Broadway Stars

For more than a century, Broadway productions have not only made young, unknown actors household names but also produced stars associated with performances, songs, and dances that have entered mainstream American culture. These individuals, and the costumes and make-up schemes that have enhanced their work, are the source of endless fascination to adoring fans. Beneath the surface of these star turns, however, lie more gritty stories of passion and dedication. Broadway ambition was immortalized by the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in the song “Broadway Baby” from the elegiac musical Follies, which chronicles the New York theater world’s legendary past: ”I’m just a Broadway Baby / Walking off my tired feet / Pounding 42nd Street / To be in a show.”

Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Eddie Cantor (1892–1964) made his Broadway debut in 1917, appearing in producer Flo Ziegfeld’s Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Cantor went on to star on Broadway, as well as in film, radio, and television. This sheet music is for a song Cantor sang in the 1917 revue.

Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

The great Broadway impresario Flo Ziegfeld made Marilyn Miller (1898–1936) a star, featuring her in his Follies of 1918. Appearing with Eddie Cantor, W. C. Fields, and Will Rogers, Miller went on to become one of the biggest Broadway stars of the 1920s and 30s. This is the sheet music for one of her most popular numbers: Jerome Kern’s “Look for the Silver Lining” from the musical Sally of 1920.

Museum of The City of New York

Though George M. Cohan (1878–1942) self-deprecatingly dismissed himself as “just a song and dance man,” he was Broadway’s first superstar and arguably the greatest song and dance man in American history. He appeared in more than thirty Broadway musicals. As an actor, playwright, composer, and producer—widely known as “the man who owned Broadway”—he helped shape the nature and style of Broadway fare. In 1904, Cohan co-starred with his wife Ethel Levey in Little Johnny Jones, which featured two of Cohan’s most memorable songs, “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Cohan’s composition “Over There” captured the nation’s feelings during World War I. Cohan is seen here in The Merry Malones of 1927.


Helen Hayes (1900–1993), often referred to as “the First Lady of American Theater,” starred in the title role of Laurence Housman’s Victoria Regina at the Broadhurst Theater in 1936. The play required Hayes to portray the queen over the course of her sixty-four-year-long reign. Hayes is seen here with Vincent Price in the role of Prince Albert. In 1988 President Ronald Reagan presented Hayes with the National Medal of Arts.

Vandamm Studio © Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performin Arts

The staggering list of Broadway standards introduced by Ethel Merman (1908–1984) includes “I Got Rhythm,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “You’re the Top,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” In 1946, Merman starred as the sharpshooter Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, seen here, and sang the song that would become her musical signature, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Friedman-Abeles © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

In 1960, just four years after starring in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Broadway hit My Fair Lady, Julie Andrews (b. 1935) returned in the musical duo’s Camelot at the Majestic Theatre. The show’s stellar cast included Richard Burton, Roddy McDowall, Robert Goulet, and John Cullum. President John F. Kennedy and the First Lady had often listened to a recording of the show’s music; Kennedy’s favorite lyrics were reputed to be: ”Don't let it be forgot / 
That once there was a spot
/ For one brief, shining moment
/ That was known as Camelot.”


Portraying Peter Pan, a boy with magical powers, including the ability to take flight, Mary Martin (1913–1990) set new standards of theatrical stagecraft in the eponymous musical that opened in the Winter Garden Theater in 1954.

Friedman-Abeles © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

In 1949 Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Leonard Bernstein began collaborating on a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s <em>Romeo and Juliet</em>. The musical tale, set on the Lower East Side’s Delancey Street, focused on an Italian boy and a Jewish girl, and was to be called East Side Story. As the project moved forward, it was recast as the tale of a Polish-American boy and a Puerto Rican girl in the West 50s and 60s and re-titled <em>West Side Story</em>. The original production, which was immediately praised as an American classic upon its Broadway opening at the Winter Garden Theater in 1957, starred Chita, Rivera (b. 1933), Larry Kert (1930–1991), and Carol Lawrence (b. 1932). This photograph, taken during a rehearsal, shows, left to right: Rivera, Robbins, Kert, and Lawrence.

© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. Al Hirschfeld is represented by the Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd., New York.

Broadway musicals have entered mainstream American culture not only by way of popular songs and leading stars but also through Al Hirschfeld’s instantly recognizable caricatures, which ran in the Sunday New York Times for decades. Here, Hirschfeld portrayed Robert Preston (1918–1987) as Harold HIll in The Music Man. The show, which opened at the Majestic Theater in 1957, featured such songs as “Seventy-six Trombones” and “Till There Was You.”

Vandamm Studio © Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Certainly among the most acclaimed actors in the history of the American theater, Alfred Lunt (1892–1977) and Lynn Fontanne (1887–1983) starred together in dozens of Broadway productions. Noel Coward wrote Design for Living specifically for Lunt and Fontanne; they starred in the production at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1937. The husband and wife team were also featured in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Shubert Theatre the following year. The couple’s last Broadway appearance was in 1958 in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit. Just prior to the production, the Globe Theater, where the play was staged, was renamed the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.


Zero Mostel (1915–1977) starred in the original American production of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros at the Longacre Theatre in 1961.

Friedman-Abeles © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Based on Thornton Wilder’s 1955 farcical play The Matchmaker, the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!, directed by Gower Champion, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, told the story of matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi. Written for Ethel Merman, who turned down the lead, as did Mary Martin, Dolly became the signature role of Carol Channing (b. 1921). When the original production, presented at the St. James Theatre, closed after 2,844 performances, it was Broadway’s longest-running musical to date.


In 1968, James Earl Jones (b. 1931) and Jane Alexander (b. 1939) starred as husband and wife in Howard Sackler’s searing drama The Great White Hope, a fictionalized account of the life of boxing legend Jack Johnson that ran at the Alvin Theatre. Jones (seen at right) and Alexander were awarded Tony Awards for Best Actor and Best Featured Actress in a Play.


In 1977, Broadway veterans and real-life husband and wife Jessica Tandy (1909–1994) and Hume Cronyn (1911–2003) starred in D. L. Coburn’s play The Gin Game at the John Golden Theatre. Among the Broadway productions in which the couple appeared together between 1951 and 1986 were William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Martha Swope © Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

In 1979, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s musical Evita, based on the life of Eva Perón opened at the Broadway Theatre. Patti LuPone (b. 1949) played the title role and Mandy Patinkin (b. 1952) played the part of Ché Guevara. Thirty-two years later, in 2011, the two stars reunited for a two-person musical revue at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.

Joan Marcus/Photofest

In 2005, Cherry Jones (b. 1956) starred as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a nun who accuses a priest of committing child molestation.

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