Bursting with Song logo


What is a great Broadway performance? Well, whatever it is, most of it isn't available to anyone via a mere CD. Thus, in this context, "great performance" means "great vocal performance." And not just singing--hardly! These performances are what musicals are about: acting as you sing, singing as you act, expressing emotion as you reach for that high note.

The women in this list made my ears prick up as their dulcet tones vibrated my speakers. Usually something about their voice first caught my attention: an unusually sweet voice, a vivid piece of narration, a line spat rather than sung. Closer attention to their performances showed me why I was impressed in the first place.

Some questions I asked myself about various performers as I compiled this list: Do you buy this gal as the character? Does she sell her songs? Is she acting the song or just singing it? Does she overpower, compliment, or disappear behind the other performers in the show? Does it seem natural that she would break into song to express himself? Can you conjure up a mental picture of her in the role? Is it hard to imagine anyone else in the role? Do you eagerly anticipate her next song? Does her overall performance make you want to run out and hear her in other roles?

These are the best of the best. Many of the choices on this list are pretty obvious, but some are overlooked gems. Note that there are more women represented here than there are men in my list of Great Male Performances; that's because traditionally musicals have favored female roles over male ones, so naturally there would be more great female performances.

Julie Andrews--My Fair Lady

Ah, well, you knew she'd kick off the list, didn't you? Fresh from The Boyfriend, she was nervous as hell and pretty green, but Moss Hart coaxed her into the classic performance for which she became a household name. Let's face it, you gotta be something to hold your own against Rex Harrison! She never quite reached this height on stage again--her role was inferior in Camelot, she was kinda rusty in Putting It Together, and let's not talk about the musical version of Victor/Victoria--though of course she would become the reigning movie-musical queen for many years. She had a "perfect" theatre voice, in my opinion--now, unfortunately, gone because of incompetent doctors.

Lauren Bacall--Applause and Woman of the Year

No, she can't sing, much, though she was usually on key on the CDs. But rarely has a performer projected so much vocal personality! It was almost tangible, coming through the speakers. That's why she won best-actress Tonys both times she appeared on the musical stage. Let me put it this way: She completely dominates Len Cariou in Applause--that's how powerful she is. (Granted, it was one of his earliest roles, but still....) The music is generally better in Woman of the Year, but Applause is more legendary, and the lyrics were done by her friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Carol Burnett--Once Upon a Mattress

Although Burnett is perfectly capable of serious acting (I just saw the filmed version of Putting It Together, and she was smashing in all ways), she clowns up a storm in this charming fairy-tale musical which, as far as I can tell, was her big showbiz break (she'd been nightclubbing it and appearing on TV variety shows before this). There just aren't female clowns of this caliber on Broadway any longer--or, at least, roles aren't being written for them.

Tammy Grimes--The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Mistress of the tremelo before Betty Buckley came along to steal that crown, Grimes brightens up a run-of-the-mill score with a character-full performance as the legendary (and historically inaccurate) Coloradan. The role made her a star--and to think that she almost turned it down because the character was "vulgar."

Judy Holliday--Bells Are Ringing

There's isn't a comic performance to touch Holliday's tour de force, and the CD only hints at her amazing vocal versatility. With material tailor-made for her by her good friends and former partners Betty Comden and Adolph Green, she couldn't help but produce one of the most legendary performances in the genre. Be amazed at the ease and speed with which she can change voices "with a laugh, and a smile, and a song." Like Lauren Bacall, she was no great singer, but the force of her personality carries her to amazing heights.

