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With Women’s History Month right around the corner, why not explore some of theatre’s most dazzling leading ladies? The following women – both from history and those working today – pushed the envelope, took risks, and changed the face of Broadway for the next generation.
Frances Goodrich started her career as an actress, with credits in Daddy Long Legs, Skin Deep, and Excess Baggage. After, she switched to writing – which would be where she left the largest legacy. She and her husband, Albert Hackett, wrote three plays that ended up on Broadway: Up Pops the Devil, Everybody’s Welcome, and Bridal Wise. After, Goodrich pivoted yet again, moving to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. She and her husband were nominated for four Academy Awards and won five Writers Guild of America Awards. Notable works include such iconic films as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Father of the Bride, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Easter Parade. Goodrich eventually returned to the Great White Way to pen 1955’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
Actress and teacher Stella Adler is best known for founding her titular school, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, in New York City. During her career, Adler acted in a variety of Broadway shows and with The Group Theatre. Her dazzling legacy can be found within her many students, who include such big names as Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Dolores del Rio, Martin Sheen, and Melanie Griffith.
A student at Smith College, Cheryl Crawford moved to New York immediately following graduation and became involved with the Theater Guild. She went on to co-found some of theatre’s most notable companies: the aforementioned Group Theater, the Actors Studio, and the American Repertory Theater. At Group, Crawford produced many of its works – one of which, Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White, won the 1934 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. After her stint at Group, Crawford had an ambitious but unheard of idea for women in her time: becoming an independent theatre producer. Despite obstacles, she found success; her 1942 revival of Porgy and Bess had a long run at the Majestic Theatre, as well as a successful countrywide tour.
Margo Jones, known as the “Texas Tornado,” was lauded for revolutionizing American theater. Jones often fought for greater representation in the industry – advocating for new voices and regional productions. Jones nabbed her first Broadway show when she co-directed the original production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie in 1945. Following this, she opened Theater ‘47 in her hometown of Dallas; ‘47 is credited for the subsequent widespread passion of regional theatre in America. Alongside these accomplishments, Margo directed several other Broadway shows, and launched the careers of playwrights including Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.
The first African American woman to direct a Broadway production, Vinnette Carroll was a staple in the New York theater community. She directed shows on and off Broadway, and was known for consistently celebrating Black culture in her shows and in her daily life. Like many hopefuls, Carroll began her career as an actress, with roles in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Small War on Murray Hill. Carroll, however, strived for more. She began the Urban Arts Corps in New York City in 1967, which helped to train and prepare minority theater artists. There, she also produced works by Black artists. The corp’s first major hit was Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, which landed on Broadway in the early 70s. She earned a Tony nomination for her work.
Dame Angela Lansbury is a legend of the Great White Way; until recently, she held the record for most Tony Awards won as a performer. Some of her most iconic works on Broadway include Mame, Sweeney Todd, Dear World, Gypsy, and Blithe Spirit. She was also a talented voice actor – appearing in the original film versions of Beauty and the Beast and Anastasia. Lansbury worked consistently until her death in 2022; she appeared in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns, as well as 2022’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
Hildy Parks was a mainstay on the stage and screen during her vast career. Role highlights include Of Mice and Men, Bathsheba, The Night Holds Terror, Fail-Safe, Seven Days in May, and The Group. She was also known for her role as Ellie Crown in the soap opera Love of Life. Parks is perhaps most praised for her producer credits; she and her husband, Alexander H. Cohen, produced broadcasts of the ACE Awards, the Tony Awards, and the Emmy Awards.
Dianhann Carroll collected a lot of ‘firsts’ in her lauded career: She was the first Black woman to win a Tony Award in a Best Actress category for No Strings; and she was also the first Black woman to star in the title role of a television series in which her character was not a domestic worker (Julia). She made both her film and Broadway debut in the same year; on the screen in Carmen Jones, and on the stage in House of Flowers. Before her death in 2019, Carroll landed guest spots on a variety of popular shows, including White Collar and Grey’s Anatomy.
Dubbed the “matriarch of the American regional theater movement,” Zelda Finchandler was a cofounder of Washington, D.C’s Arena Stage. The Arena Stage was legendary for a variety of reasons. It was the first theatre in Washington to perform to integrated audiences; one of the first theatres to switch to a nonprofit model; and was the first American theatre to have an integrated company of actors. Additionally, Arena was the first regional theatre to have a hit move to Broadway – The Great White Hope. Before her passing in 2016, Fichandler was awarded a National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton, and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1999.
With a storied career under her belt, Chita Rivera hasn’t shown signs of slowing down. Her most notable roles include Anita in West Side Story; Velma Kelly in Chicago; and Rose Grant in Bye, Bye, Birdie. Rivera is the first Hispanic woman and Latin American to be honored by the Kennedy Center. She has been nominated for ten Tony Awards and has won two – for Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Rink. She was also recently honored with the Theatre World John Wills Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
Daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, Liza Minnelli quickly outgrew the term “nepotism baby” with her undeniable talent. She was only 19 when she won her first Tony for 1965’s Flora, the Red Menace – and now she’s won four of them, alongside an Emmy and an Oscar. Among her most beloved roles are Sally Bowles in the film Cabaret and Michelle Craig in the Broadway production of The Act.
Perhaps Lynn Nottage’s efforts are most easily summarized through a major milestone she made in 2021: For a brief time, she had a musical (MJ the Musical), a play (Clyde’s) and an opera (Intimate Apparel) all running simultaneously. She is also the first (and only!) woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. MJ, which premiered in late 2021, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won four – for Best Actor in a Musical, Best Choreography, Best Lighting Design, and Best Sound Design.
Lucy Moss is best known as the co-writer and director of Six – which retells the lives of the six wives of Henry VIII via a pop-concert structure. Why is this so historic? Moss was only 26 during the debut – making her the youngest female Broadway director in history. Although Six was her big break, Moss continues her creative endeavors. She directed and co-wrote Hot Gay Time Machine and Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, and was slated to direct the 2022 revival of Legally Blonde: The Musical.