Broadway Scene Stealers: The Women

By Ben Rimalower
August 22, 2013

Playbill.com correspondent Ben Rimalower offers a list of his top ten female scene-stealers in Broadway musicals.

For me, making a list of the Top Ten Female Scene Stealers is an intensely “Sophie’s Choice” moment. My favorite thing in the world is female scene stealers, second only to female scene rightful owners —and it’s a close second! I’ve really had to be strict with myself.

Part of me wants to take this opportunity to right the wrongs of the Tony Awards by including Off-Broadway performances (like Mary Testa in A New Brain), but that blows the playing field open too damn wide. Similarly, I've limited myself to musicals, much as I've seen some serious scene theft in straight plays (Rondi Reed in August: Osage County anyone?). This list cannot be all things to all people! Okay, that's enough disclaiming for now, except to add that my scope is limited by the shows I have actually seen, and as I've said before, if you think something's missing, invite me to the theatre sometime!

Click through to read my list of female scene stealers.

Patti LuPone
Photo by Paul Kolnik

10. Patti LuPone, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

It's debatable whether I am actually in a position to deem Patti LuPone a scene stealer, since (as I've made a lot of noise iterating) my heart belongs to LuPone. It would almost be more appropriate to give the scene stealer commendation to anyone who's held my attention despite LuPone being onstage with them.

That said, scene stealing is the word for what LuPone did in David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane's musical version of Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Playing the supporting role of Lucia, the institutionalized ex-wife, LuPone had relatively little stage time, but it seemed to have been calibrated specifically to make the most of her disproportionate star presence — not just in her late-in-the-proceedings, big, dramatic song (what's the word for those in musicals? Oh, right, 11-o'clock numbers, and they're usually reserved for the star…), but even in the most minor moments like the wonderfully gratuitous choice to give her a special wig for her hair blowing behind her speeding by on a motorcyle. (Just the decision to put Patti LuPone on a motorcycle at all, however intrinsic to the plot, is a decision taking advantage of the effect of her legendary presence in a deliciously absurd context.) And, who could forget the image of LuPone "flying" in to sing in the Act One Finale title song? I'm not the only one for whom LuPone stole those scenes — and it was no accident.

 

Elaine Stritch
Photo by Joan Marcus

9. Elaine Stritch, A Little Night Music

If I'm not the best judge of a Patti LuPone scene-stealing allegation, perhaps you could say the same thing about the city of New York when it comes to Elaine Stritch. She maybe be Michigan-born, but her decades of spraying our fair city with trademark piss and vinegar, peppered with legendary performances on stage and capped off by an Emmy-winning run as Alec Baldwin's iconic mother on New York's own "30 Rock," have more than firmly established Stritch as an emblem of the home team. Still, as an exciting mid-run replacement Madame Armfeldt opposite Bernadette Peters' takeover turn as Desiree in the recent revival of A Little Night Music, "Stritchie" stole the show.

Some people balked at her coarseness being inappropriate for this aging, old-world courtesan, but the role fit her personality very well. The character gets pushed around in a wheelchair, barking out commands, criticisms and witticisms. Nobody can touch Stritch when it comes to that assertive authority and fierce conviction.  Her command of the stage was masterful. Just try to watch someone else onstage. I dare you.

 

Eartha Kitt
Photo by Carol Rosegg

8. Eartha Kitt, The Wild Party

The late legendary international chanteuse Eartha Kitt graced Broadway only briefly in the short run of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party, directed by George C. Wolfe in 2000. (Kitt also earned huzzahs as the second Liliane La Fleur, after Chita Rivera, in the 2003 revival of Nine.) There was a lot of star wattage onstage in The Wild Party, including the dynamic Mandy Patinkin and Toni Collette as the leads and supporting cast including such heavy-hitters as Tonya Pinkins, Marc Kudisch and Norm Lewis. Nonetheless, Kitt was an icon so ingrained in our collective consciousness, it's impossible to even trace the full reach of her influence and impact. Her big song, "When It Ends" (rendered an instant classic by deliciously distinctive delivery), of course, stopped the show cold, but so did her every move or utterance. I will never forget the joy and terror of watching her skulk across that stage, eyes gleaming with profound fire. All hail the Queen.

 

Kathleen Freeman
Photo by Craig Schwartz

7. Kathleen Freeman, The Full Monty

Like Patti LuPone, Elaine Stritch and Eartha Kitt, the late Kathleen Freeman was a star (or perhaps established character actor is more accurate) well before her scene-stealing turn on Broadway as Jeanette Burmeister in The Full Monty in 2001. Over the course of her long career, Freeman may not have enjoyed the personal acclaim of the other women I've mentioned, but in a way she also is potentially disqualified as a scene stealer due to her familiar presence, maybe more so. Since her days as a featured player in Jerry Lewis movies, Freeman's imdb page scrolls on and on listing scores of bit parts in film and television for decades. Even if you didn't think you recognized Freeman, the sight of her onstage brought back muscle memory of laughter and almost as an involuntary reaction, your eyes charted her onstage, wanting more of that feeling. The Full Monty made her easy to follow, mostly sticking her in one corner of the stage at the piano (Jeanette accompanies the guys' striptease rehearsals), where her wisecracks and double-takes were effortlessly accessible. It was not a large part, but it was a large performance that permeated the experience of The Full Monty and lingered in the minds of audiences, critics and award nominators.

