Get to Know These Leading-Lady Living Legends of Musical Theatre, From 80-100 Years Old

News   Get to Know These Leading-Lady Living Legends of Musical Theatre, From 80-100 Years Old
From Chita Rivera to Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury, we celebrate the historic careers of Broadway's unstoppable leading ladies.


Recently, 100-­year-­old Patricia Morison,​ one of the first actresses to portray Anna Leonowens in The King and I on Broadway, recorded a YouTube shoutout to Kelli O'Hara,​ Broadway's current Anna. After some (but not too much) persuading, Morison sang a spirited chorus of "Shall We Dance?", proving that, to quote Sir Noel Coward, "there's life in the old girl yet!"

I began to ponder what other leading ladies of a certain age are still showing off their skills, whether on the Great White Way or at the occasional benefit concert. It is a great comfort to know that so many theatrical legends from the last century continue to provide musical entertainment in this one. Scroll down to enjoy celebration of just a few women who have originated iconic roles on the Broadway stage and introduced at least one hit song along the way.

Patricia Morison

Even more impressive than starring opposite Yul Brynner ​in The King and I​ is the fact that Patricia Morison originated the role of Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate. ​Although neither Morrison nor her co­star Alfred Drake appeared in the film version of Kate, ​their performances were immortalized in a 1958 televised adaptation of the musical. The glamorous, big­-eyed brunette with a glorious soprano introduced several famous songs in Cole Porter's masterpiece, including "Wunderbar," "So In Love" and "I Hate Men." Since the 1960s, she has lived in California and dedicates much of her time to painting. As evidenced by her video message to O'Hara, she still possesses a lyrical elegance and feisty personality befitting a Broadway legend.

Here, performing "I Hate Men" in the 1958 television adaptation of Kiss Me, Kate.​



Jean Darling

Although Jean Darling​ passed at the age of 94, she continued paying homage to her Broadway roots well into her twilight years, and I could not resist including her in this list! Before originating the role of Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel in 1945, Darling was a member of Our Gang, a ​series of famous pre­war short films centered around a pack of mischievous children, later renamed "The Little Rascals."​ As Julie Jordan's bubbly bestie, she became the first performer ever to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic showtune, "Mister Snow," as well as (with Eric Mattson) ​"When the Children are Asleep." Though her Broadway career came to a halt after Carousel, ​she remained creatively active, appearing on television and in radio and reading her original children's stories under the pseudonym, Aunt Poppy. She was recognized as one of the last surviving silent film performers, but her place in Broadway history and impressive record of 850 consecutive performances during Carousel ​also deserves acclaim.

Here, at the age of 90, singing "Mister Snow."


Carol Lawrence

Carol Lawrence,​ 83, has appeared on Broadway 12 times, but, arguably, her most important contribution to the musical theatre occurred in 1957, when she originated the role of Maria in West Side Story.​ At the young age of 24, she introduced an impressive five songs into the American repertoire: "I Feel Pretty," "Tonight," "Somewhere," "I Have a Love" and "One Hand, One Heart." Her marriage to Robert Goulet​, as well as her many television appearances, may have occasionally overshadowed her status as a theatrical living legend but she recently returned to the New York stage in the play Handle With Care.​ For that performance, Anita Gates of the New York Times wrote, "A remarkable 56 years after her star­making Broadway role as Maria in West Side Story,​ she still has the cheekbones, the smile, and the eager charm."

Here, singing "Tonight" with Larry Kert on "The Ed Sullivan Show."


