Since, Ethel Merman made her debut in Girl Crazy, blasting out that legendary sustained C in "I Got Rhythm," Broadway has long been the home of the belter. The sound of a chest voice vibrato is nearly synonymous with musical theatre. That's not to say there haven't been soprano roles for women in musicals — quite the opposite is true, particularly in the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein — but the soprano sound is less distinctively Broadway. The head tones of soprano singing can be airy, quivery or unnatural, and they can often remind people more of opera. This presents a challenge to the Broadway soprano: how to sing the notes both beautifully and expressively, in service of the character and the play.
Click through to read my selections for the Top 13 Broadway Sopranos.
13. Susan Watson
The original Kim in Bye Bye Birdie, Susan Watson's crystal voice and enunciation helped make her a go-to ingénue in 1960s. She actually created the role of Luisa in the original Barnard College run of The Fantasticks as well, but was unavailable when the show opened Off-Broadway due to Bye Bye Birdie. (Watson did get to play Luisa in the 1964 Hallmark Hall of Fame television version of The Fantasticks.) She showed legitimate soprano chops as a replacement Lili in Carnival and starred in several other musicals, including the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette (as Nanette) and the 2011 revival of Follies (as Emily Whitman).
12. Laura Osnes
Cast as Sandy in Grease by winning the TV reality show competition, "You're The One That I Want," Laura Osnes may not have won her Broadway debut the old-fashioned way, but she has proven her talent to be first rate in a number of leading lady roles on Broadway that continue to reveal her depth and range. She was positively enchanting starring in the new Broadway adaptation of Cinderella. My favorite Laura Osnes moment: her shimmering "This Is All Very New To Me" (from Plain And Fancy) in tribute to Barbara Cook on The Kennedy Center Honors.
11. Kelli O'Hara
One of Broadway's foremost leading ladies today, Kelli O'Hara is much more than an old-school soprano, as she's proven as Babe in revival of The Pajama Game and as Ella in the City Center Encores production of Bells Are Ringing. But more classical style soprano singing is where O'Hara really shines, as she showed recently in The Bridges of Madison County. I'm particularly excited for her performance as Anna in the upcoming revival of The King And I.
10. Carol Lawrence
Carol Lawrence created the role of Maria in West Side Story and for this, she will forever be remembered in Broadway history. Going back to that original cast recording, it's clear why she was chosen by the great Leonard Bernstein. There's an authoritative musicality to her voice and an undeniable luster. After West Side Story, Lawrence made a handful of Broadway appearances (including Subways Are For Sleeping and brief stint filling in for West Side pal Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman) and starred in Off-Broadway's Handle With Care last year. My Christmas wish is for Lawrence to do a cabaret act in New York, perhaps at 54 Below.
Laura Benanti is sort of the great Broadway star still waiting to happen. She's been collecting fans in a variety of popular performances since she was 19 and took over for Rebecca Luker in The Sound of Music. Somehow, despite all the acclaim and even a Tony Award for playing Gypsy opposite Patti LuPone, Benanti has yet to land a leading role in a hit Broadway show to guarantee her place in the pantheon. Her fans can at least make do with her frequent presence on television, including an especially enthralling, scene-stealing turn as the Baroness in "The Sound of Music Live" in which Benanti reminded me of no less than Vivien Leigh.
8. Marin Mazzie
Marin Mazzie had been kicking around as a replacement in Big River and Into The Woods (and Off-Broadway in And The World Goes Round), before garnering attention and praise for creating the role of Clara in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion in 1994. Mazzie's voice is like no other—almost more of an operatic mezzo-soprano in its fullness, but with impressive clarity and a powerful force of expressiveness. These qualities made Mazzie uniquely formidable in her Tony-nominated performance in Kiss Me, Kate.
Patricia Morison was a glamorous Hollywood femme fatale in the 1940s before making her lasting mark on Broadway as the original Lilli Vanessi/Katherine in Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate. Morison's impact and ease in the role are amply demonstrated in surviving videos of her performance in subsequent telecasts of Kiss Me, Kate and it's easy to see why the role is so difficult to cast successfully today. Morison also notably replaced Gertrude Lawrence in the original production of The King And I opposite Yul Brynner and the video of their 1971 Tony Awards reprise of "Shall We Dance" reveals a masterly command of the role.
It's arguable that Broadway has never heard a voice as beautiful as Rebecca Luker's. Luker is like a musical instrument in the purity of her musicality. The stunning beauty of her voice has been an asset to numerous Broadway shows since her debut as an understudy in The Phantom of the Opera, an assignment from which she quickly graduated, eventually becoming a pre-eminent leading lady in the field. More recent productions have seen Luker stepping into supporting parts like the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, but the undeniable excitement of a Rebecca Luker performance still galvanizes the proceedings.
Christine Ebersole has a larger-than-life stage presence that is all too rare in the theatre nowadays. Even more singular is Ebersole's status as a soprano among her generation of Broadway leading ladies, almost all of whom are belters, as had become the more common type in the 70s and 80s when these actresses were making their marks. After a beloved (and Tony-nominated) turn in the Oklahoma! revival, Ebersole bided her time in film and television, coming back to Broadway and winning two Tony Awards, including one for revelatory triumph in Grey Gardens.
Kristin Chenoweth sings with an operatically trained soprano voice, with virtuosic capabilities far beyond the call of duty in almost any musical. Indeed, Chenoweth could have a successful career as a comedic actress without ever singing a note. She is in a very esteemed category of Broadway clowns going back to Carol Channing and Bert Lahr. The fact she brings several octaves to the table only sweetens the deal.
So much has been said about six-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald. So much praise has been heaped upon her in her seemingly endless cycle of triumphs showcasing the vast range of her talents, in including her recent channeling of Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson's Bar And Grill. If, however, we go back to her beginnings, McDonald was trained as a soprano at Juilliard and Broadway first celebrated her as Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel—a classic Broadway soprano role. Revisiting the Carousel cast album, McDonald's guts and depth and verve sparkle in a vocal performance even better than in my gilded memory.
If vast majority of people on earth never got to see Julie Andrews' landmark Broadway performances in My Fair Lady and Camelot, she still remains a definitive Broadway soprano in our hearts and minds due to her iconic film roles in "The Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins." Andrews' effortless bell tone poured out for decades as she became inextricably embedded in the general cultural idea of Broadway.
1. Barbara Cook
Perhaps the finest singer ever to perform in Broadway musicals, Barbara Cook remains today at 87 years old, an inspiration to singers of The Great American Songbook everywhere. After creating legendary parts in The Music Man, Candide and She Loves Me, Cook famously abandoned the Broadway stage mid-career to focus on cabaret and concert work where she capitalized on not only her one-of-a-kind theatrical soprano voice (weighty and meaty, almost belty with a metallic edge and a silver flute-like top), but an exquisite and profound phrasing that made dozens and dozens of songs across her eclectic repertoire, completely her own.
(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.)