By Paul Dellit
Since the Golden Age of Broadway there have been many leading ladies that have fallen into the category of diva, particularly in the field of musical theatre.
Whether she likes it or not Patti LuPone has unofficially been crowned the reigning Broadway diva of her generation.
The word ‘diva’ is of Latin/Italian origin and came about in the late 1800s, describing the feminine of a divus God or divinity, and was usually assigned to a female singer with connotations of a prima donna.
So what does make a diva? Is it purely talent? Is it their larger than life personality – both on stage and off?
LuPone’s roll call of leading roles has included everything from Eva Peron in Evita and Momma Rose in Gypsy, two roles which scored her the Tony Award for ‘Best Leading Actress in a Musical’. But her starring roles in Les Miserables, Anything Goes and Sunset Boulevard have also awarded her just as much acclaim.
LuPone is thrillingly larger than life: rambunctious on stage and off, she takes audiences to a world where drama is the norm. LuPone is a real actor (with a Juilliard pedigree) as well as the standard bearer for a modern generation of high-belt thrill trillers spurred to new heights by her soaring turns in “Meadowlark” (The Baker’s Wife) and “A New Argentina” (Evita).
After setting the street on fire in Evita and Anything Goes, however, she became a great star in exile; fans of her glorious singing, with its joyful blare and leering swoops, had to content themselves with concerts.
Now, in a second act worthy of any great show, LuPone has reclaimed her Broadway spotlight with a vengeance – in revivals of Sweeney Todd and especially Gypsy, for which she won her second Tony – and taken her rightful place as ‘the reigning diva of her generation’.
Last year she appeared in War Paint, receiving yet another Tony Award nomination for ‘Best Lead Actress in a Musical’. After her whirlwind tour of the US and Australia, she will star in the brand new production of Stephen Sondheims’ musical Company at London’s West End in September
Detractors may sling mud at her Long Island–Sicilian earthiness, but LuPone’s voice, and the evident joy she takes in using it, make such objections moot. Her style is stamped with an implicit credo: all guts, all glory.
Historians of the Broadway musical, from the academy to the piano bar, agree on one thing: the archetypal Broadway diva is a woman.
Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, Carol Channing – legendary ladies such as these were the bulbs that lit the Great White Way in its golden and silver ages, and still dominate the mythology of the genre.
But there’s something deeply personal about choosing one’s favorites. Back in the day, show-tune aficionados argued the merits of Merman versus Martin; today, one might find similar divisions among partisans of Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters, or Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.
A recent Broadway World audience poll came up with the following list of Top 25 Broadway Divas (past and present, in no particular order): Carol Burnett, Tonya Pinkins, Idina Menzel, Christine Ebersole, Dorothy Loudon, Sutton Foster, Donna Murphy, Gertrude Lawrence, Pearl Bailey, Betty Buckley, Elaine Stritch, Kristen Chenoweth, Barbra Streisand, Carol Channing, Audra McDonald, Barbara Cook, Chita Rivera, Mary Martin, Julie Andrews, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Gwen Verdon, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone and Ethel Merman.
There may be a few heated arguments about the choices that made this list, so let the diva wars begin!
It’s not often that Brisbane audiences have the opportunity to experience a true Broadway legend in their city, and it looks like this will be their only chance to do so when Patti LuPone presents her acclaimed one-woman show Don’t Monkey with Broadway later this month.
QPAC in association with Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University presents Patti LuPone: Don’t Monkey with Broadway on Wednesday, June 27 at the Conservatorium Theatre, South Bank.For tickets, visit the QPAC website.