Sally Ann Howes

Soprano, Sally Ann Howes, 85, has enjoyed a successful career in both the United States and in her native England. She starred opposite her father in the original West End production of Paint Your Wagon ​and later enchanted New York audiences as Julie Andrews' successor in My Fair Lady.​ In 1963, she originated the role of Fiona MacLaren in Brigadoon, ​introducing one of the twentieth century's most popular love songs, "Almost Like Being in Love." A year later, she became the first Tony nominee for a performance in a revival (Brigadoon). Generations of filmgoers remember her as the aptly named Truly Scrumptious in the film "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."​ She continues to perform today. If the rumors are true, a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady may not be far away; perhaps Howes could make a long­-awaited return to the Great White Way as Mrs. Higgins, a role she played in the 2007 national tour. Her last Broadway role was 15 years ago in James Joyce's The Dead.​

Here, singing "Almost Being in Love" with Robert Goulet in the 1966 television adaptation of Brigadoon.



Helen Gallagher

Soap opera audiences will remember her from her role on "Ryan's Hope," ​but Helen Gallagher, ​89, is a two-­time Tony winner who originated leading roles in Sweet Charity,​ Pal Joey,​ No, No, Nanette and a few other endeavors like Hazel Flagg​ and Tallulah.​Though she has generally stayed away from the spotlight in recent years, the spirited triple threat who helped introduce "Big Spender" and "Baby, Dream Your Dream" in 1967 is committed to training the next generation of performers. She teaches song interpretation courses at the celebrated HB Studio.

Here, performing "You Can Dance With Any Girl" with Bobby Van​ at the 1972 Tony Awards.



Pat Suzuki

The breakout performance in Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1958 musical Flower Drum Song​ undoubtedly belonged to Pat Suzuki​'s Linda Low, a fun-­loving nightclub singer. Suzuki, who spent time in an internment camp during World War II, won over audiences with her amusing Act One number, "I Enjoy Being a Girl," which has become an iconic standard for women everywhere. She enjoyed a successful music career and made television history as a principal member of the cast of "Mr. T and Tina," ​the first Asian­-American sitcom. Now 85, she occasionally makes live appearances and is not averse to singing the song that she made famous.

Here, singing that very song in 2005.


Barbara Cook

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Barbara Cook​ earned her place as Broadway's favorite ingenue, originating the roles of Marian Paroo in The Music Man,​ Amalia Balash in She Loves Me and Cunegonde in Candide,​ among others. Sopranos all over the world owe many thanks to Cook for introducing so many delightful songs into the cannon, including "Till There Was You," "Goodnight, My Someone," "My White Knight," "Ice Cream" and "Glitter and Be Gay." Her performances in significant revivals of Show Boat and Carousel​ introduced those musicals to a new generation of audiences. At 87, she still performs in sold­-out concerts. In 2011, she was named an honoree at the Kennedy Center Honors.

Here, singing "Till There Was You."


Chita Rivera

At 82, Chita Rivera​ remains one of the hardest working performers on Broadway. Her recent stint in The Visit earned her a 10th Tony nomination (she has won twice, for Kiss of the Spider Woman​ and The Rink). As Anita in West Side Story, ​she introduced "America" and "A Boy Like That"; as Velma Kelly in Chicago,​ she introduced "All That Jazz" and "Nowadays"; and as Rose Grant in Bye Bye Birdie, ​she introduced "An English Teacher." In addition to her groundbreaking theatre roles, she has the distinction of being the first Hispanic woman and Latin American to be honored by the Kennedy Center. This year, she was honored with The Theatre World John Wills Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. There seems to be no slowing down for this vivacious leading lady, whose energetic and layered performances only seem to grow richer with age.

Here, performing "Spanish Rose" from Bye Bye Birdie​ on "The Ed Sullivan Show."


Carol Channing

In 1941, Carol Channing​ made her Broadway debut as an understudy in Cole Porter's Let's Face It! She later originated two of the musical theatre's most iconic roles: Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!​. Among the famous songs she introduced in those shows were, "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," "A Little Girl From Little Rock," "Before the Parade Passes By" and, of course, "Hello, Dolly!" In 2012, her life and career were the subject of the award­-winning documentary, "Larger Than Life." ​She is now 94 and, although her last Broadway performance was nearly 20 years ago (in a revival of Hello, Dolly!,​ naturally), this writer wouldn't be surprised if the old girl hasn't in fact hung up her Dolly headdress for good. Somehow, "national treasure" doesn't seem too strong a phrase to describe this one­-of-­a-­kind American star.

