Topping any list of Broadway greats has to be Ethel Merman, who burst onto Broadway in George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy“ singing “I Got Rhythm” and continued to appear on Broadway into the 1970s. She won her Tony in 1951 for “Call Me Madam“ and also received a special Tony in 1972 along with Richard Rodgers.
Carol Channing owned the role of Dolly Levi and won a Tony as the manipulative matchmaker in 1964’s “Hello, Dolly!“ Channing returned to the role in multiple touring productions, which landed on Broadway as well. In 1995 during her last Broadway outing as Dolly, she received a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.
Joel Grey will forever be identified as the Emcee in “Cabaret.” He won the Tony as Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, but he also won the Oscar for recreating the role in the film version, thereby cementing his famous image as the menacing German host of the Kit Kat Klub. Grey has also been nominated for the Tony on four other occasions.
Zero Mostel won three Tony Awards for “Rhinoceros” in 1961, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1963 and for his most beloved role in “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1965.
Mary Martin might be the other most quintessential Broadway musical star after Ethel Merman. In fact, she won a special Tony in 1948 for touring in Merman’s vehicle “Annie Get Your Gun” while Merman was still doing it on Broadway. Martin won three other Tonys for her roles in “South Pacific” (1950), “Peter Pan” (1955) and “The Sound of Music” (1960).
Mary Martin presented a special Tony to Yul Brynner in 1985 for his combined 4,525 performances in “The King and I.” He won a Tony for playing the King of Siam in 1952. At that time, the character was considered supporting, but in 1996 when Lou Diamond Phillips was playing the role, he was nominated in the Leading Actor category. Yul Brynner was another great Broadway actor to really claim ownership of his role, not only because he returned to it through the decades, but also because he was fortunate enough to make the film version and win the Oscar.
Robert Preston won his Tony as Harold Hill in “The Music Man” in 1958 and recreated his performance for the film version, making it virtually impossible for anyone to completely accept another actor in the role without comparing their performance to Preston. Preston also won a Tony in 1967 playing opposite Mary Martin in “I Do! I Do!”
Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone
All of these great stars are from the Golden Era, but what about more recent legends? Anyone would agree that in the same spirit of Mary Martin and Ethel Merman we have Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. Peters won her Tony in 1986 for “Song and Dance,” though she is better known for her starring roles in “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods” thanks to the fact that those performances were recorded for PBS and can be seen on DVD. LuPone won her first Tony for “Evita” in 1980 and then 28 years later, picked up her second for “Gypsy” in 2008. Both of these great ladies keep coming back to Broadway to thrill audiences and that alone puts them in the list of top Tony winners.
The youngster of this group is Hugh Jackman, who started out on the West End stage before he went to Hollywood to become a major movie star. He has graced the Broadway stage several times, winning Best Actor in a Musical for “The Boy from Oz” in 2004. He has hosted the Tony Awards three times and in 2012, was honored with a special Tony “for contributions to the Broadway community, both as a performer and humanitarian; his tireless dedication to charitable works of many types; and his personal generosity of spirit.”