Women’s representation in the theater is a powerful way to show audiences the talent and ability of women in the arts. Both in and outside the Broadway theater, actresses are integral to telling stories that reflect the diverse lives of women around the world. Here are 21 must-know Broadway actresses who are breaking the glass ceiling (curtain?) with their influential performances.
Classic Broadway actresses.
1. Kelli O’Hara
O’Hara is a star of her generation with a whopping six Tony nominations, five of them for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. She has one Tony win for her work as Anna Leonowens in "The King and I," which opened in 2015. O’Hara has originated ten roles on Broadway, including Babe Williams in "The Pajama Game," Ensign Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific" and, most recently, Lilli Vanessi/Katharine in "Kiss Me, Kate."
2. Sutton Foster
Foster’s best known for her starring roles in classic productions like "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (Millie Dillmount), "Funny Girl"(Fanny Brice), "The Drowsy Chaperone" (Janet Van De Graaff) and "Anything Goes" (Reno Sweeney). A talented triple threat, Foster has won two Tony Awards for her performances as a leading actress. Although she hasn’t been on Broadway since 2014, Foster has dipped her toes in the television world and currently plays a recurring role on TV Land’s "Younger." Foster will make a triumphant return to Broadway next fall as Marian Paroo in "The Music Man."
3. Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald has won it all. Known for her work in musicals, operas, and dramas, McDonald has won six Tony Awards and is the only person to win all four acting categories. She began her work as a replacement for Ayah in "The Secret Garden" and quickly worked her way up to fame (and three Tony wins) for originating the roles of Carrie Pepperidge ("Carousel"), Sharon ("Master Class") and Sarah ("Ragtime"). Since her win for Ragtime, McDonald has performed in 12 Broadway productions and holds the most performance wins of any actor.
4. Patti LuPone
LuPone is the pinnacle example of a classic Broadway star. She made her debut in 1973 as the original Irina in "Three Sisters" and since has originated quintessential roles, including Eva Person in "Evita," Reno Sweeney in "Anything Goes" (1987 and 2002), Nancy in "Olivier!" and Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd." Most recently, LuPone originated the role of Helena Rubinstein in "War Paint," for which she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. LuPone has won two Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards and two Olivier Awards. She returns to Broadway next year for the highly anticipated, gender-bent revival of "Company," performed on the West End this season.
5. Glenda Jackson
Jackson can call both theater and politics her area of expertise. An English actress, Jackson began work in the theater in the late 1950s and reached Broadway in 1965. After four Broadway productions in which she originated every one of her roles, Jackson began a career in politics in 1992 and remained in office in 2015. She returned to Broadway in 2018 in "Three Tall Women," winning the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. She continued her work in New York the next season in a gender-bent King Lear as the title role.
6. Jayne Houdyshell
Houdyshell is most famous for her work on the play side of Broadway, although she has appeared in classic musicals like Wicked (Madame Morrible), "Bye Bye Birdie" (Mae Peterson), and "Follies" (Hattie Walker). She won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play in 2016 for her work in "The Humans." Since then, she’s been nominated for the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for "A Doll’s House, Part 2" and worked alongside Glenda Jackson as the Earl of Gloucester in "King Lear." She returns to Broadway and musicals in 2020 as Mrs. Shinn in "The Music Man."
7. Viola Davis
While Davis might be well-known for her performances on-screen in television and film, she’s also had experience on the Broadway stage. Davis has appeared on Broadway three times, with each role in a different August Wilson production. She made her debut in "Seven Guitars "as Vera, then played Tonya in "King Hedley II." Most recently, she performed as Rose in "Fences, "a role she reprised in the 2017 movie adaptation. Davis took home two Tony Awards for her work: Best Featured Actress for "King Hedley II" and Best Actress in "Fences." She is the first black actress to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting, having won an Emmy Award and Academy Award along with her two Tonys.
Actress of this generation.
1. Lea Salonga
Salonga is known for her talented voice in numerous arts areas, not just the Broadway stage. Salonga voices both Jasmine and Mulan in the Disney film productions and is the first Filipino artist to sign with an international record label. Her work on Broadway began when she replaced the role of Eponine in the 1987 production of "Les Misérables" and became the first actress of Asian descent to play the role. She later originated the role of Kim in "Miss Saigon" in 1991 before returning to "Les Misérables" to play Fantine in 2006. After nearly 10 years away from Broadway, she originated the role of Kei Kimura in "Allegiance" and most recently performed as Erzulie in "Once on This Island."
2. Stephanie J. Block
Block debuted on Broadway in 2003 to originate the role of Liza Minnelli in "The Boy from Oz." While she’s played classic roles like Elphaba in "Wicked" and Reno Sweeney in "Anything Goes," Block’s biggest successes were the roles she later originated: Judy Bernly in "9 to 5," Edwin Drood/Miss Alice Nutting in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," Trina in "Falsettos" and, most recently Star in "The Cher Show." She’s been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical and Best Featured Actress once each and won her first Tony Award for "The Cher Show" earlier this year.
