My husband and I were recently discussing the ongoing debate about who was the quintessential Tevye: Theodore Bikel, Topol, or Zero Mostel. It occurred to us as we were chatting that there are a number of powerhouse roles – particularly female roles - that have been played on Broadway and in film by multiple well-known and well-respected performers. So I thought it might be interesting to look at a few of the battles of the Broadway divas and think about who played them best.
Mama Rose (Gypsy)
Originated by Ethel Merman on Broadway in 1959, this role has also been played by such divas as Angela Lansbury in the 1974 revival, Tyne Daley in the 1989 revival, Bette Midler in the 1993 TV movie, Bernadette Peters in the 2003 revival, and Patti LuPone in the 2008 revival. Mama Rose is one of the most emotionally nuanced and rangy acting roles ever written for a woman in a Broadway musical. She is brilliant, tough, tortured, loving, and loveless, often in rapid succession. Rose carries the entire show, rarely leaving the stage for more than a few minutes, bearing the brunt of the most demanding musical numbers, including the show-stopping 11 o’clock number, “Rose’s Turn.” This role requires both vocal and acting chops and stamina, as well as a dominating stage presence.
On the basis of vocal power alone, Merman and LuPone have the edge. On the basis of sheer acting chops, Merman, Lansbury, and Daley are just about tied. On the basis of intimidating physical presence balanced with incredible personal charisma, Merman and Daley take it. Midler’s and Peters’ performances were passable, maybe even good, but not in the same league as the rest of the list. Bottom line, nobody can beat Merman’s brilliant portrayal of a woman who tried to force her own dreams on her daughters but succeeded only in destroying her relationships with them.
Nellie Forbush (South Pacific)
Mary Martin originated the role on Broadway in 1949, Mitzi Gaynor took over in the 1958 film, and Glenn Close threw her hat in the ring for the 2001 TV movie. Ensign Nellie Forbush is a young Army nurse stationed on an island base who becomes involved with an older Frenchman, discovering after she has fallen in love with him that he has two mixed-race children. She breaks it off with him and he volunteers for a dangerous mission and is killed. The show ends with the implication that she is finally able to get past her own racism and take in his children for the sake of her love for him.
Martin’s charisma and spunk claimed the stage every time she was on it, her clear, exuberant soprano voice oozing Midwestern innocence and charm, a brash, confident exterior not quite hiding the insecurity inside, which only made her descent into the reality of racism and forbidden love all the more heartbreaking. Gaynor was a bit less naïve but also a bit less tough, and although the audience loved her, they were not quite as sympathetic to her heartbreak as they were to Martin’s. Glenn Close was significantly older when she played the role, which made her innocence less believable, but which created a different kind of heartbreak as this sweet woman who had finally found the love of her life much later in life lost him. Three very different performances, but I have to argue that the most powerful by far was Martin’s, with her disillusioned naïveté and abrupt transition from carefree idealistic youngster to sober and sadly realistic adult.
Maria (The Sound of Music)
Although most people are most familiar with Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Maria in the 1965 film, it was actually Mary Martin who originated the role on Broadway in 1959. Maria is a young novice at a convent in Austria just prior to the Nazi takeover. The Mother Abbess, doubting Maria’s suitability to be a nun, sends her to be a governess for the seven children of a widowed Navy captain. At first intimidated by the captain and his children, she soon finds her backbone and wins their love, going on to marry the captain and escape the Nazis with him and the children.
Although several musical numbers were changed for the film and scenes were significantly reordered and rewritten, the character of Maria was essentially unchanged. Martin’s portrayal was, similar to her Nellie Forbush, an outwardly confident but inwardly uncertain young woman who first turns from a forbidden love with an older man but later embraces it, albeit with a much happier ending in The Sound of Music. Andrews’ Maria, however, began as more timid both externally and internally, but found her confidence later on as she was forced to confront her fears and uncertainties. Both powerful, both memorable, both charming, I have to call this one a tie.
Peter Pan (Peter Pan)
Mary Martin originated the role on Broadway in 1954 and played it again in the 1960 TV movie, followed by Sandy Duncan in 1979, and Cathy Rigby in 1990, 1991, 1998, and 1999 (and on endless national tours since). Peter Pan, “the boy who wouldn’t grow up,” is a charming rascal who flies with pixies, watches over Lost Boys, fights with pirates and Indians, and wants a mother to tell him bedtime stories.
Martin’s portrayal of Pan can be summed up by her rendition of “I Gotta Crow”. As un-selfconscious as only a small boy can be, strutting around, happily crowing in pride merely because of his own existence, Martin is perfectly believable as a young boy. Duncan’s even more petite build allowed her to also be believable as a boy, delightful if not quite as charming and endearing as Martin. Rigby, however, with her petite build, boyish figure, and years of gymnastic training, took Pan to literal new heights as she zoomed, flipped, and practically floated above the stage. Her manic energy embodied Pan’s conflicting emotions and constantly racing thoughts, her chirpy yet powerful voice nearly matching Martin’s spirited portrayal but with a more boyish sound. It may be sacrilege to say it, but having seen Martin on film and Rigby in person, Rigby’s is the version I find both more realistic and more enjoyable.
