It seems lately women are standing up for their rights everywhere. Equal pay in the office, for the first time in what seems like forever, a woman ran successfully enough for the presidential election that she won the nomination of the Democratic Party. Women are still working hard to pave the way for the women of tomorrow.
We would like to honor four women we feel inspired and paved the way for contemporary female musical performers.
1. Ethel Merman
Merman has one of the most distinct vocal qualities of almost any woman who has graced the Broadway stage. A few of the numbers she made popular were “I Got Rhythm”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, and the Irving Berlin number “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” The latter, in fact, is rather synonymous with her unique singing style.
Born in Queens, New York in 1908 Merman first studied for a secretarial career. Yet she would spend Friday nights with her family traveling into Manhattan to attend vaudeville shows at the Palace Theatre. On these outings, Merman was exposed to talents like Blossom Seeley, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, and Nora Bayes.
While she tried to sing like these other women there was no disguising that originally distinct tone that would come to be Merman’s calling card. The first person to hire her was Lou Clayton, who was also Jimmy Durant’s partner, to sing in his nightclub. It was during her time as a torch singer in Les Ambassadeurs opening for Jimmy Durante when the two established a friendship that would last their entire lives.
In 1950 Merman performed in the Berlin musical Call Me Madam and it was this performance that would earn her that first Tony Award. This was not the first time she would work with Irving Berlin, having starred in Annie Get Your Gun in 1946. This production ran for nearly three years at the Imperial Theatre.
OF course, Merman had an illustrious film career reprising her role in Call Me Madam and starring in other movies including Anything Goes, There’s No Business Like Show Business, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and her final film performance in the slap-stick comedy Airplane! in 1980.
Merman went on to win two more Tony Awards for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. They would be for Happy Hunting, and Gypsy. She was also awarded a Special Tony Award in 1972.
2. Julie Andrews
Whether she was singing on a Broadway stage or if she was yodeling on the silver screen, Julie Andrews is one of the most beloved actresses to ever star in musical theater. Having only starred in four productions on Broadway, Andrews has sung her way into the hearts of millions and continues to do so today, thanks to a phenomenon known as film.
Born as Julie Elizabeth Wells in October of 1935 in England, Andrews. Her parents divorced and she lived with her father. But he eventually sent Julie off to live with her mother and new stepfather, Ted Andrews, because there Julie, who was already showing promise, would be able to get better training in the arts with her mother. Still, her family was financially destitute.
As a child, Andrews studied under Madame Lilian Stiles-Allen who has said that the “range, accuracy, and tone” of her young voice amazed her. In the mid-forties would perform with her parents on stage. Her professional debut occurred when her step-father introduced her to Val Parnell, whose company own several theaters in London.
Julie Andrews first appeared at the London Hippodrome performing arias and established a rather impressive portfolio of work in the UK by the time she was nineteen. She made her debut on Broadway in 1954 playing Polly Browne in The Boy Friend, which was a raging success on London’s West End.
Of course, Andrews would reach her biggest heights in fame when she began making movies. Her portrayal of Mary Poppins in 1964 won Andrews an Oscar for Best Actress and a Golden Globe in the same category. The next year she would star in The Sound of Music, which turned out to be the most successful movie in 20th Century Fox history. The role won her a second Golden Globe.
Andrews would go on to perform in many more memorable film roles although she suffered permanent damage to her voice in the late nineties. Her biggest hit post-surgery was in 2001 in The Princess Diaries.
3. Grace Hartman
This woman was a way-paver by being the first woman to ever win a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. Born in January of 1907, this San Franciscan married Paul Hartman and their careers were intertwined until they were separated by death.
The female Hartman’s Tony-winning performance was for the production of Angel in the Wings, which is the same production for which her husband won his Best Actor in a Musical Tony in that same year (1948). It seems that the couple met when working vaudeville together.
Constantly teamed up and paired with her husband Grace and Paul made an attempt to wow the Hollywood producers after making only a little advancement on Broadway. Unable to find the success they desired in California the couple went back to New York and decided to take charge of their careers.
At one point the couple was considered as a subject for a television show on the NBC network titled The Hartmans. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled due to the producer’s lack of insight into the true talents of the couple. It is believed that if they focused on their musical talents the show may have done better.
Our first winner of the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical died in her home in Van Nuys, California in 1955.
4. Maureen McGovern
Youngstown, Ohio hails as the birthplace of our next female who has performed on Broadway. Born in 1949 it is said that McGovern began at the age of three singing loving to imitate the songs she heard on the radio. Five years later she announced to her family that she wanted to be a professional singer.
After finishing high school in 1967, McGovern spent some time fronting a folk group titled Sweet Rain. The head of 20th Century Records was impressed with her demo and hired McGovern to record “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure.
It was released as a record and McGovern signed a contract with 20th Century Records. “The Morning After” won an Oscar for Best Original Song and reached number one on the recording charts in 1973. The next year McGovern would sing the themes to The Towering Inferno and Gold.
At one point McGovern dropped out of performing and went back to secretarial work. She was under financial strains from the large percentage of profits her manager took when McGovern was successful plus paying her band a full-time salary. She was pulled back and recorded a few more movie themes but they brought her minimal success.
She decided to move on to Broadway, in 1981 McGovern would debut in The Pirates of Penzance replacing Linda Ronstadt in the role of Mabel. From there she would go on to the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera for two roles, as Maria in The Sound of Music and Nellie in South Pacific in 1982.
Her most recognizable role is in the movie Airplane! as the guitar-playing nun who inadvertently dislodges a sick girl’s intravenous tube. McGovern continues to perform in musical theater, giving concerts, and recording songs.
If you enjoyed reading and watching about these power singers and actresses, continue on with the first females to win a Tony award!