STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 100 Greatest B'way Musical Performers | Playbill

Special Features STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 100 Greatest B'way Musical Performers
If you tune in VH-1 next week, you'll see five shows dedicated to the "100 Greatest Artists of Rock 'n' Roll."

If you tune in VH-1 next week, you'll see five shows dedicated to the "100 Greatest Artists of Rock 'n' Roll."

But where can you find a list of "The 100 Greatest Artists of Broadway Musical Theater"?


Time being what it is, I couldn't poll 600 experts, as VH-1 did. But I did get the opinions of five of my favorite show freaks: Ken Benson, Vice-President of Columbia Artists Management; Ken Bloom, the author of both "American Song" and "Hollywood Song"; Ken Kantor, recently seen as Miles Gloriosus in the Funny Thing revival; Bob Sixsmith, musical theater archivist; and Frank Vlastnik, who not only played Professor Fodorski in All-American in a high school where I wish I went, but also was the only cast member of Big who didn't miss a single performance in or out of town.

Over two dinners a week apart, we hashed over all the names, and came up with 146 worthies. "But," I insisted, "we must stick to 100." So a reluctant goodbye to Beatrice Arthur, Lauren Bacall, Carol Burnett, Glenn Close, and Jackie Gleason -- famed and accomplished performers, but with simply not enough musical stage work. We bade a sad farewell to such stars of yesteryear as Noel Coward, Howard Marsh, Molly Picon, Bill Robinson, and Sophie Tucker. Our hearts broke when even such Tony-winners as Hinton Battle, Jack Gilford, George Hearn, Liliane Montevecchi, Phyllis Newman, and Ben Vereen didn't make the cut. But here's the list that passed muster among the six of us. (With one exception. After I got home, I took off one and added another. Don't ask me which.) Though if you don't like where your favorites are numbered, then blame me and only me:

1. AL JOLSON -- Broadway's first real superstar.

2. ETHEL MERMAN -- Did musicals in every decade from the '30s to the '70s.

3. MARY MARTIN -- Did musicals every decade from the '30s to the '60s.

4. HARRIGAN AND HART -- They began it all, didn't they?

5. FRED AND ADELE ASTAIRE -- Even as late as last year, they showed up in a new show's lyric.

6. MARILYN MILLER -- They all looked to the "Look for the Silver Lining" star.

7. FANNY BRICE -- If a girl isn't pretty like a Miss Atlantic City, she can still be a luminary.

8. EDDIE CANTOR -- If you knew Eddie like they knew Eddie, you'd understand.

9. GWEN VERDON -- In addition to her Four Tonys, Sweet Charity and Roxie Hart, too.

0. ANGELA LANSBURY -- Who expected four Best Musical Actress Tonys after years of playing cold-hearted women in the movies?

. CAROL CHANNING -- Dolly'll never go away, be it on Broadway or the road.

2. CHITA RIVERA -- Whether in bombs like Seventh Heaven and Merlin or smashes like West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie, she always triumphed.

3. BERT LAHR -- As late as 1964, he was winning a Tony in an undistinguished show.

4. ED WYNN -- "The Perfect Fool was no fool when it came to pleasing an audience.

5. LIZA MINNELLI -- Never mind the problems; concentrate on the achievements.

16. TOMMY TUNE -- Don't forget that among those nine Tonys are two for performing.

7. JIMMY DURANTE -- The only performer to "cross" Ethel Merman when it came to top billing.

18. VICTOR MOORE -- Never mind less is more -- Moore was more.

19. ROBERT PRESTON -- Like Lansbury, a movie also-ran who then ran away with Broadway's hearts.

0. ALFRED DRAKE -- The bedrock of three blue-chip, household-name musicals.

1. GERTRUDE LAWRENCE -- Getting to know her was Broadway's treat.

. FRITZI SCHEFF -- The mademoiselle of Mademoiselle Modiste.

3. BEATRICE LILLIE -- The high spirited Lady Peel gave us peals of laughter.

4. PATTI LUPONE -- Would she have been higher had we seen her in Sunset Boulevard?

5. BERNADETTE PETERS -- Look what happened to Mabel, Ruby, Dot, and the Witch when she played them.

26. PHIL SILVERS -- The top banana of three fun-filled musicals.

27. HELEN MORGAN -- On the piano or off it, a real star.

8. DENNIS KING -- Operetta's favorite leading man.

29. RAY BOLGER -- By Jupiter, could he sing "Once in Love with Amy."

0. JUDY HOLLIDAY -- Especially selling the best 11 o'clock number of all time: "I'm Goin' Back."

1. WILLIAM GAXTON -- Of he (okay -- him) we sing.

2. BETTY BUCKLEY -- With one look and one astonishing voice, she conquers.

. DOLORES GRAY -- When you win a Tony for a show that ran three performances, you're obviously something.

4. OLSEN AND JOHNSON -- Hellzapoppin's delightful hellions.

5. RICHARD KILEY -- We can say he's one of the best, with no strings attached.

36. DOROTHY LOUDON -- Plenty of fine performances before and after Annie.

37. SHIRLEY BOOTH -- She had refinement.

38. JERRY ORBACH -- Long before his "Law and Order" days, a Broadway reliable.

9. VERA ZORINA -- Small parts, nothing -- Zorina played an angel at every opportunity.

0. DOROTHY AND FRED STONE -- Broadway's favorite father-and-daughter team.

1. ZERO MOSTEL -- Okay, too many show-ruining improvs, but when he did it right, who was better?

2. JOHN RAITT -- The golden voice of the late '40s and early '50s.

3. ETHEL WATERS -- Great at suppertime, and every other time, too.

. VIVIENNE SEGAL -- She bewitched, but never bothered or bewildered us.

