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Liza Minnelli at LIZA WITH A Z Toronto Film Festival World Premiere, The Elgin Theatre, Toronto, ON, September 09, 2005
Photograph: ShutterstockLiza Minnelli

11 stone-cold theater icons who should get Kennedy Center Honors

Dammit, it's time to give Liza Minnelli her due!

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

Last week, the recipients of the 44th annual Kennedy Center Honors were announced. This year's honorees are a strong and worthy group: Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels, Motown's Berry Gordy and the operatic base-baritone Justino Díaz. One again, however, one name was conspicuously absent from the list: Liza Minnelli, the living incarnation of American pizzazz. 

Let's be clear: The people who run the Kennedy Center Honors need to recognize Liza Minnelli and that is just a cold hard fact. Her merits hardly need retelling here, but let's do so anyway. The child of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, Liza has greasepaint in her blood, and she has been pouring that blood out onstage and onscreen for 60 years. She was just 19 years old when she won her first Tony Award for Flora, the Red Menace in 1965; she has won two other Tonys since then, plus a Special Tony Award in 1974. She won a 1972 Oscar for her peerless leading performance in Cabaret, arguably the best movie musical of all time; that same year, she won a Primetime Emmy for the classic musical concert Liza with a Z. When the Grammys created their Living Legend Award in 1990, she was in the first group of artists they recognized. She is a Knight of the French Legion of Honour. Kristen Wiig sent her up on SNL

Liza is an icon. Liza is a star. Liza is a sign and symbol of showbiz history. Liza is what the Kennedy Center Honors are supposed to honor. So why haven't they? One gets the feeling that the Kennedy Center thinks Liza is perhaps just a little too much: too messy, too campy, too eager to please. But these qualities are part and parcel of what makes Liza so special and so loved. She wears her heart on her sequined sleeve. She is also 75 years old, and her health has always been a roller coaster. The time to honor her is now. 

But while we're on the subject: Liza is not the only theater eminence who deserves Kennedy Center consideration for their contributions to American culture. Many major theater makers have failed to be recognized in the past, either for understandable reasons (like Ethel Merman, who died too soon after the honors began, or Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, who died relatively young) or not (like the egregiously overlooked Carol Channing). Here, in descending order of age, are ten other artists who should be strongly considered—after Liza—for future honors. It's not a complete list, by any means, but it's a good place to start. You can submit these or other nominations directly to the Kennedy Center at the bottom of this page.

Tommy Tune (age 82): The altitudinous Broadway dancer, director and choreographer has won nine Tony Awards in three categories—for shows including My One and OnlyNine and Grand Hotel—and used his famously long legs to help kick down the closet door at a time when few performers were openly gay.

Bernadette Peters (age 73): The deeply lovable and seemingly ageless Peters began her Broadway career in 1959 and has returned 15 times since then, applying her unique charm and talent with particular success to the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, for whom she originated roles in Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods.  

Stephen Schwartz (age 73): A pivotal figure in the introduction of modern pop sounds to Broadway musicals, the deft composer of the smash hits Pippin, Godspell and Wicked has earned a place in the pantheon of musical-theater songwriters—and that's not to mention his work on animated musicals including The Prince of Egypt and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Patti LuPone (age 72): Through the ups and downs of her tumultuous career—Evita on Broadway, Les Misérables in the West End, Sunset Boulevard in the West End but not on Broadway, a definitive Mama Rose in Gypsy—the thrillingly gutsy and larger-than-life LuPone has emerged as the defining Broadway diva of our time.  

Patti LuPone in Company
Photograph: Courtesy Brinkhoff/MoegenburgPatti LuPone in Company

Alan Menken (age 72): Through his partnership with lyricist Howard Ashman, which included Little Shop of Horrors and the early films of the Disney animated-movie renaissance (The Little MermaidBeauty and the Beast and Aladdin), the melody master and EGOT winner planted the seeds from which the rebirth of modern musical theater has grown.

Denzel Washington (age 66): An original cast member of A Soldier's Play in the early 1980s, Washington has returned to the boards to play lead roles in Broadway's Julius CaesarA Raisin in the SunFences and The Iceman Cometh—and is currently bringing August Wilson's plays to film. Oh, and the Times recently called him the best actor of the 21st century

Nathan Lane (age 65): The dominant male musical-theater star of our era—perhaps of all time—Lane is a master stage comedian whose very face suggests a composite of the classical masks of comedy and tragedy. His 40-year career on the Great White Way has earned him three Tonys and a permanent place in Broadway lore.

Tony Kushner (age 65): With his magnificent epic Angels in America, perhaps most influential new play of the past 50 years, Kushner offered a thrilling a new sense of what was possible in American drama, and his 2003 musical Caroline, or Change did the same for musical theater. Although he has focused on screenwriting in recent years, he remains at heart a man of the theater.

Viola Davis (age 55): She's now crossed over to stardom on screen, but the superb Davis will always be a theater star to anyone who saw her in her Off Broadway in 2004's intimate Apparel or in her three August Wilson roles on Broadway: Seven GuitarsKing Hedley II and Fences

Audra McDonald (age 51): She's admittedly on the young side for the Kennedy Center Honors right now (though Stevie Wonder, LL Cool J and Midori were just 49 when they got theirs). But can anyone doubt that Audra will eventually get the coveted medal? She's already racked up six Tony awards, the most of any actor in history. 

[Update note: I was so sure that the great lyricist Sheldon Harnick, age 97, who with Jerry Bock wrote Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me and Fiorello!, had already been honored that it didn't even occur to me to check. But he hasn't been, and he should be, right away.]

Audra McDonald
Photograph: Autumn de WildeAudra McDonald

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