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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 men 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 strong baritone, 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 guy as the character? Does he sell his songs? Is he acting the song or just singing it? Does he overpower, compliment, or disappear behind the other performers in the show? Does it seem natural that he would break into song to express himself? Can you conjure up a mental picture of him in the role? Is it hard to imagine anyone else in the role? Do you eagerly anticipate his next song? Does his overall performance make you want to run out and hear him 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.

Len Cariou--Sweeney Todd

Cariou's powerful, subtle turn as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is arguably the greatest male performance to have been captured on a recording of a musical. It's easy to go over the top on this role--George Hearn went the maniac route, and he certainly didn't do a bad job--but far harder to do what Cariou did, which was to portray a man whose madness simmered just underneath a thin veneer of civility. Cariou perfectly captures Sweeney's movements through different sorts of madness, from his relatively normal revenge-driven persona when the show begins to his anguished "Epiphany" when he goes over the edge, to his increasingly abstracted behavior as he routinely performs his "work," to his measured, eager efficiency as the Judge arrives, to his final horror, rage, and collapse at the end, when--but I won't spoil it if you haven't heard the musical.

John Cullum--Oscar Jaffee, On the Twentieth Century

When I heard this CD, I was so blown away by John Cullum that I immediately started looking up his other musicals (Shenandoah, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and a fragment in Camelot are his best-known performances, and he's currently appearing in Urinetown: The Musical off-Broadway). If you're familiar with his work on Northern Exposure, you probably won't believe the powerful voice that comes from this man. I've seen jaws drop when I've played this CD for people--his voice is that unexpected. I've mentioned a few things about his performance in my review of On the Twentieth Century, and I see no reason to repeat them here when you're just a click away, but I will add this: He won a Tony for both this role and for his Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah, and the latter is considered by some to be one of the all-time great performances of the musical stage. However, I chose his Oscar Jaffee because it's harder to invest a caricature with humanity--which he does very nicely--than it is to play a tragic patriarch. Also, Shenandoah's music is mostly pretty bad.

Rex Harrison--Professor Henry Higgins, My Fair Lady

No, he couldn't sing, but he could sprechtsing with the best of them, and he was one of the great comic actors of the twentieth century, even if he was also a huge pain in the ass and cranky to boot. He took his craft very seriously, and it shows in this musical (I'm referring to the American performance; I thought he was a little too shrill in the London version, and I can't remember his movie version well enough to compare it). Every line is important, every line has meaning in context, and his Higgins has several layers beyond mere petulance that have eluded lesser actors who have essayed this role. For comparison, check out Jonathan Pryce in the Henry Higgins moments of Hey, Mr. Producer! Pryce is a terrific actor, but his Higgins is angry, defeated, vengeful, snappish--unsympathetic, and thus inappropriate for the show, because you can't root for either of the principals; they have to be balanced in your affections. Harrison's Higgins is angry, but also ruefully amused, lovably stern, and happily anticipatory of Liza's fate--you can like this guy even as you disagree with him.

George Hearn--Albin, La Cage Aux Folles

George Hearn isn't my favorite leading man, but I have to concede him two spectacular turns: his live Sweeney Todd in the New York Philharmonic production of 2000, and his Tony-award-winning Albin. There have been some notable cries of anger in Broadway, but none more memorable than Hearn's anguished, soft-to-shouting, slow-to-fast "I Am What I Am," which became a gay anthem (and could serve as the same for other groups that society wants to change, such as atheists and humanists). Every note quivers with anger and pride. When my mother first hear it, she was in tears.

Hal Linden--Mayer Rothschild, The Rothschilds

Barney Miller, singing and dancing? The trouble with TV is that it locks you into a single impression of an actor or actress and obscures that person's past achievements. I bet you didn't know that before Barney Miller, Hal Linden spent more than a decade in musical theatre as understudy, featured player, or replacement in such shows as Bells Are Ringing and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. So his Tony-winning appearance as Mayer Rothschild wasn't a fluke by any means. Indeed, when you hear him on the relatively few songs he was given, you'll wish fervently that he'd had a chance at more starring roles on the musical stage, or at least been allowed to do some serious singing on Barney Miller. You'll never hear pure joyful glee sung as well by anyone else, male or female.

Zero Mostel--Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof

He was egotistical as all get out; Maria Karnilova (Golde) couldn't stand him; and he used to drive directors crazy by throwing in all kinds of business unrelated to the show (designed to make him the center of attention even in scenes where he wasn't supposed to be); but there's no denying that at his peak, when he wasn't acting like a schmuck, Zero Mostel was one of the truly great Broadway musical performers. (His biographer, Jared Brown, makes a case that he was one of America's greatest straight actors as well, based on his performance in Rhinoceros.) He wasn't bad in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by any means, but Fiddler is his triumph. With music and a role perfectly suited to him both mentally and physically, he turns in the kind of warm, believable, dominating performance that will be remembered for many years.

Robert Preston--Harold Hill, The Music Man

So it's obvious, but I don't think anyone can deny that Robert Preston stunned everyone by coming out of nowhere (essentially) to turn in a picture-perfect performance as the lovable rogue who turns River City, Iowa, upside-down. He's absolutely believable as a slick salesman who secretly dreams of really leading a band. For sheer exuberance from beginning to end, there isn't anyone to touch Preston. It's a damned shame that he ended up in so many flops afterwards--the only success he had after The Music Man was I Do! I Do!, though one could argue that Mack and Mabel was a cult success.

Honorable Mention

Clifford David--Edward Rutledge, 1776

He gets one song, "Molasses to Rum," and promptly stops the show. Sheer, sarcastic evil is hard to project without going over the top, but there isn't anyone who does it better. See also Boo Hiss! Villain Songs and the review of 1776.

William Daniels--John Adams, 1776

Daniels got screwed out of a Best Actor Tony nomination because his name wasn't above the title, but he clearly deserved the nod. If his Adams wasn't legendary, it was damn close. You can read what I wrote about his performance in the review of 1776. At least his performance was preserved in the movie (a rare enough event), though he came off in the movie somewhat stiffer than on CD.

Lonnie Price--Charlie Kringas, Merrily We Roll Along

Price turned in a hell of an acting job on the CD, especially on "Franklin Shepard, Inc." That song is one of the hardest in the Sondheim canon, and he performs it impeccably, moving from dialogue to song seamlessly and from emotion to emotion with the skill of a veteran (Price was only 22 at the time). The rest of his performance also sparkles. See also the review of Merrily We Roll Along.

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

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