Judy Kaye--Luv

Judy, Judy, Judy. If she'd been born even ten years earlier she'd certainly have been one of Broadway's biggest female names ever. She possesses one of the most impressive set of pipes of the last 30 years, has an impeccable comic sense, and acts up a storm in even the blandest roles. God, I would've killed to see her replace Madeline Kahn in On the Twentieth Century, which is when she burst upon the scene. (Argh, why didn't they record the show with her?) Unfortunately, she appeared at a time when Broadway in general was fading out of the general public consciousness, and, despite her Tony and numerous CD appearances, she remains a cult figure beloved of musical theatre buffs. Anyway, she's smashing in nearly everything I have her on, but I have to go with the her performance on the relatively obscure off-Broadway Luv as my favorite of favorites. She's the only woman in this three-person show, and all I can say is, if you ever wondered what kind of Lily Garland she was, listen to this disc for confirmation. Suddenly, you know she was the perfect Lily. Her voice soars, her emotions run high, she's funny as hell, and she's deliciously over-the-top without being annoying.

Angela Lansbury--Sweeney Todd

Easily the supreme example of why you don't have to have a perfect voice to be a smash on Broadway. Lansbury does have a good voice, but damn, can she act! There's a good reason why she's the only person to win a Tony every time she was nominated for one (four for four). Hearing her in this delicious and challenging role made me forgive her for all those awful Murder, She Wrote episodes. (Crap, why can't Broadway pay that well so people like her can stay on the stage?) She's so jolly as the cracked-voice Cockney Mrs. Lovett that you just gotta love her, even if she's the one who came up with the nastiest idea in the show.

Michelle Lee--Seesaw

Vibrant and powerful, Lee's performance was a huge surprise when I first played this CD. [She's another one-shot on the musical stage, though I seem to remember that she's either going to appear in something or is appearing in something these days. Thanks to friendly reader Tommy Peter for correcting me on this!] Lee appeared occasionally on the musical stage before and after this role, notably as a replacement in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (as well as in the movie), and in the flop Bravo Giovanni, but Seesaw was easily the greatest musical role she created. In 2001 she appeared in, and toured with, the straight play Tale of the Allergist's Wife.

Julia McKenzie--Into the Woods (London cast)

I've been chastized by a Bernadette Peters fan for preferring McKenzie's interpretation of the Witch, but I stand by my opinion. I think McKenzie emotes a hell of a lot better in the role and does a terrific job of embodying the contradictions in the Witch: she's "bad" but "right." In fact, this performance made me a McKenzie fan. She's pretty damn good in Side by Side by Sondheim, too.

Ethel Merman--Gypsy

The most overpowering female singer ever in the role of a lifetime. Her performance can be a bit... well, mindless at times (if you listen to this CD a lot, you can figure out when she's emoting on demand), but Mama Rose is so perfect for her that she can't help but fill it exquisitely. One of the truly legendary performances in the history of Broadway musicals.

Bernadette Peters--Mack and Mabel and Sunday in the Park with George

Two fine and passionate performances. The first arguably marked the beginning of her status as a Broadway superstar; the second helped to confirm it. She's probably one of the last of the Broadway superstars, actually, so cherish her.

Chita Rivera--The Rink

Not to take away from any of Rivera's great performances in such classics as Bye Bye Birdie and Kiss of the Spider Woman, but this obscure Kander and Ebb musical gave her what was probably her meatiest and most three-dimensional role, and she took full advantage of it. Here, she created one of the most believable characters I've ever heard on a CD, one fully deserving of her first (!) Tony.

Barbra Streisand--Funny Girl

This wasn't her first musical (she was the sole bright spot in the dreary I Can Get It For You Wholesale), but it was her first and only starring role before she was lured away to Hollywood and records. She has what I consider a "perfect" Broadway voice: not only is it gorgeous, but it's supremely expressive. Only a few other performers have had voices of this caliber. Anyway, she's fine on the "singy" songs like "People," of course, but she really shines in the character songs, like "I'm the Greatest Star," in which she displays a comic sensibility reminiscent (though not quite at the level) of Judy Holliday. How they could give the Tony to Carol Channing (Hello, Dolly, of course) over Streisand is beyond me--but then, a lot of the women on this list missed out on the Tony.