 

Kristin Chenoweth
Photo by Carol Rosegg

6. Kristin Chenoweth, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Kristin Chenoweth was not yet a star when she was cast in her Tony-winning role of Sally in Michael Mayer's 1999 revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, but there was no question of her fate from the second she stepped foot onstage. Four feet eleven inches of pure stardust, Chenoweth radiates show-business charisma though her own unique prism of Southern charm, operatic verissimo and deeply committed daffiness. It was all synthesized ideally in the role of Sally Brown, who blew the roof off the Ambassador Theatre touting "My New Philosphy," and won the hearts of everyone lucky enough to witness the birth of a supernova.

 

Felicia Finley
Photo by Joan Marcus

5. Felicia Finley, The Wedding Singer

While all the above women's achievements in stealing scenes are impressive, it is undeniable they were working with the advantage of a public primed for them to make a splash. The same cannot be said of Felicia Finley who had gained admirers for her well-regarded work as a replacement on Broadway in Aida and on tour in Evita, but who opened on Broadway in The Wedding Singer as essentially an unknown. It was also not an impediment to her scene-stealing that the character Linda, the bad girl who ditches the leading man at the altar, had only had a few short moments onstage. Finley's fiery prowess of both the comedy and rock and roll of her head-banging break-up-letter made a lasting impression and I still remember furiously flipping through my Playbill to see if she was coming back on before the end.

 

Rachel Bay Jones
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

4. Rachel Bay Jones, Pippin

Sometime scene stealing is belty or bitchy or bawdy or boisterous, but it can also take other forms. In the current smash hit revival of Pippin directed by Diane Paulus, Andrea Martin has gotten the lion's share of attention and accolades for her old-fashioned (and acrobatic!) star turn as Berthe. It is, however, Rachel Bay Jones, as Catherine, who stole my heart. Her subtle, nuanced, off-center and surprising portrayal vividly evokes a range of emotions from longing and lust to joy and relief, and everything in between. This is a complete human being onstage. There's something completely captivating and strangely disarming about her manner, that makes the audience and Pippin fall in love with her — enough to forsake a life of glory. How's that for scene stealing? Jones' failure to receive a Tony nomination is one of the more egregious errors in recent years, and one that will surely be counterbalanced with a win in the years to come.

 

Leslie Kritzer
Photo by Joan Marcus

3. Leslie Kritzer, Legally Blonde

One of the most stunning examples of scene stealing I've ever been lucky enough to witness was Leslie Kritzer in Legally Blonde. Kritzer's been established within theatrical circles as a mega-talent since her much heralded Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at the Paper Mill Playhouse and the years since have been dotted with several almost-rans for her to cross over into a more mainstream level of success that continues to elude her. We Leslie fans know it's just a matter of time. Still, it was surprising to see her take on such a small role as Serena, not much more than an ensemble track in Legally Blonde.

But there are no small roles for Kritzer. With a mischievous gleam in her eye and a comedian's commitment to her steps, she ignited every moment she was given and even seemed to bubble up to steal focus for a flashing second here and there. There was one particularly satisfying instance, where if memory serves me, time was passing and the girls were celebrating Christmas, briefly punctuated by Kritzer materializing out of the top of the house wielding a Chanukah menorah. I don't know that her character was supposed to be Jewish, but her character had one main purpose above all else and it was to bring joy to the audience. I remember watching the MTV broadcast of Legally Blonde (taped after Kritzer's departure from the production) and being shocked at how very little Serena actually did in the show. The magic was all Leslie.

 

Ann Harada
Photo by Carol Rosegg

2. Ann Harada, Avenue Q

I'll never forget the first time I saw Ann Harada in Avenue Q. From her hilarious entrance screaming at her husband to take out the "lecycuraburs," the quadruple whammy of comedy, character, heart and belting that Harada brought to the role of Christmas Eve, the Japanese immigrant social worker with no clients and unemployed fiancé and lots of bills to pay, struck many chords on many different levels. The genius of Avenue Q is how many different levels it can work, from the crudely funny to the genuinely touching, and Harada (just as ridiculous in her kimono and polyester slacks as any puppet and, yet, human) was the heart and soul of the show. This was never more true than in big-and-then-bigger Judy Garland-esque torch song, "The More You Ruv Someone," but it was also abundantly clear as she stole scene after scene. Her failure to be nominated for a Tony was another major fail on the part of the nominators that will surely one day be corrected.

 

Jackie Hoffman and Kerry Butler
Photo by Paul Kolnik

1. Jackie Hoffman, Hairspray

Jackie Hoffman's performance in Hairspray is the first thing I think of when I hear the words scene stealer. It may be more apt to say Jackie Hoffman's performances in Hairspray as she was cast as a number of different characters including Prudy Pringleton, the gym teacher and the prison matron — I think the casting track is referred to as the "Female Authority Figure" and so they are all strict taskmasters, each infused with a different kind of oppression and repression by Hoffman. And she played them with authority. Jackie Hoffman didn't so much take the stage by storm as by infiltration. She would steal the scene by playing the most plausible, inevitable take on the material, and in the core of that finding her insane inspiration. Hoffman's shrieking voice and rubber face and oddly graceful athlete's body all convene to electrify the comedy in any situation. Hairspray was a fantastic show all around and I've had the pleasure of seeing several other talented women excel in Jackie Hoffman's role, but she was a bandit, halfway out the door before you even realized she'd taken anything. I wish I could go back and see her do it again.

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(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues now playing off Off-Broadway. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)