Here, performing two songs from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on "The Buick Berle Show."


Angela Lansbury

Until last year, Dame Angela Lansbury​ held the record (with Julie Harris) ​for most Tony Awards for a performer. Her wins were for Mame, Sweeney Todd, Dear World, Gypsy and Blithe Spirit but Sondheim devotees also remember her performance as Cora Hoover Hopper in Anyone Can Whistle. ​Just some of the songs she introduced as Mame Dennis, Mrs. Lovett, Countess Aurelia and Hooper include, "We Need a Little Christmas," "It's Today," "If He Walked Into My Life," "Open a New Window," "The Worst Pies in London," "Not While I'm Around," "I Don't Want to Know" and "A Parade in Town." At 90, she appears to be as indefatigable as ever, having recently picked up her first Olivier Award, for Blithe Spirit, ​which she also toured through England and the United States. A recent Australian production of Driving Miss Daisy,​ in which she starred opposite James Earl Jones,​ was filmed and has just been released on DVD. Lansbury's last musical role on Broadway was in 2009 as Madame Armfeldt in A​ Little Night Music.​ Wouldn't it be great to see her originate a brand-new role in a brand-new show? OK, a revival would be fine, too. We'll take whatever we can get.

Julie Andrews

Dame J​ulie Andrews ​originated four iconic roles on Broadway: Polly Browne in T​he Boy Friend, E​liza Doolittle in M​y Fair Lady,​ Queen Guenevere in Camelot, and the title role(s) in V​ictor/Victoria.​ She was also Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first ever "Cinderella" (in the 1957 live television broadcast of the musical fairy tale) and sang on film as Maria von Trapp, Mary Poppins, Millie Dillmount, Gertrude Lawrence (in "S​tar!")​ and in "V​ictor/Victoria,​" etc. The list of songs she originated both onstage and onscreen is beyond impressive; just to name a few: "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Where Are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood?," "The Lusty Month of May," "Le Jazz Hot," "In My Own Little Corner," "Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good." All outstanding songs in their own right, but made even greater by Andrew’s glorious soprano and charm. Now 80, she writes successful children’s books with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, and made her most recent film appearance in "Despicable Me." ​In 2016, she will direct M​y Fair Lady, ​the show that made her a Broadway star nearly 60 years ago, for the Sydney Opera House.

There are far too many living legends (thank goodness) to include in one article, and I have chosen not to include anyone under 80. However, readers will be pleased to know that two-­time Tony winner Tammy Grimes,​whose kittenish charm enhanced several 1960s musicals, is receiving lifetime achievement awards and lending her talents to cabaret.​ Marge Champion, ​95, gives fascinating interviews and remains unrivaled as an icon in the Broadway dance books. Marni Nixon,​ who provided a voice for countless musically-­challenged Hollywood starlets, is glad the cat's out of the bag and she's finally receiving the recognition she deserves. Carol Burnett,​ AKA Princess Winifred, returned to Broadway in last season's revival of Love Letters​ opposite Brian Dennehy. Kaye Ballard​ still lives in the home once owned by Desi Arnaz and steps onto a stage every now and again. Purlie's Linda Hopkins l​ooks great for 90 but doesn't sing too much these days. Jo Sullivan, ​a Tony nominee for The Most Happy Fella, ​is very busy managing husband Frank Loesser's estate. Inga Swenson ​lives in sunny California, where it is never 110 in the Shade, if you catch my drift. Carousel's featured dancer Bambi Linn still dreams in ballet shoes. Unfortunately, there are no YouTube messages from Janis Paige, ​the original Babe in The Pajama Game.​ And, although everyone who has seen a bootleg of The Apple Tree​ wishes desperately that Barbara Harris​ would return to Broadway, the extraordinarily gifted belter seems perfectly content in Scottsdale, AZ.

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