Broadway Legends Who Left Their Mark on Musical Theatre

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Do you have a passion for performing, but no idea how to make it a reality?

You’re not the only one. Singing, acting and dancing is a competitive field, and not everyone makes a name for themselves. However, with passion, dedication and hard work, it is possible to achieve your dreams. Let’s take a look at Broadway legends who rose from the bottom up and didn’t allow anything to stop them.

Broadway legends

Credit: Flickr, Broadway Tour


Broadway Legends Who Built Themselves Up from Nothing

We’re celebrating Broadway legends who put themselves out there and made a name for themselves. All of these individuals have one thing in common – a passion for performance, and a fire to make a success of themselves. Let’s take a look at how each one of these earned their right to fame and stayed at the top of their game.

1. Carol Burnett

Carol Burnett is one of the greatest Broadway legends ever. She graduated from Hollywood High School in 1951 where she then won a scholarship to UCLA. At this point, she planned to study Journalism, but developed an interest in writing plays. As a result, Burnett switched to Theatre Arts and quickly found herself performing in front on an audience. She quit college in 1954 and moved to New York to seek a career in acting, as she quickly feel in love with the art. It wasn’t a smooth transition into the performing world though, as she struggled for a year to find performing jobs in musical theatre.

Finally, she landed a role on a popular children’s television programme. Although it was a minor part, it led to a starring role in a sitcom opposite Buddy Hackett. Back to square one, she tried the cabaret circuit. It was at this point that her career really took off. After performing a parody song called “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles”, she was invited to sing it on The Jack Paar Tonight Show. This time in the spotlight helped Burnett to land a role in 1959. She played Princess Winnifred in Mary Rodger’s One Upon a Mattress. It started off-Broadway, but soon became a huge sensation. Consequently, Burnett received a nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.

After a long absence from Broadway due to illness, she returned in 1985 to earn a Tony Award for her role in Moon Over Buffalo. Following this, George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Media of Freedom. Due to her amazing success, Burnett brought out a memoir titled This Time Together.

2. Idina Menzel

A huge name on people’s lips right now is Idina Menzel. Recognized as the voice of Elsa in Disney’s Frozen and for screen roles including Enchanted, Kissing Jessica Stein and the TV programme, Glee, she’s also one of the most popular Broadway legends right now.

Menzel debuted at Broadway after a successful audition for the role of Maureen Johnson in the musical theatre Rent in 1995. She earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in this. Her success in this role helped her to become one of the most recognized Broadway legends, and she went on to launch a debut album, promoted by Hollywood Records.

Menzel’s career has progressed immensely since her Broadway career as she became nominated for a Drama Desk Award for depicting Kate in an off-Broadway musical theatre. She co-starred with actress, Kristin Chenworth, in the theatrical adaption of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. For her amazing work in this, she won a 2004 Tony Award in the category of Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her role of the protagonist, Elphaba.

She continued her act as Elphaba when Wicked was staged at the Apollo Victoria Theatre in the West End of London. Menzel became the most expensive female performer in the entire three months the show ran on West End – bringing in $30,000 every week. In early 2013, Menzel returned to Broadway and later received her second Tony Award nomination for her performance in If/Then. Although she lost to Jessie Mueller, her career continued to blossom and she pursued a music career.

3. Christine Ebersole

Actress Christine Ebersole is one of the most famous Broadway legends, even though she’s divided her career between stage and screen. In the late 1970’s, she joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, appearing as the diva, Katerina Cavalieri. Her work on Broadway brought her the greatest success though. Consequently, she won Two Tony Awards – one in 2001 and the second in 2007.

Ebersole first appeared on Broadway in 1976 as the replacement in the play Angel Street. Two years later, she appeared on Broadway again as a replacement. Following her success, she starred in revivals of the musical Oklahoma!, Camelot, and The Best Man.

Her performances on stage are extensive and she’s played a variety of roles in successful musicals. Recognized for her role in War Paint, Ebersole received great exposure for her craft and talent. Her Broadway credentials are extensive, and she performed in a variety of shows, including: Goodman Theatre World Premiere Production, Broadway Revival, Encores! Concert, London Production, Broadway Transfer and more.

4. Sutton Foster

Sutton Foster is an award-winning American actress, singer and dancer, recognized for her performances in Broadway productions. Foster is one of the best Broadway legends for her performances in The Drowsy Chaperone, Little Women, Young Frankenstein, Shrek the Musical, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. She’s considered as the best fit in the endorsement industry, thanks to her high-spirit charisma, fresh skin and positive energy.

Her Hollywood debut happened in 1989 during a short film, Mr. Terbillion’s Ambition. The four actresses appearing in this continued with four more movies, including Shrek the Musical. Foster also lent her voice in two movies called Just In Case and Mired.

Her breakthrough Broadway performance came in 2000 when she was cast in Thoroughly Modern Millie – a musical set on the 1967 film about an independent woman from 1920. Although it didn’t receive the most positive reviews, Foster was rewarded with the Tony Award for the best actress in a musical. In fact, people praised her portrayal of the character, which helped her success to blossom some more. Before this, Foster went to Broadway, where she was selected for the chorus to replace the lead actress. Her passion for singing became evident when she recorded solo CDs for the albums Wish and An Evening With Sutton Foster.

