Musical Theatre Roles from Lowest to Highest (female range)
(Many of these are up for interpretation to an extent, but I’ve included the vocal range to the side for reference! The ranges are based not only on the high notes, but the low notes, timbre, and what part the actress sings in group numbers. If you feel a character is way out of place, or think I’ve put the incorrect range, send me a message! (I may have been going a little bonkers by the end of putting this post together, so just let me know!)
Don’t know your vocal range? Check out this videofor help figuring it out!
You can find the male counterpart to this post here!
I’m as corny as Kansas in August / I’m as normal as blueberry pie / No more a smart little girl with no heart / I have found me a wonderful guy / I am in a conventional dither / With a conventional star in my eye / And you will note there’s a lump in my throat / When I speak of that wonderful guy!
A selection of Tony Award Winner Kelli O’Hara’s credits:
Francesca Johnson (The Bridges of Madison County 2014) • Nellie Forbush (South Pacific 2008) • Clara Johnson (The Light in the Piazza 2005) • Anna Leonowens (The King and I 2015) • Cathy Whitaker (Far From Heaven 2013) • Babe Williams (The Pajama Game 2006) • Billie Bendix (Nice Work If You Can Get It 2012) • Julie Jordan (Carousel 2013)
“everyone is strong and vulnerable and complicated in the most amazing way.” - jessie mueller, about the characters played by the nominees for best actress in a musical in 2014
a collection of my favorite women characters in musical theatre
01. moments in the woods (into the woods); the baker’s wife // 02. to build a home (the bridges of madison county); francesca johnson // 03. all to pieces (violet); violet karl // 04. i’ll know (guys and dolls); sarah brown // 05. getting married today (company); amy // 06. be on your own (nine); louisa // 07. little lamb (gypsy); louise // 08. a cockeyed optimist (south pacific); ensign nellie forbush // 09. fable (the light in the piazza); margaret johnson // 10. always starting over (if/then); elizabeth vaughn // 11. do it alone (parade); lucille frank // 12. beautiful (beautiful: the carole king musical); carole king // 13. back to before (ragtime); mother // 14. i miss the mountains (next to normal); diana goodman // 15. who will love me as i am? (side show); daisy and violet hilton // 16. till there was you (the music man); marian paroo // 17. is it really me? (110 in the shade); lizzy curry // 18. everything’s coming up roses (gypsy); mama rose
Lloyd Schwartz reviews the Blu-ray release of NBC’s 1955 Peter Pan production starring Mary Martin:
“I urge anyone who sat through even part of the deadly Peter Pan Live! on NBC television last year to see the original telecast of that musical that VAI has just issued on Blu-ray. What a difference to watch brilliant actors who actually seem to love what they’re doing, under the direction of someone who knows how to make a show come to life. Mary Martin was one of the great Broadway stars. She made her Broadway debut singing Cole Porter’s naughty “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” back in 1938 and created another sensation as the army nurse Nellie Forbush in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s megahit South Pacific, singing “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” while taking a shower onstage. Later, the role of Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music was written for her. . She was a kind of sexy tomboy, slight of build, with a piquant voice that carried to the back of the balcony. She was adorable—and so sincere, how could you not believe every syllable?”
Recently I was contacted by an anonymous person on my blog, who decided to inform me that my favorite Broadway actress, Kelli O'Hara, has made a career out of playing roles that are disrespectful to women, and that, “all she does is stand there while men sing love songs at her.” This angered me in different ways - firstly, as a fan, because a woman I admire and look up to was being unfairly and incorrectly judged, and secondly as a feminist, because I know that Kelli O'Hara is one of the hardest working women on Broadway, currently originating a role in a show that was written for her, performing a massive soprano score and carrying the brunt of dialogue and scene work eight times a week, while raising a newborn baby and another young child. Ms. O'Hara is a strong feminist role model to me, and it hurts that a person would judge her work as the opposite. Either this anonymous person is not familiar with Kelli O'Hara’s work, or they have a very narrow idea about what it is to be a woman.
The anger and annoyance I felt led me to undertake a critical evaluation of a cross section of the characters Ms. O'Hara has played professionally over the last ten years, judging them based on my idea of feminism, and what I admire in a female character.
Before I begin, I think it is very important to preface my character evaluations by saying that characters are a product of their time, and more commonly than not, reflect the views and values of the generation in which their play exists. In addition to this, characters are also subject to the opinions and understandings of the person who creates them, who in turn are influenced by the societal pressures and norms of their time. For instance, look at play “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller. Although it was set in the times of the Salem Witch Trials, the play was written as a direct attack on McCarthyism, therefore merging the actual historical context of the play with the outer historical context of the playwright. This is especially important when looking at Ms. O'Hara’s roles, because as a classical soprano, most of her work has been in revivals of older musicals (Carousel, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, The Pajama Game) or in musicals that were written recently but not set in current times (Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Light In the Piazza, The Bridges of Madison County), therefore slightly skewing today’s popular idea of feminism, in which supposedly a woman can only be seen as a feminist if she is strong and domineering, does not crack under pressure, is not allowed to show any weakness at all and must cast off all familial ideals.
