If the first half of the 2016-2017 Broadway musical season focused the spotlight more on the men—Josh Groban’s soaring vocals in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells’ heartfelt performances as Marvin and Whizzer in the revival of Falsettos; and the superbly gifted Ben Platt, whose performance in the title role of Dear Evan Hansen may have raised the bar even higher for male musical theatre actors—it is the women who seem poised to steal the limelight in the second half. In fact, following memorable fall performances by Rachel Bay Jones, Stephanie J. Block, and Denée Benton, there are seven major talents heading to The Great White Way in the New Year who, simply, should not be missed. These artists, arranged in chronological order by their show’s first preview dates, follow:
Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard at the Palace Theatre
Previews Begin: February 2, Official Opening: February 9
I spent a good deal of the mid-to-late ’90s (as well as several dates in the current century) catching the wonderful women who played deluded silent-screen star Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of the classic Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard. The many multi-talented actors who I feel privileged to have caught in the demanding role include Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, Elaine Paige, Karen Mason, Petula Clark, Florence Lacey, and Loni Ackerman. Although Close’s vocals couldn’t match the stellar work of many of the other musical Normas, there was a dramatic intensity to her performance that was riveting; in fact, it was hard to take one’s eyes off her any time she was onstage in the original production. More than 20 years after that Tony-winning performance, Close returned to the role on the other side of the Atlantic, earning a 2016 Evening Standard Award for her West End debut in the English National Opera production. That staging, including the transfers of Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Siobhan Dillon as Betty Schaefer, and Fred Johanson as Max von Mayerling, will now play a 16-week limited engagement on Broadway, and this Sunset fan can't wait to enter Norma’s Hollywood mansion one more time. Let’s hope this semi-staged production, which will feature a 40-piece orchestra, will extend to allow many other greats the chance to don Norma's turban.
Eva Noblezada in Miss Saigon at the Broadway Theatre
Previews Begin: March 1, Official Opening: March 23
When Miss Saigon opened on Broadway in 1991, following its debut in the West End, the musical made an international star out of Filipino actor Lea Salonga, who created the role of the ill-fated Kim, the young Vietnamese woman who desperately tries to secure a better life for her son, Tam, amidst the tragedies of war. Salonga’s beautiful voice and impassioned performance earned her Olivier and Tony Awards, subsequent roles in several animated Disney films, loyal fans all around the world, and, thankfully, several returns to Broadway. Now, 25 years later, another young actor, Eva Noblezada, has received a similar reception in the recent 2014 London revival of Saigon, which was preserved on film and recently screened in cinemas. I purposely avoided the screening, wanting to experience Noblezada’s performance in person when the Saigon revival transfers to Broadway later this season. The musical, for this writer, has always been the more moving of the two Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg hits, and I’m eager to catch the Broadway debut of North Carolinian Noblezada, who was discovered three years ago by the Miss Saigon casting team at the National High School Musical Theater Awards.
Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in War Paint at the Nederlander Theatre
Previews Begin: March 7, Official Opening: April 6
It’s quite rare when a musical offers sizable roles to two of Broadway’s leading musical theatre stars, but that is exactly the case in War Paint, the new musical from the Grey Gardens team that played a sold-out, record-setting run this past summer at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The women—Patti LuPone (Evita, Gypsy) and Christine Ebersole (42nd Street, Grey Gardens) as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, respectively—are both two-time Tony winners, and their combined theatrical powers promise one of the more exciting nights on Broadway this spring. LuPone and Ebersole are two stellar actors who also happen to boast two of the great voices that the musical theatre has produced: LuPone dazzles with her rich, soaring, and rangy alto, while Ebersole impresses with an equally rangy soprano that can be as delicate as it is powerful. Both, in fact, remain vocally, comedically, and dramatically in full command decades after their respective award-winning careers began.
Phillipa Soo in Amélie at the Walter Kerr Theatre
Previews Begin: March 9, Official Opening: April 3
In her two major New York theatrical outings to date—the Off-Broadway debut of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and the Public Theater and Broadway premieres of Hamilton—Phillipa Soo was equally magnificent, charming audiences with her beautiful soprano as Natasha and creating the most moving moments of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda musical as Eliza, wife of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. The young singing actor, it should be noted, earned her first Tony nomination for her work in the latter, and now she will return to Broadway in the title role of the new musical Amélie, based on the Academy Award-winning 2001 French film of the same name. The lonely French waitress who decides to act as a secret wish-fulfiller to the people who live around her seems a perfect match for Soo, who originated the role of Amélie in workshop productions of the musical and has an ethereal quality all her own.
Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! at the Shubert Theatre
Previews Begin: March 15, Official Opening: April 20
Ira Gershwin may have coined the phrase, but when it comes to the eagerly awaited revival of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!, starring Emmy, Grammy, and Tony winner Bette Midler: “Who could ask for anything more?” A long-time fan of Midler’s work on screen (I confess, I get drawn into Beaches every time it airs), a few years ago, I had the opportunity to catch Midler’s wonderful Kiss My Brass tour. Onstage, the award-winning actor, who impressed with her musicianship, was a thrilling mix of singer, comedienne, and social commentator. The stage and screen star also delighted in her most recent Broadway outing, John Logan's I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, one of the most entertaining solo shows in recent memory, proving again that she possesses comedic timing like few others. Now, Midler will have the chance to sink her teeth into one of the all-time great musical theatre roles, Dolly Gallagher Levi, the part created/immortalized by stage icon Carol Channing, who last revived the role on Broadway in 1995, and performed on screen by Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film. It’s now Midler’s turn to charm as everybody’s favorite matchmaker, and the revival is already proving the hottest ticket of the new season.
Donna Murphy in Hello, Dolly! at the Shubert Theatre
Previews Begin: March 15, Official Opening: April 20
In the 1999 Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together, Kathie Lee Gifford stepped into the role of The Wife one evening a week so Emmy winner Carol Burnett, then in her late 60s, would only have to play seven performances a week. That said, I can’t recall a time when a two-time Tony winner like Donna Murphy agreed to perform a role once a week as she will in the forthcoming revival of Hello, Dolly! Undoubtedly, Murphy and Midler’s performances will be strikingly terrific in different ways. When it comes to Murphy, it’s not a question of whether she will be great, it’s more a question of how great will she be? After triumphing (and nabbing two Tonys) for her performances in Passion and The King and I, Murphy proved herself an equally gifted comedic actor in the Broadway revival of Wonderful Town and amazed with her spot-on work as Lotte Lenya in the Harold Prince-directed Lovemusik. Tuesday nights on Broadway will certainly be even more exciting with Murphy back in town. (Murphy performs Tuesday evenings beginning June 13 at the Shubert Theatre.)
And, if you would like to enjoy your divas while sailing the Caribbean, the numerous, multi-talented women set to entertain those aboard Playbill Travel’s star-studded Broadway on the High Seas 8 February 2017 cruise include Judy Kuhn, Karen Mason, Alice Ripley, Melissa Errico, and Louise Pitre; click here for more information.
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected].
Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly Their Favorite Things.