Alexis Smith--Follies

For many people, Smith was the high point of this legendary musical. Listen to her stunning rendition of "Could I Leave You?" and you'll see why. Were anger and anguish ever so effectively communicated by anyone else? If she'd had the right material, she probably could have been the female Robert Preston of the 1970s; alas, her only other foray onto the musical stage was a dull flop.

Elaine Stritch--Company

Often imitated, never equalled. Nobody can do tough-and-ascerbic-yet-likeable-and-vulnerable like Stritch can. Just check out the wannabe Joannes in the various latter-day versions of Company and you'll see how she's one of a kind. She owns "The Ladies Who Lunch." And considering how much work she put into the version on the CD, she'd better!

Leslie Uggams--Hallelujah, Baby!

The show was a flop, but Uggams wasn't--she shared a Tony for this splendid performance. The show was actually supposed to star Lena Horne, but she pulled out, and after a brief fling with Diahann Carroll, the creative team chose the relatively inexperienced Uggams. (Like Julie Andrews, her previous credit had been in the cast of The Boy Friend.) She would proceed to wow everyone with her "perfect" voice and skillful acting, and would be compared to Streisand. However, she would go on to a disastrous flop (Her First Roman) and drop out of Broadway altogether. After you hear her in Hallelujah, Baby!, you'll likely agree with me: what a waste! Luckily we have this one show to treasure.

Gwen Verdon--Sweet Charity and Chicago

Verdon was almost too easy a pick--she was, simply, the greatest female triple threat the Broadway musical stage has ever seen. A lot of people consider Charity Hope Valentine her greatest role. I also think she's sensational as Roxie Hart, who admittedly is sort of an older, harder Charity. Even if Verdon couldn't dance, though, she'd still be regarded as one of the truly great singing actresses. The amount of personality that rolls off the CDs....

Honorable Mention

Barbara Cook, various

She's a great singer, one of the best Broadway has ever heard, but I've never been that impressed with her acting on the CDs that I have. Granted, in her early shows she mostly sang personality-free love songs--you're never gonna wring a drop of character out of "Til There Was You" no matter how hard you try--but I haven't yet heard from her the kind of drop-jaw performance that the women above provided.

Glory Crampton--Phantom, the American Musical Sensation

My vote is still out on Crampton. She has a glorious voice, but Maury Yeston's Phantom doesn't allow her to display a lot of acting range, and so far I've only otherwise heard her on some compilation CDs produced by Bruce Kimmel.

Beth Howland--Company ("Getting Married Today")

I think Howland is underappreciated for her achievement, which was merely to sing what must be the hardest, fastest song ever written for the Broadway stage, and sing it so that it's both on-key and intelligible. When did this woman breathe? Nearly every other version I've heard has slowed down the tempo; the only faster version was, appropriately, sung live by Howland at the first Sondheim tribute. (She was heard to take a breath or two during that version.)

Madeline Kahn--On the Twentieth Century

I put Kahn here because her performance is kinda off-key on the CD, but she had several great moments, including "Veronique," where she goes from rank beginner to polished performer in a single song, and "Babette," which displays some impressive vocal gymnastics.

Donna McKechnie--Follies (Paper Mill Playhouse version)

Though a triple threat, McKechnie has never been at the level of Verdon or Rivera. She's been in a number of famous shows (e.g., A Chorus Line, Company, Promises, Promises) and by all accounts is a terrific dancer, but has never really stood out in sharp relief from the rest of the company. However, she gave the performance of a lifetime as Sally in the 1998 version of Follies.

Pamela Myers--Company ("Another Hundred People")

Like Beth Howland, Myers owns the song for which she created the role. I have yet to hear a better version. I'm not sure why I like Myers's version so much, but it just seems right. (I know that's lame.)

All non-lyric material copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved

I invite other examples, corrections, and comments about the examples above. All submitted material will be properly credited and copyrighted to the submitters. Please see the submissions page for more information.

Or, if you're not in a mood to publish, just let me know your opinion of this page.

Return to Bursting with Song

Return to Rational Magic current issue

Go back to the Rational Magic home page

Rational Magic logo