5. JULIE ANDREWS -- Gets points for staying with Victor/Victoria longer than anyone would have expected.

46. BOBBY CLARK -- There's no comic like a low comic -- when he's this good.

47. MANDY PATINKIN -- Hope he comes back in a book show very soon.

48. DONNA MURPHY -- And don't you have the feeling that these her two Tonys are only the beginning?

49. PEARL BAILEY -- Her "third-act" for Dolly gets her on the list, too.

0. ELAINE STRITCH -- Here's to the lady who triumphs.

1. JOEL GREY -- Don't forget all those national company tours before he broke out with Cabaret

2. NATHAN LANE -- You hafta love a guy who took his stage name from Nathan Detroit.

3. DONNA McKECHNIE -- Play her the music, and she's one singular sensation.

4. CYRIL RITCHARD -- He hooked a whole generation of kids onto musical theater.

. EMMA TRENTINI -- If this naughty star of Naughty Marietta hadn't been so hard to work with, she could really been something.

56. BERT WILLIAMS -- Who sang "Nobody" as well? Nobody.

57. BARBARA COOK -- And we don't just mean because she was smart enough to leave Carrie.

58. JOHN CULLUM -- He started in the chorus of Camelot, but sure didn't stay there.

59. ROBERT MORSE -- How to succeed in musicals by really trying.

0. NANETTE FABRAY -- We still get jealous when she acts anywhere but on the musical stage.

1. EDDIE FOY (AND JR.) -- The best father-and-son double punch in the business.

2. NANCY WALKER -- We were so glad whenever she took a job, for heaven's sake and ours.

3. TAMMY GRIMES -- It'd be unthinkable to leave off this unsinkable lady.

4. HELEN GALLAGHER -- Wave the Flagg for this old pro.

5. ROBERT GOULET -- No snickers, please. There was a time when he was sensational.

66. GREGORY HINES -- He taps our troubles away.

67. BARBARA HARRIS -- What a shame that she threw it all away.

68. CELESTE HOLM -- She's just a girl to whom we can't say no.

69. JACK CASSIDY -- And not just for giving birth to a couple of Blood Brothers, either.

0. DAVID BURNS -- An old pro who died on the job.

1. GEORGE ROSE -- Well, they can stay and rot -- but not Rose.

2. LARRY KERT -- Something was coming, something good, from his West Side Story stint on.

3. JUDY KAYE -- She went out there an understudy, but sure hasn't been one since.

4. HAROLD LANG -- He was darned good in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, too.

5. SUSAN WATSON -- The quintessential ingenue of the '60s.

76. MARILYN COOPER -- Doncha just love what she said when she won her Tony: "I guess if you stay at the poker table long enough, you come up with a winning hand."

77. JANE CONNELL -- She can play anything from a Gooch to a duchess.

78. RAY MIDDLETON -- A sharpshooter when it came to hitting notes, too.

79. NANCY DUSSAULT -- Anyone who had to sing "Where Is the Tribe for Me?" deserves to make this list.

0. STUBBY KAYE -- The person who rocked the boat, to our eternal delight.

1. DAVID EVANS -- If you don't know who this is, give me a call and I'll happily explain.

2. SUSAN JOHNSON -- The brassiest dame around.

3. DORETTA MORROW -- The R&H soprano we most remember.

4. NATHANIEL FREY -- The tastiest second banana.

5. DAVID WAYNE -- The best leprechaun in the business.

86. GRETCHEN WYLER -- Sang and danced smoother than a pair of silk stockings.

87. TERRENCE MANN -- With Cats, Les Miz, and Beauty and the Beast, he became this generation's premier male performer.

88. ANITA GILLETTE -- They threw her out of The Gay Life, and looked what happened.

89. PATTI KARR -- The supporting actress extraordinaire.

0. SONDRA LEE -- Peter Pan and Hello, Dolly were only two of her triumphs.

1. JOHN McMARTIN -- Even though he couldn't come through for Sweet Charity.

2. KAY MEDFORD -- The Jewish mother supreme.

3. GEORGE S. IRVING AND MARIA KARNILOVA -- Together or apart, they enchanted us in several shows.

4. MICHAEL RUPERT -- What happy times he's had -- and has given us -- since his debut as a teenager.

5. BAMBI LINN -- One of our most reliable dream ballet dancers.

96. LARRY BLYDEN -- Did you know he often got top billing in The Apple Tree?

97. YUL BRYNNER -- And let's not forget Lute Song, either.

98. HARVEY EVANS -- Gave able support to a peck of shows.

99. REX HARRISON -- Okay, only one musical, but his song-speak revolutionized the art form.

. BARBRA STREISAND -- And to think that she could have been at the top of the list had she only stayed with us.

Was one of your favorites left off or someone you consider unworthy included? Make your case to Managing Editor Robert Viagas. See which names other readers suggested.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at

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