Annie Oakley (Annie Get Your Gun)
Ethel Merman created the role on Broadway in 1946, Betty Hutton starred in the 1950 film, Merman returned to Broadway for a short-lived revival in 1966, and Bernadette Peters helmed a second revival in 1999. Annie Oakley was a petite little sharp-shootin’ spitfire who won the hearts of the audiences of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as well as that of her rival, Frank Butler. Annie was a diamond in the rough, uncultured but good-hearted, tough and prickly on the outside but sweet and vulnerable underneath.
Merman definitely had the brash, belted vocals and the uncouth edges, but her performance lacked vulnerability and a sense of real romance. Hutton’s Annie was a bit less abrasive but still rough, and you could see her softening around Frank and becoming aware of her own roughness, craving to find her own femininity for his sake if not her own. Her love for him was believable and sweet. Peters had the tiny frame and huge personality of the real Annie, but like Merman, her growing vulnerability and wish for her femininity and culture never materialized, not did any real sense of chemistry or sexual tension with Frank. As surprising as it is when stars like Merman and Peters are in the mix, the winner in this match-up is the lesser known Hutton.
Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!)
Carol Channing took Broadway by storm as the original Dolly Levi in the 1964 Broadway production, Barbra Streisand starred in the 1969 film, Pearl Bailey starred in a 1975 Broadway revival featuring an all-black cast, and Channing returned for a 1978 revival and again for a 1995 revival. Dolly Levi is a spirited, self-styled matchmaker and general busybody who can’t help but make a mess trying to find the right match for everyone – including herself. Luckily, everything always seems to come out all right in the end.
Channing’s slightly ditzy Dolly was charming in a silly, simple kind of way. She seemed to waltz through life constantly messing things up but lucking into their success by sheer good-heartedness. You liked her without really admiring her. Bailey’s huge voice and huge personality created a slightly less refined and much less silly Dolly. She got her way by force of will, and any mess-ups that happened in the process were by no fault of her own. She was more admirable but perhaps a bit less likable. Streisand’s somewhat younger and sweeter Dolly was a blend of the previous two, with a powerful voice like Bailey but a slightly ditzy presence like Channing. Her ditziness was less stupidity and more preoccupation – her mess-ups only happened because she had already moved her attention on to something else. Streisand’s Dolly had a determination and an energy that made you want her to come out all right in the end. Winner, Streisand.
Marian Paroo (The Music Man)
Broadway legend Barbara Cook originated the role on Broadway in 1957, but Shirley Jones starred in the 1962 film, and Kristin Chenoweth in the 2003 TV movie. (Broadway revivals in 1980 and 2000 did not produce any Marians worthy of the “diva” title.) Marian Paroo is a city-dweller trapped in the body of a small-town Iowan. She longs to bring culture to her neighbors through her love of books and music, but is looked down on because she is a spinster. She falls in love with a travelling salesman who turns out to be a liar and a thief, a fact which she at first tries to expose and then to hide, finally proving to her neighbors that you can’t judge a book by its cover, whether it’s a book about librarians or travelling salesmen.
Barbara Cook’s soaring, effortless vocals on such numbers as “My White Knight” and “Goodnight, My Someone” make the audience fall in love with her even more quickly than Harold Hill does. Her Marian is principled but not stuffy, genuinely confused at why the ladies in the town don’t follow her advice, and has a wildly romantic core hidden under her practical, rule-following exterior. Jones’ equally lovely vocals also charm the audience, but her Marian has just an edge of prissiness and a slight sense of superiority over the rest of the town. Her romantic side is a bit less fantastical, her practical nature reining it in. Chenoweth’s vocals were even more effortless than Cook’s, but her complete lack of chemistry with Matthew Broderick’s Harold Hill was even more off-putting than her prissiness and obvious sense of superiority over her neighbors. Her vocals were likable but her characterization was much less so. It was easier for the audience to see why the townspeople didn’t take to her than why Harold Hill did. No doubt about it, Barbara Cook is the Marian everyone falls in love with.
Reno Sweeney (Anything Goes)
Yet another role originated on Broadway by Ethel Merman, in 1934, Merman reprised the role for a 1954 TV movie, Patti LuPone helmed both the 1987 revival and a special revival in 2002, and Sutton Foster took over the role for the 2011 revival. Much like the role of Mama Rose, also portrayed by both Merman and LuPone, Reno is a strong-willed, determined woman who is used to pushing people around to get her own way. In the end, Reno softens up and finds love in the unlikeliest of places.
Merman’s Reno is brash, belty, and charming, and with a much more comical and less angst-ridden romance than in Annie Get Your Gun, she pulls off the romantic undertones at the end quite serviceably. LuPone, surprisingly, was much more convincing in her softening at the end, but her brashness came off as more abrasive and self-centered than Merman, creating a somewhat less likable Reno. Foster, despite terrific vocals and acting chops (not to mention the ability to dance rings around both Merman and LuPone) was simply too young and not quite world-weary enough to pull off the role. I’d love to see her give it another shot in 10 years or so, but until she does, this one also goes to Merman.
So which roles would you argue in favor of a different diva? And which roles did I forget?