The 25 best Broadway divas of all time

We name the top leading ladies of musical theater

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Historians of the Broadway musical, from the academy to the piano bar, agree on one thing: the archetypal Broadway star 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 they 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. So we expect a few heated arguments as we offer our own ranked choices of the 25 greatest leading ladies—ever—in Broadway musicals. To your stations, fans! Let the diva wars begin!

  1. 25–21
  2. 20–16
  3. 15–11
  4. 10–6
  5. 5–1
25
Carol Burnett, Once Upon a Mattress

Carol Burnett, Once Upon a Mattress

Carol Burnett

When you scan Carol Burnett’s musical-theater career, it kind of makes you mad at TV. She showed off her big voice and even bigger slapstick skills as the gawky, brash Princess Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959, then returned for 1964’s Hollywood musical spoof Fade Out – Fade In—and after that, nothing until the 1999 Sondheim collage Putting It Together. Folks justly worship the comedy dynamo for her 1970s sketch series. But we can only dream of what Burnett would have achieved had she stuck it out on the boards.—David Cote

24
Tonya Pinkins, Caroline

Tonya Pinkins, Caroline

Tonya Pinkins

Her searing, monumental performance as the titular maid in the people’s opera Caroline, or Change earns Tonya Pinkins a place in musical-theater history, but it was no one-off, as those who saw her in Jelly’s Last Jam, Play On! or The Wild Party can attest. Pinkins paints with many colors—gutsy, sexy, swinging, funny, tortured, angry, sly—and the colors are often intense. When she is onstage, attention must be paid.—Adam Feldman

23
Idina Menzel, Wicked

Idina Menzel, Wicked

Idina Menzel

She built a stratospheric reputation on the strength of two megahit musicals—Rent and Wicked—and no one’s ever gonna bring her down. Idina Menzel’s young, rabid fans, milk-fed on Maureen and Elphaba, swarm her concerts, and she hasn’t been back on Broadway since her final high F at the climax of “Defying Gravity,” circa 2005. We want to see more of Menzel, but she's the sort of megatalent—quirky, modern, vocally spiky—who can’t be dumped into any old revival. Original musicals must rise to her.—David Cote

22
Christine Ebersole, Grey Gardens

Christine Ebersole, Grey Gardens

Christine Ebersole

Christine Ebersole can do—and has done—it all, from nightclub acts to films and even a season of Saturday Night Live. She can really knock out a number, moving with ease among a lustrous belt, a quasi-operatic soprano and multiple other modes. After years in the business, she ascended to the pantheon in 2006 with her uncanny channeling of the sharp-minded, possibly unhinged “Little Edie” Beale (and, in earlier scenes, her mother) in the cult musical Grey Gardens.—Adam Feldman

21
Dorothy Loudon, Annie

Dorothy Loudon, Annie

Dorothy Loudon

Nobody could shake it like Dorothy Loudon. A master of letting loose, she honed her comic craft in nightclubs and a series of short-lived Broadway shows, plumbing her quavering, expressive pipes to madcap effect. (True to her name, she was often both dotty and loud.) She hit the jackpot in 1977, flouncing gleefully through her role as the villainous Miss Hannigan in Annie. But in her next show, the musical drama Ballroom, Loudon proved that she could not only split your sides but break your heart.—Adam Feldman


  1. 25–21
  2. 20–16
  3. 15–11
  4. 10–6
  5. 5–1

Users say

12 comments
Diana A
Diana A

I dont think that Bernadette Peters andPatti LuPone are before Mary Martin andBarbara Cook

Michelle V
Michelle V

Agree totally with Julianna-where is Marin Mazzie?!

Cat
Cat

How the heck did sutton foster, Donna Murphy, and Gertrude Lawrence beat DOROTHY LOUDON in higher spots!?!

Dianne Buckley
Dianne Buckley

How in the world could you leave out the fabulous, Betty Buckley? She is the voice!

Bwaymike@aol.com
Bwaymike@aol.com

Another list slanted toward today's stars who do one hit and run off to Television. Where's Marilyn Miller, Ziegfeld's greatest star? Or Vivienne Segal who went from Operetta to Rodgers and Hart? These ladies performed for decades on Broadway. If you add it all up someone like Liza Minnelli has only been on Broadway for a year and a month in total. And Streisand disappeared after two shows.

Kendall
Kendall

Carol Burnett is on this list but not Bebe Neuwirth? You've GOT to be joking. Also, Patti LuPone is way too high up there...

Thomas J
Thomas J

YES! Carol Channing and Sutton Foster made the list!

Albert
Albert

No LEA SALONGA??????? Blasphemy!!!!

Rachel
Rachel

How come Barbra's only number 13????? THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS! Though I must agree that Patti LuPone is one of the top divas on Broadway. AND I had the blessing to meet her on NYC: two dreams coming true at once!! :)

Juliana
Juliana

You forgot: Heather Headly Bebe Neuwirth Linda Eder AND CMON..... NO ONE bothered to mention Marin Mazzie???

Paul
Paul

I agree entirely that she is the diva of divas. So why is there no Broadway theatre named after ETHEL MERMAN ? Jacobs, Schoenfeld, Friedman? Really? But no, Merman? I guess her family didn't know the right people or donate enough money to buy the naming rights.

Paul
Paul

I agree entirely that she is the diva of divas. So why is there no Broadway theatre named after ETHEL MERMAN ? Jacobs, Schoenfeld, Friedman? Really? But no, Merman? I guess her family didn't know the right people or donate enough money to buy the naming rights.

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