Tony Awards forecast 2014: Best Actress in a Musical

Jessie Mueller takes the lead in a field of strong contenders

As part of our run-up to the Tony Awards on June 8, we recently examined the candidates for Best Actor in a Musical. Now we turn to the distaff side to look at the highly competitive field for Best Actress in a Musical—a race that finds three of Broadway’s favorite leading ladies playing catch-up with a newer arrival.

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Beautiful—The Carole King Musical

Beautiful—The Carole King Musical Photograph: Joan Marcus

The breakout

Jessie Mueller’s rapid ascent to Broadway stardom would be a Cinderella story even if she had not actually played Cinderella in 2012’s Into the Woods. Just two and a half years ago, Mueller made her Broadway debut as the saving grace of a flop revival; now, having worked ceaselessly since, she is headlining a bona fide hit. It’s impossible to imagine Beautiful—The Carole King Musical without her gorgeous singing and somehow-charismatic decency; this is the rare Broadway star turn that seems grounded in humility. Choosing Mueller will give voters a chance to recognize Beautiful—which is nominated for seven Tonys but is unlikely to win almost anywhere else—and that’s appropriate. She doesn’t just carry the show—she makes it.


Violet Photograph: Joan Marcus

The returning favorites

Voters who prefer more seasoned leads have plenty to choose from this season. Tony darling Sutton Foster, who has won twice (and gets nominated an average of every two years), is giving the deepest performance of her career in the title role of Violet; and Idina Menzel, a decade after going green in Wicked and fresh from her hit pop release “Let It Go,” does impressive double duty as a divided woman in If/Then. Bright though both of them are, however, these stars don’t outshine Mueller’s meteor.

The Bridges of Madison County

The Bridges of Madison County Photograph: Joan Marcus

The perpetual bridesmaid

At this point, Kelli O’Hara has certainly also paid her dues; this is her fifth Tony nom in ten years, and another loss would put her near Deborah Kerr’s 0-for-6 Oscar record. But although the wholesomely beautiful and golden-voiced leading lady gave a powerful performance as an adulterous farmwife in The Bridges of Madison County, and sang the demanding score superbly, the musical didn’t connect with Tony nominators or wider audiences, and it closed earlier this month. (Also, the flavor of O’Hara’s Italian accent was not to everyone’s taste.) She may have better luck next year if, as rumored, she returns to Broadway as Anna in The King and I, a role that has earned two Best Actress Tonys in the past—though not an Oscar for the woman who played it on film: Deborah Kerr.

Night with Janis Joplin

Night with Janis Joplin Photograph: Joan Marcus

The fifth

No one on Broadway gave her lungs as wild a workout this season as Mary Bridget Davies, who wailed up a formidable blues-rock storm as the star of A Night with Janis Joplin. But the show didn’t give her a chance to wrestle much with Joplin’s demons, and it closed months ago (then failed to reopen Off Broadway as planned). Davies’s nomination is her prize for a job well done.


Cabaret Photograph: Joan Marcus

The others

Also eligible this year: Krysta Rodriguez, who made a fine impression in the short-lived, long-shuttered First Date; and Courtney Reed, an appealing Jasmine in Aladdin. If Davies had not made the cut, her slot would surely have gone to Michelle Williams, who gives a credible and moving account of would-be nightclub chanteuse Sally Bowles in the half-new Cabaret. But the part is smaller than the other five women’s—the staging tilts toward Alan Cumming’s Emcee—and can’t shake the shadow of Natasha Richardson’s 1998 version in essentially the same production.