Established in 1947 the Tony Awards are one of the most coveted prizes in Entertainment today. Focusing on Broadway productions, which are primarily musicals, Tonys are given to the best shows and performers each year.
It is in a retrospective desire that we decided to inform the world about the first women to ever win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical production.
1. Grace Harman – 1948
Not much can be found on this inaugural winner of the Best Actress in a Musical category. We know she was born in January of 1907 in San Francisco, California and she married actor and fellow Tony Award winner Paul Hartman.
Her 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.
This musical and what it is about is still a mystery to us. Little can be found on this subject as well, except when checking the online archives of the Tony Awards, which lists them both as winners for the year 1948 in that production.
At one point this 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 producers 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 of Van Nuys, California in 1955.
2. Nanette Fabray – 1949
The next Best Actress in a Musical winner on our list took home the trophy in 1949. She would win for her performance in Love Life. Fabray was the only member of the cast to win a Tony that year. She would also win another Tony Award for her performance as Nell Henderson in the 1963 production of Mr. President.
Fabray first appeared on Broadway in Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It alongside Danny Kaye and Eve Arden. Although she originally pursued studies in the art of opera, Fabray realized that she enjoyed musical theater so much more and abandoned the opera ambitions.
Finding success on Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s Fabray starred in By Jupiter (1942), My Dear Public (1943), Jackpot (1944), Bloomer Girl (1946), High Button Shoes (1947), Arms and the Girl (1950), and Make a Wish (1951)
This pioneer Tony Award winner also had a prosperous run on television and in film. Fabray made appearances on The Carol Burnett Show, Burke’s Law, Love, American Style, Maude, The Love Boat, What’s My Line?, and Murder, She Wrote. She even had a show centered around her but it only lasted thirteen episodes.
It was in 1953 when Fabray performed her most memorable role on the silver screen in The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan. Other films she performed include The Subterraneans, The Happy Ending, Harper Valley PTA, Army, and Teresa’s Tattoo.
Nanette Fabray is also the aunt of the television and film personality Shelley Fabares.
3. Mary Martin – 1950
This winner of the third ever Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical Performance was born on December 1, 1913 In Weatherford, Texas. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a teacher of the violin.
After grappling with a lack of success for more than two years in show business but finally debuted on Broadway in 1938 when she was cast in Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me!. She was an instant Broadway success.
Martin starred in Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus in 1943 and auditioned for Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. Yet, she was offered a starring role in a new production that would come out three months later. This was South Pacific, the performance for which she would win the illustrious Tony Award.
Opening on April 7, 1949 her performance as Nellie Forbush earned the critic by Richard Watts Jr. in the New York Post as “loveliness, humor, gift for joyous characterization, and…completely irresistible.”
From this huge success and memorable performance Martin would go on to play Peter in the 1954 Broadway production of Peter Pan, which would also earn her a Tony Award. Five years later she would be the first woman to play our beloved Maria in The Sound of Music.
Despite her successes on Broadway in such iconic roles, Martin was overlooked when these roles were reprised for film. It was considered no big deal to Martin who admitted her love of performing live opposed to film. She claimed that the connection with the audience was lost otherwise.
4. Ethel Merman – 1951
Arguably the most well-known singer and actress on our list today is this fourth winner of the Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award. Some of the songs she made most popular were “I Got Rhythm”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, and the Irving Berlin number “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
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.
Her first audition for a Broadway musical was for George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, for which she was cast immediately. This first musical for Merman lasted for two hundred and seventy-two performances.
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,
5. Gertrude Lawrence – 1952
This final Best Leading Actress on our list of Tony Award winners was born on July 4, 1898 in London. It was in 1904, at the young age of six, when Lawrence performed in public for the first time. It was at her mother’s insistence and little Gertrude was awarded a gold sovereign, or coin, for her attempt.
Four years later Lawrence was given a job singing in the chorus at the Brixton Theatre. She did so to earn money for her family but it was during this time that she was given free lessons by Italia Conti, a famous musical teacher of the time.
Before moving onto Broadway Lawrence performed a great deal in London particularly in Conti’s production of Where the Rainbow Ends, Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle, and a production of Fifinella, which was directed by Basil Dean. He instantly gave her a role in his next production Hanelle where she would meet Noël Coward, with whom she would share a close professional friendship.
She followed that production touring with her father’s variety show. He abandoned her when offered work in South Africa but she continued to tour until 1916. After an illness and a love affair her friend Coward composed his first musical production and had her in mind when he did. London Calling!, which would ultimately lead Lawrence into her first Broadway role in the same revue.
In 1925 Lawrence would perform again in Charlot’s Revue of 1926. The next year Lawrence starred in Gershwin’s Oh, Kay! and became the first British woman to star in an American musical. In 1928 she would star with Clifton Webb in Treasure Girl, also written by George Gershwin.
Still, it was in 1950, after an already impressive career on Broadway and in London’s West End neighborhood that Lawrence would take on the role of Anna in The King and I. It was this performance that would earn Lawrence that first Tony.
Unfortunately, shortly after this musical production, Lawrence would grow very ill and be bed ridden. Her final wish before dying was that Yule Brynner’s name be added to the marquee at the St. James Theatre, which, at the time, only displayed Lawrence’s name.
Check out the male version of the list: Here are the first men to win a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical!