By Emma Demski
February 15, 2019
The role of the Diva is changing. This term doesn’t need to apply to a specific kind of performer as it once did. When I purchased my ticket the night before seeing the national tour of Hello, Dolly! in Chicago, I had only heard of the show in relation to Bette Midler, who starred in the recent revival. The production I saw stars Betty Buckley as Dolly Gallagher Levi, a role that has belonged to a plethora of Broadway Divas. Buckley is known for originating the role of the elder cat, Grizabella, in the musical Cats and won the Tony for her role. Like Midler, she too has had a long stage career. This sold it for me. I like Cats, (I may be one of the few), and I wanted to see this figurehead of Broadway royalty in the flesh.
I am struck by how Hello, Dolly! relies on the Diva. Divas are brassy, confident, hilarious, and can hit that money note without even thinking of it. They are adored, and they know it. There isn’t any shame in their tenacity. Divas are wrapped up in yellow police tape that reads “CAUTION: You’re about to have your mind blown.”
Broadway cannot exist without the Diva, but Broadway is changing and so must the Diva. Many new performers still embody similar characteristics to Bette Midler, but the roles aren’t specifically catered to the same Diva.
There are newer candidates from the past fifteen years, such as Sutton Foster, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Jessie Mueller, and Renee Elise Goldsberry. These women, associated with contemporary roles in current shows, are different from the classic ones. They aren’t parts that the ‘typical’ Diva would assume.
Will Jenna, in Waitress, someday be considered a Diva role? The musical is centered around a strong woman who struggles. The show is funny and heartwarming. There are many opportunities for the lead to belt and show off her singing abilities. However, there isn’t much dancing or ‘traditional’ Broadway moments full of glitz and glamour. It also includes a more pop-based score since Sara Bareilles wrote it, and it takes place in a less than elegant diner. The role of Jenna is complex and provides a voice for a specific character that has not yet been portrayed on Broadway. Roles like this require wiggle room with the familiar Diva role, but have potential.
Hello Dolly!’s story-line depends upon the actress playing Dolly. She is onstage for the majority of the show and leads multiple big musical numbers, all of the other characters onstage count on her, and the advertising of the show is also inherently connected to the leading lady. Before the performance of Hello Dolly!, the predominantly older theater goers around me talked about Buckley. This sort of advertisement is also seen with Waitress. These women bring people to their show.
Classic Divas were known for their talents and relied on for a great performance. They were expected to do it all. Broadway performers still need skill, but being a ‘triple threat’ is no longer necessary to win a Tony. Some newer shows may not feature as much singing and dancing. But if a performer has that sort of electricity that makes the audiences’ jaws drop and springs them to their feet, they should be considered a Diva. The word Diva implies a level of talent that can’t be achieved by just anyone.
Thinking about this after Hello, Dolly!, I realized how inherently gendered this staple of Broadway was. I couldn’t remember any situations in which a Broadway production centered around a male Diva.
Who would even be a male Diva? Mandy Patinkin? Norbert Leo Butz? Possibly Lin-Manuel Miranda when he returns to the stage in New York. He is a household name, and after his success he has become involved in Hollywood. A Diva’s fame can be contained within the world of Broadway. They can also have fame outside of the stage, but it isn’t required.
It must be noted that the famous Divas of Broadway are primarily older white cisgender women. The word itself draws a certain person to mind, mostly due to the fact that the original Diva was Ethel Merman. She had a forty-year career, and the roles that she played were demanding, physically and vocally. Merman originated the lead roles in Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, and Gypsy. Each of these shows are centered around the woman front and center. Merman also had her time as Dolly in the 1970’s, taking over for her contemporary, Carol Channing. Channing recently passed away on January 15th, 2019, and the theatre world was hit hard.
In my experience of listening to original Broadway cast albums and watching filmed versions of the stage adaptations, Divas are easy to point out. Judy Garland was my first Diva, and her performances defined my interactions with Broadway. Also, I’d been fawning over Patti LuPone for as long as I could remember. Divas like these laid the foundation for many leading ladies and other intricate roles for women on the stage, but the skills that a Diva embodies shouldn’t be dependent on the performer identifying as a woman.
Diversity on Broadway is changing (slowly but surely), which highlights further how archaic some of its traditions are. I would love to see a queer Diva, and more Divas of color. It may take a while for the term to morph, but anyone has the potential to be considered a Diva.
These roles provided a platform for so many performers to show off their skills. I think that we’re in a transitional time of Broadway. Ever since Hamilton, performers are no longer expected to fit a certain demographic mold. The term Diva needs to be expanded. It’s honestly boring that it has only been associated with a specific type of person. I want the Diva to be opened up to anyone, no matter their shape, size, sexuality, or gender-identity.
Classic Diva roles will always exist (there’s nothing Broadway loves more than a revival), and we’ll need strong performers to fill those shoes. I’m not worried, because I have faith in the tradition of Broadway. I’m excited that so many unconventional parts are being produced. There is something comforting and exciting about these staple roles. Maybe this term and iconography will morph into something that people of all different backgrounds can assume, because someone has to carry on the torch.