Following her off-Broadway detour, Foster took on the role of a nightclub singer which earned her a Tony Away for second-best actress. Foster always had a talent and passion for dancing. In 2012, she started her own dance workshops at Ball State University in Muncie.

5. Pearl Bailey

Pearl Bailey is another of the most recognized Broadway legends. At the age of 15, Bailey quit high school in Philadelphia to pursue a career as a singer and dancer. She appeared in nightclubs, theatres and even cafes in north American cities, and at times, sang with big bands. Whilst still trying to get recognized, she recorded several albums with two of these big bands and joined a Broadway theatre group to showcase her talents.

As such, she appeared in her first Broadway music, St. Louis Woman, followed by her first appearance in a film called Variety Girl. Bailey continued singing in numerous nightclubs whilst taking secondary roles in an array of films. A few years later, she returned to nightclub work because it paid well and made her happy.

Bailey appeared as matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in an all-black production of the musical, Hello, Dolly! This went on tour in the United States and Canada, and she soon hosted her own show, The Pearl Bailey Show, in 1971. During the same time, she played a supporting role in the television sitcom, Silver Spoons, for a handful of years. Despite her proclaiming success, she also returned to her first love which is cabaret singing. Intimate venues were her preferred style of entertaining, because she loved engaging with the audience.

6. Elaine Stritch

Elaine Stritch was born on February 2, 1925 in Detroit, Michigan, and was the youngest of three sisters. As a natural performer which a huge desire for her craft, she chose to move to New York City in 1944 to attend the New School. Her time there helped to develop her skills and confidence.

Consequently, she performed in a variety of stage work before making it to Broadway. Some of her earliest productions include: Loco, Made in Heaven, and Angel in the Wings. However, it wasn’t until her amazing performance in 1952’s Pal Joey, that people began muttering her name on their lips. She received her first Tony nomination in 1955 for her role in Bus Stop.

Stritch continued working hard for her stage career and never gave up. Continuing productions included: The Sin of Pat Muldoon and Goldilocks, which both continued for the following decade. Her success continued, thanks to her hard work and incredible talents. As a result, she earned her second Tony nomination for 1961’s Sail Away. In 1962, she took over a role in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which received impeccable recognition and success.

Following this, Stritch took a break from Broadway for a while. However, in 1970, she returned to the Broadway stage to perform in Company. Continuing to work hard for top roles, she received another Tony nomination. With this amazing success, Stritch became one of the top dogs on both the big and small screens. She continued to build her credentials in a variety of films, including: A Farewell to Arms, The Perfect Furlough, and Too Many Thieves.

7. Barbra Streisand

It’s difficult to talk about Broadway legends without referring to Barbra Streisand. Born in 1942 in Brooklyn, New York, Streisand was raised in a middle-class family and grew up aspiring to become an actress. She worked hard to make her dream come true by working as nightclub singer and off-Broadway performer in New York. Consequently, she began to attract attention as well as a fan base, thanks to her powerful singing voice. In 1962, she debuted on Broadway in the musical comedy, I Can Get It For You Wholesale. People were amazed at her performance, and she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, as well as a New York Drama Critics Poll award.

Following her success, Streisand released solo albums, The Barbara Streisand Album and The Second Barbra Streisand Album. These brought her critical praise and public attention. Going back to her love of performing, she continued with a Broadway hit when she portrayed legendary Broadway star, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.

After the birth of her son, Jason Gould and a brief London stage period, Streisand gave a free concert in New York which was filmed and later broadcast as a TV special. As Streisand’s success and fame grew, she flew to Hollywood for her first movie, Funny Girl, which was a film of her stage success.

Towards 2000, she focused her career back to concerts and in 2006-2007, followed with a European tour. She made only two more filmed, and published a book, Passion for Design.

8.  Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald was born in West Berlin, Germany on July 3, 1970, and went on to establish a budding career as one of the most popular Broadway legends ever. As a young child, McDonald became enthralled with music as both of her parents were musicians and her aunts formed a gospel group. Even during elementary school, McDonald began performing in local theatre shows alongside her sister. She eventually attended a performing arts high school, and went on to Julliard in New York City, to then graduate in 1993.

Her time in Julliard pushed her to her limits, as she suffered from deep depression and even attempted suicide where she had to be hospitalized. After recovering and focusing on her health, McDonald recovered and received her big break whilst in school. This was because she joined the Broadway cast of The Secret Garden as part of the chorus, and ended up going on tour with the production. She was then later cast for 1994’s revival of Carousel, where she played Carrie Pipperidge. McDonald won her first Tony Award for this role as Featured Actress in a Musical.

In addition to Broadway, McDonald has also starred in operas and performing in some of the most famous renowned orchestras. She launched a successful solo artist career and featured on many official cast album recordings of her stage work too. In total, she has won six Tony Awards, which is more than other Broadway legends. She is also the award’s first grand-slam artist, winning in all individual performance categories. She was also nominated for three Emmys thanks to her incredible stage work.


Who Are Your Favourite Broadway Legends?

We hope you enjoyed reading and learning about these talented Broadway legends. It’s always interesting to appreciate the hard work and behind-the-scenes research which goes on in the lives of successful people.

Do you have a list of Broadway legends we haven’t referred to above? If so, leave your favourite names in the comments to continue this conversation.

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