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Mark Shenton’s top 10 leading ladies on Broadway right now

Audra McDonald in the Broadway production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva
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Broadway is still the king of musicals globally; and its reigning queens are the leading ladies who populate them most regularly. I’ve been lucky to see many stunning talents at the top of their game, but this is my list of the current top of the crop, plus a couple of names to watch. (If it misses long-time favourite voices of mine such as Barbara Cook, Betty Buckley and Liz Callaway, that’s because they haven’t appeared on Broadway for some years…

1. Audra McDonald

The most Tony-anointed star in Broadway history, Audra McDonald has three Tonys for musicals and three for plays – and she’s only 46. So there will likely be a few more in the years to come. She has a classical operatic soprano – she trained at Juilliard – that could have served her equally for an opera career, but she has brought the liquid beauty of that voice, and the melting presence of her personality, to Broadway musicals new (the original Ragtime and Marie Christine) and old (Carousel, 110 in the Shade, Porgy and Bess) with equal passion. I’ve seen all but one of her Broadway shows – the one I missed was an appearance in Shakespeare’s Henry IV at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont) – and also frequently in solo concerts, as well as in concert performances of musicals, and she never fails to thrill.

2. Patti LuPone

There’s no one with quite the force of personality of Patti LuPone, a one-of-a-kind theatrical diva of the old school who’s never scared of stealing a show or of speaking her mind (she famously stopped to berate an audience member in the middle of Gypsy in 2009). The latter is frankly enough to make her a living legend, but it is the performances that count. If there’s one performance I most wish I’d seen on Broadway, it is her Eva Peron in the original transfer there of Evita in 1979. But I’ve been lucky enough to see her on Broadway in subsequent revivals of Anything Goes, Sweeney Todd and Gypsy, as well as the new musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and in several plays; and in London in the original Les Miserables and Sunset Boulevard, originating the roles of Fantine and Norma Desmond respectively, as well as in cabaret. I can’t wait to see her return to Broadway next year in War Paint, opening at the Nederlander Theatre in March, a new musical from the Grey Gardens team of Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie.

3. Kelli O’Hara

Possessed of one of the best voices on Broadway, Kelli O’Hara just last week made her Carnegie Hall solo debut, a well-earned accolade for a actor of singular charm and infinite class. She has an old-fashioned sweetness, seen to marvellous effect in revivals of such classic shows as The Pajama Game, South Pacific and The King and I (for which she finally won a Tony award after five previous nominations). She’s also been lovely in new musicals such as Adam Guettel’s masterwork The Light in the Piazza and Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County.

4. Sutton Foster

Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple. Photo: Nobby Clark
Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple. Photo: Nobby Clark

One of the most charming yet spunky of all Broadway actors, Sutton Foster has won Tonys for Thoroughly Modern Millie and a revival of Anything Goes. She’s also shown her comedic chops in The Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein and Shrek, as well as her dramatic ones in Jeanine Tesori’s wonderful Violet. I can’t wait to see her Charity Hope Valentine in Off-Broadway revival of Sweet Charity that has just begun previews in a New Group production at the Pershing Square Signature Center and runs to January 8.

5. Cynthia Erivo

The sole British entry on this list, Cynthia Erivo (interviewed here for The Stage by Matthew Hemley) arrived in New York a year ago in the transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s The Color Purple – and became an overnight Broadway star, duly winning this year’s Tony award for best actress in a musical. I’ve seen her in the show three times there now, and am going back for her last night on January 8. I hope they send her back home after that, but I suspect Broadway may want to hold on to her: she’s the most authentic star discovery in years.

6. Kristin Chenoweth

Kristin Chenoweth
Kristin Chenoweth

The diminutive but always explosive Kristin Chenoweth has just this week returned to Broadway in a solo concert show, My Love Letter to Broadway. I’m afraid I’m going to miss it, but I recently attended a press preview in New York in which she sang just four songs and it was a total treat. She was the original Glinda in Wicked, but I’ve also seen her over the years in leading roles in terrific revivals of Promises, Promises (in 2010) and On the Twentieth Century (in 2015).

7. Jessie Mueller

A Tony-winner for originating the role of Carole King in Beautiful, Jessie Mueller has a warmly enveloping voice and presence that is truly captivating in the quirky new musical Waitress, which she is currently headlining on Broadway. I’ve also seen her previously in revivals of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, both of which she received awards nominations for.

8. Laura Benanti

Earlier this year, Laura Benanti charmed the socks off me, starring in the Barbara Cook role of Amalia Balash in a revival of She Loves Me that pushed a performer I’ve always liked into the very front ranks. I’ve also seen her do great work in the Patti LuPone Gypsy, in which she played Gypsy Rose Lee, Nine (playing Claudia, opposite Antonio Banderas) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

9. Stephanie J Block

Still best-known possibly for being a take-over Elphaba in Wicked, I’ll never forget Stephanie J Block for impersonating another of my all-time favourite Broadway divas, Liza Minnelli, in The Boy from Oz in 2003, or for starring in one of the worst-ever Broadway musicals, The Pirate Queen in 2007. But she’s currently come into her own as the absolute stand-out of the marvellous new production of William Finn’s Falsettos, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

10. Annaleigh Ashford

Annaleigh Ashford. Photo: Debby Wong/Shutterstock
Annaleigh Ashford. Photo: Debby Wong/Shutterstock

A Tony-winner for a scene-stealing performance in a Broadway revival of the classic comedy You Can’t Take It With You last year, Annaleigh Ashford first came to Broadway prominence for originating the role of Lauren in Kinky Boot. Last week, she proved that she’s a star in her own right, after she starred as Dot in the concert revival of Sunday in the Park With George opposite Jake Gyllenhaal.

And a couple of names to watch…

Alexandra Silber

Currently playing Tzeitel in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which alas doesn’t give her much opportunity to show off a ravishing soprano, Alexandra Silber is American-born but British-trained, and began her stage career in the UK, starring in a West End production of Carousel. I’ve also seen her in a production of Howard Goodall’s Love Story in Philadelphia and she’s just stunning.

Denee Benton

About to make her Broadway debut as Natasha in the transfer of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Denee Benton (who I saw in the show in previews) is an utter delight and surprise.

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