3. Jessie Mueller
Mueller’s impeccable voice transcends genre, taking her from roles like Jenna in Sara Bareilles’ "Waitress" to Julie Jordan in a revival of "Carousel." Mueller started her Broadway run in 2011, originating the role of Melina Wells in "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." Mueller was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for the role and would go on to get three more Tony nominations and one win. Mueller has also won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and two Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Actress in a musical.
4. Karen Olivo
Olivo joined the Broadway stage first in 1996, first as the understudies for the roles of Mimi Marquez and Maureen Johnson in Rent. She rose to fame for originating the role of Vanessa in "In the Heights" over ten years later, a role that garnered her awards for Outstanding Ensemble Performance (Drama Desk) and Best Female Dancer (Fred and Adele Astaire Award). Olivo won the only Tony Award for a performance in "West Side Story" for her role as Anita in the 2009 revival. She now returns to the stage this season as Satine in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical!."
5. Sierra Boggess
Although known for her outstanding soprano voice, Boggess began her time on Broadway in the Disney world, originating the role of Ariel in the 2008 production of The Little Mermaid. She is best known for her work as Christine Daaé in "The Phantom of the Opera." She joined the Broadway production of the Andrew Lloyd musical in 2013, yet reprised the role in both concert and anniversary productions, as well as in the musical’s sequel, "Love Never Dies."
6. Phillipa Soo
Soo is known for originating the role of Eliza Hamilton in "Hamilton," a performance that garnered her a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. Before coming to the Broadway stage, Soo performed in many early productions of "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812," which got her recognized by the Hamilton director and composer and eventually led to her Broadway debut. After leaving "Hamilton," Soo has returned to Broadway twice: first as Amélie in "Amélie," and then as Rebecca in "The Parisian Woman."
7. Celia Keenan-Bolger
Keenan-Bolger consistently crosses the line between Broadway musicals and plays. She originated the role of Olive Ostrovsky in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" in 2005 and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. She was later nominated for the same award, this time by Drama Desk, for her role as Eponine in "Les Misérables." Keenan-Bolger went on to garner two more Tony Award nominations for her roles in "Peter and the Starcatcher" and "The Glass Menagerie" before winning the Tony Award for playing Scout in the current production of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
8. Katrina Lenk
Lenk is both a musical and drama actress, as well as an instrumentalist. Her early Broadway credits include understudy work in "The Miracle Worker," Arachne in "Spider-man Turn Off the Dark," and Réza and Violin in "Once." Lenk got more attention with her role dramatic role in "Indecent" in 2017, and won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for "The Band’s Visit," which premiered later that same year. In 2020, she teams up with Patti LuPone to star in the revival of "Company."
9. Renée Elise Goldsberry
While younger generations of theater lovers might recognize Goldsberry from her role as Angelica in "Hamilton," Goldsberry has wowed the Broadway stage for over 20 years. She first began as a replacement for Mimi Marquez in "Rent" in 1996 before performing as Nala in "The Lion King" and originating the role of Nettie in "The Color Purple." Her most recent role in "Hamilton" gave her the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
10. Tracie Thoms
Although she gained popularity with her role as Joanne Jefferson in "Rent," Thoms’ Broadway career began four years earlier when she originated the role of Mary Bow ("Drowning Crow"). She first played Joanne just a year later in the film version of Rent before replacing the role on Broadway in 2008. Most recently, Thoms joined the 2016 revival of "Falsettos" as Dr. Charlotte alongside famous Broadway stars including Stephanie J. Block.
1. Amber Gray
While Gray has only taken the Broadway stage in two productions, her work is critically acclaimed and regarded. Gray first took to Broadway as Hélène in "Natasha Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812." Gray current performs as Persephone in the Tony-Award winning "Hadestown," a role which garnered her a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
2. Eva Noblezada
At just 23 years old, Noblezada has garnered two Tony nominations for Best Actress in a Musical. Noblezada began playing the role of Kim in "Miss Saigon" in London in 2014 before performing as Eponine in "Les Misérables" in 2016 on the West End. She first appeared on Broadway in 2017 to reprise the role of Kim, earning her first Tony nomination. She returned to London to perform as Eurydice in the Royal National Theatre’s production of "Hadestown" and followed the production’s transfer to Broadway in 2019. She still performs a Eurydice, a role that won her her second nomination.
3. Hailey Kilgore
Kilgore made her Broadway debut before her 20th birthday as Ti Moune in "Once on This Island." Her bright and impressive vocals garnered her a 2018 Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical and a 2019 Grammy Award nomination for Best Musical Theater Album. Earlier this year, she teamed up with classic theater professionals (like Sutton Foster) to play Rapunzel in a performance of "Into the Woods" at the Hollywood Bowl.
4. Ali Stroker
Stroker has appeared on the Broadway stage twice in her career, first in the Deaf West revival of "Spring Awakening" to originate the role of Anna. Her performance marked the first time anyone who uses a wheelchair for mobility appeared on the Broadway stage. She also recently made history for her Tony Award win for Best Featured Actress in "Oklahoma!," where she originated the role of Ado Annie.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.