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Patti vs. Kelli: Diva smackdown at the Tonys!

April 17, 2008 |  9:30 am

Unlike the Oscars, the Babe Factor is not as predominant at the Tonys, at least when it comes to choosing the best actress in a musical. Only last year, Christine Ebersole won her second Tony, at age 54, for her dual roles in "Grey Gardens." Among those she bested was ingénue Laura Bell Bundy, star of "Legally Blonde." This year's race is shaping up as a battle between another beautiful blond, rising star Kelli O'Hara, who is socko in the hit revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center, and soon-to-be-60 diva Patti LuPone, who blasts the roof off the St. James Theatre nightly as Mama Rose in the fifth Broadway incarnation of "Gypsy."

Two years ago these titan talents faced off in the lead actress race when O'Hara almost stole the show from "Pajama Game" co-star Harry Connick Jr. and LuPone hit the right notes both when singing and playing tuba in an unusual staging of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Back then both lost out to LaChanze, star of "The Color Purple."


While this year's lead actress contest is likely to include another theater vet, Tony winner Faith Prince in "A Catered Affair," and a British import, Jenna Russell re-creating her Olivier Award-winning performance in the first revival of Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George," the Broadway buzz is that the battle will be between O'Hara and LuPone.

And with Kelli playing someone named Nellie and Patti in a part created by Ethel Merman, one can't help but be reminded of that rivalry between Neely O'Hara and Helen Lawson in "Valley of the Dolls." (Oh, come on! Admit it! You immediately thought of that too!) After all, Jacqueline Susann was inspired by her admiration verging on adoration of Merman to create the character of Lawson. The author drew on the rise and tragic fall of Judy Garland for the story of Neely. In a twist, Garland was to play the part of Lawson in the 1967 celluloid version of the bestseller, but was replaced during filming. It was Oscar winner Susan Hayward who ended up tangling with Oscar winner Patty Duke in a now-classic camp cat fight.

The YouTube video:

In "Gypsy," LuPone takes on a role that has netted each of her four predecessors on Broadway a Tony nod [Merman (1960), Bernadette Peters (2003)] if not a win [Angela Lansbury (1975), Tyne Daly (1990)]. However, O'Hara is the first actress to be Tony-eligible for "South Pacific" since Mary Martin created the role almost 60 years ago. That sassy Texan picked up the first of her three Tony Awards for her performance as the WWII nurse confronting her prejudices in the original production. Her win was part of a sweep that overwhelmed the competition at the 1950 festivities.

Martin would go on to win two more Tonys. The first was in 1955 (the last year in which only the name of the winner was announced) for "Peter Pan." Among the other actresses making a splash that year was Janis Paige in the original production of "The Pajama Game." Martin's other win came in 1960 for the original run of "The Sound of Music." Among her competition that year was her pal Merman for her take-no-prisoners performance in "Gypsy." However, back then, Tony voters preferred the sweetness of the 40-plus Martin as a "young" nun to the sourness of La Merm as the mother of all stage mothers. "Gypsy" lost all eight of its bids while "Music" won five Tonys, including tying with "Fiorello!" for best musical. Merman won her only Tony in 1951 as "the hostess with the mostest" in Irving Berlin's "Call Me Madam."

The only other time LuPone has taken on a role created by Merman, she got a Tony nod -– that was back in 1988 when she starred as Reno Sweeney in the Lincoln Center revival of Cole Porter's 1934 hit, "Anything Goes." LuPone lost that race to Joanna Gleason, who was starring in the original run of Sondheim's "Into the Woods."

She won her only Tony back in 1980 for her first starring role on Broadway -- "Evita" in the New York premiere of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical. Among those she bested then was Sandy Duncan, who was soaring in the first revival of "Peter Pan." LuPone would infamously reunite with Webber in 1993 for "Sunset Boulevard." While she played the part of Norma Desmond to good reviews in London, she was cast aside for the Broadway run when Glenn Close scored a triumph in the L.A. production. Close would go on to win a Tony for the role while LuPone won a sizable settlement.

LuPone went on to replace Tony winner Zoe Caldwell as Maria Callas in "Master Class" in 1996 and got good reviews for her supporting turn in her pal David Mamet's play "The Old Neighborhood" in 1997. However, in 2001 she raised eyebrows along the Rialto when, during her well-received run in the revival of the farce "Noises Off," she balked at asking the audiences to donate to the Broadway Cares charity during the curtain call. After a shouting match with the stage manager, she skipped two shows. LuPone did go on to perform benefit concerts for the charity, thereby redeeming herself with the close-knit theater community.

Her musical comeback in that oddball 2005 staging of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" – the cast accompanied themselves on instruments – was sealed with Drama Desk and Tony nominations. While she lost then, LuPone is back on Broadway singing Sondheim lyrics in "Gypsy" (the late, great Jule Styne did the music).

It was Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the lyrics for "South Pacific." While "Gypsy" tackles the tawdry side of show business, "South Pacific" has a certain gravitas, dealing with race relations against the backdrop of the Second World War. Indeed, the musical was only the second tuner to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama (the first was "Of Thee I Sing" in 1932 while the third was "Fiorello!" in 1960). And its source material, James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1948.