Firstly, I looked at Ms. O'Hara’s 2007 portrayal of the character of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Eliza is a character whose entire plot centers around the idea of her changing herself in order to better her lot in life. After her first meeting with Professor Henry Higgins, where he belittles and mocks her, she seeks him out and chooses to put herself through elecution lessons, seeking a better job and higher social standing (“I’m come to ‘ave lessons I am, and to pay for 'em too make no mistake!”) Throughout the musical, Professor Higgins is proven to be a misogynistic, cruel, conceited man who is not worthy of a woman as strong as Eliza, who relies on nothing but her own devices to get through life. Although she does play into Higgins hands throughout the plot of the musical, Eliza never sacrifices her spark, her simple dreams, her sense of self worth for him, even though he is unforgivably rude and mean to her. Even after Higgins’ final song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”, where he imagines the utter misfortune of Eliza’s life without him as her savior, Eliza is proven the stronger of the pair, returning to him and reminding him that she has worked hard to become the woman who is societally worthy of dressing in fine gowns. In the final moments of the musical, Higgins says with his usual tone of disdain, “Where the devil are my slippers?” This line, much debated in theatre circles, is commonly seen as a return to Eliza and Higgins’ former relationship, hopefully with room for it to grow, and for Higgins to eventually respect her as the woman that she was and the woman she has become. Eliza never relies on a man to better her, instead choosing to be the driving force in her own life.
Another role of Ms. O'Hara’s that displays the ideals of true feminism is Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, who Ms. O'Hara played in 2008 and returned to in 2009 after taking maternity leave. Nellie is a headstrong woman who falls in love with a man while working as a Nurse during the war. Halfway through the show her ideals are forced into focus when it is revealed that this man previously fathered children with a woman of colour. As South Pacific is set in a time before the American Civil Rights Movement, Nellie is exposed as a racist, reflecting most Southern opinions of racial equality at the time. However, later in the show she quickly forgets about the issue of race when the children of her lover are left (so she believes) parentless, and becomes their surrogate mother. Directly saying that issues of race no longer matter to her, and she has realized the errors of her ways - “I know what counts now. You, all those other things… The woman you had before. Her colour? What piffle! What a fool I was!” - Nellie is shown to be a strong woman who grows for the better, and does not have to sacrifice typically feminine things like love and motherhood to do so. In addition to this, Nellie is a nurse who organises entertainment for the fighting men.“Honey Bun” is an amazing song that throws gender roles out the window, as it is Nellie pretending to be a man, singing about the physical features of a woman. The entire show is a warning about xenophobia and being scared of the unknown, and placing Nellie Forbush at the forefront of the narrative and allowing her experiences to change her is a nod toward the strength and love of a war time woman.
Similarly, Clara Johnson from The Light In the Piazza is also a character whose main plot is that of falling in love, but once again, she is so much more than what most audience members take away from the show. Clara is a young woman who falls in love, but her love of Fabrizio is more than just a small romance. Clara has sustained brain damage in the past and therefore her mental ability to rationalise and remain calm in certain situations has been compromised. She is a person who sees beauty in everything she witnesses, a woman who is so pure and innocent that the audience knows her main role in life is to love and be loved, but her Mother is scared to let her move on, in case she is hurt by the darkness in the world. At the end of the musical, her mother finally allows Clara to make her own choices and to be free, and she is finally recognised as a free woman, not as a person whose disability conquers them. The audience has no doubt that after the final note of the musical is performed, Clara’s story will continue, giving her a life as a loving wife and mother, once again proving a feminist point that love does not weaken a woman, but can rather nourish and make her whole. In addition to this, Clara’s story is a powerful defeat of ableism, a type of discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities.
Babe Williams from The Pajama Game is an absolute favorite character of mine, and a role that Kelli O'Hara played on Broadway in 2006. She is a particular favorite, because during the 50s, it was nearly unheard of that a female musical theatre character would be completely free to make her own choices regarding a sexual relationship, without coercion from her male romantic partner (disregarding some operatic characters, who had taken hold of their sexual destiny many decades before - for example, Carmen in Bizet’s opera). It is true that before consummating their relationship, Sid (Babe’s romantic interest) sings an entire song in which he outlines his desire to take her to bed, but it is made certain to the audience that Babe is in charge of her own decisions. She tricks Sid into removing her dress, and unsettles his wits before making it absolutely clear that she will not allow him to get between her and her ultimate goal of representing the workers union in their fight to have their pay equalized. Only then does she go to bed with him, and throughout the musical stays steadfast in her convictions, while ultimately ending up with her man and a raise.
Lastly, I turn to Ms. O'Hara’s latest job, playing Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County. Set in the 60s, The Bridges of Madison County is about an Italian raised Iowa farm wife, who has an affair with a photographer from out of town while her husband and two children are away from the family home. The show looks at love in all different forms, and centers around Francesca’s decision to have an affair, and eventually to stay with her family instead of running off with a man that is quite obviously her equal. In her final aria, Francesca sings of the pain she feels leaving this new love behind, and the pain she knows she would have experienced had she run away and not been there to see her children grow into the people they would eventually become. Bridges is a story that encapsulates what it is to be a mother, to sacrifice for your children, but rather than portraying these sacrifices as Francesca’s duty, it is made clear that love, in any form, no matter what it costs you, is “always better.” Francesca’s strength is drawn from all forms of love, and her attraction to a stranger who enflames her soul and gives her a new reason to live is not condemned, but rather celebrated.
There are many more characters that I could study in this way, but I believe the above is enough of an indicator of the roles that Kelli O'Hara chooses to play. Yes, a very large portion of Ms. O'Hara’s career has been theatre where her storyline is love, but what is wrong with that? All of her characters have been headstrong women who are ahead of their time, and I will not have anyone belittling these women by saying that they do not uphold their own ideas of what it means to be a female. Feminism is a huge topic, and means so many different things to so many different women. This needs to be considered and not overlooked whenever somebody attempts to judge a woman on her content and convictions.
I will leave you with Ms. O'Hara’s strong reply in support of women when she was recently asked about being a working mother. “Fulfilling yourself is not wrong. To have a passion and to work… Because your children will benefit from that love."