his musical appearances have been limited, they are always an event due to his inimitable star presence and effortless old-school charm, evidenced by his recent role in Nice Work If You Can Get It and Tony-winning turn in the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Of course, he sealed his place on this list (and made Broadway history) co-starring with Nathan Lane in the juggernaut The Producers.
Michael Rupert's Broadway career got off to an auspicious start with such major credits as the original Kander & Ebb musical The Happy Time, a replacement run in Bob Fosse's original production of Pippin and, most notably, originating the role of Marvin in the watershed Falsettos. He also won a Tony for the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity and has starred in recent successes like Legally Blonde and Ragtime. Rupert is a gifted actor with a uniquely beautiful and expressive singing voice that has made all his forays memorable.
Harvey Fierstein might not have a beautiful singing voice, but Broadway is the realm of character and personality. Despite body microphones and other elements of modern theatrical technology that level the playing field, musical theatre is still an art form that evolved around larger-than-life personalities like Ethel Merman, Zero Mostel and Carol Channing, echoes of whom resonate in Fierstein's generous, "play-it-for-the-back-row" stage presence. He is also an important writer, but his performances alone make him a legend.
Brian Stokes Mitchell
Brian Stokes Mitchell brings to the table an elegance of days gone by combined with a present-day sensitivity that make him richly appropriate for a wide variety of roles. This would be true even if he didn't have one of the greatest stage baritones since Alfred Drake. Thusly, "Stokes" has been indispensable on Broadway and beloved by the masses.
Norbert Leo Butz
Norbert Leo Butz just continues to hit the ball out of the park. If it's odd to use a baseball metaphor in this context, the oddness is fitting, as Butz is an anomaly in musical theatre which somehow always works. His performances are so truthful and edgy, it's almost surprising when he complements the acting with such top-drawer musical theatre abilities. In his Tony-winning performance in Catch Me If You Can, stopping the show cold with a dance number seemed downwright antithetical to his character, yet that's precisely what he did. It's Norbert Leo Butz Secret Recipe.
Mandy Patinkin hasn't acted in a Broadway musical since Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party in 2000, and his long career has taken many different paths over the years since his Tony-winning Broadway debut in Evita in 1980, but wherever the wind may take Patinkin (including the current mega-hit Showtime series "Homeland"), his trademark intensity is irreplaceable. This was never more true than in his game-changing performance creating the title role in Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. His rendition of "Finishing the Hat" alone would forever secure his position on this list.
In keeping with the notion that Broadway is about larger-than-life star presence, there is no greater wattage than that of Nathan Lane. He's been compared to Jackie Gleason and Zero Mostel and other stars of yesteryear, but Lane's unique persona belongs to our era alone. Lane's unmistakable voice can instantly make any music immediate and compelling, and in both his comedic and dramatic work, he is never not entertaining. In this short-attention span day and age, when theatre can be dismissed as boring, Broadway is lucky to have this live-wire lighting up the boards.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)
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