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'Extraordinary' Natasha Richardson was beloved Broadway star

March 19, 2009 | 11:53 am

Natasha Richardson leaves behind a legacy of performances from film and television dating back a quarter of a century. However, it was on the stage that this star truly shone. And Broadway will pay the ultimate tribute to Richardson tonight when the lights of all the theaters along the rialto are dimmed for one minute at curtain time.

For her 1986 stage debut opposite her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, in Chekov 's "The Seagull," Natasha Richardson won the London Drama Critics' Circle award as most promising newcomer at age 23. And for her 1993 Broadway debut in the third rialto revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie," she won the equivalent award from Theatre World.

Natasha Richardson was the first actress to be nominated for a Drama Desk award for playing that title role. She lost that race to Jane Alexander for "The Sisters Rosensweig." And like Liv Ullmann, star of the second revival of "Anna Christie" in 1977,  Richardson was also nominated for a Tony Award as lead actress in a play. That category pitted niece against aunt, as Lynn Redgrave was nominated for her tribute to Richardson's grandfather, Sir Michael Redgrave, in "Shakespeare for My Father." They and Alexander lost to the latter's costar Madeline Kahn.

Richardson's soon-to-be husband Liam Neeson made his Broadway debut opposite her in "Anna Christie." He too was nominated for a Tony Award, losing the lead actor in a play race to Ron Liebman for "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches." However, the play did win the Tony for best revival.

Five years later, Natasha Richardson would win a Tony for doing the seemingly impossible and making audiences forget Liza Minnelli's 1972 Oscar-winning performance in "Cabaret." As the defiant Sally Bowles, the actress was front and center in this reimagining of the 1967 best musical Tony champ. Working with helmer Sam Mendes and co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall, Natasha Richardson proved she was much more than just a classically-trained thespian. New York Times critic Ben Brantley raved that Richardson was "extraordinary" and said she was "a dazzling example of how star power can be harnessed to create a devastating portrait of someone who is definitely not a star."

For her efforts, Richardson first won the Drama Desk award for lead actress in a musical. And then at the Tonys, she prevailed over a quartet of musical theater vets — Betty Buckley ("Triumph of Love"), Marin Mazzie ("Ragtime") and co-nominees Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner ("Side Show"). The show won three other Tonys that night — musical revival, lead actor (Alan Cumming), and featured actor (Ron Rifkin).

Richardson appeared twice more in a Broadway production. In 1999, she was in the four-hander "Closer" by Patrick Marber. As the adulterous Anna (played in the 2004 film version by Julia Roberts), Richardson received a Drama Desk nod for featured actress in a play but lost to her co-star Anna Friel. In what was to be her final role, Richardson starred as Blanche DuBois opposite John C. Reilly as Stanley Kowalski in a 2005 production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" that received only mixed reviews.

In January of this year, Natasha Richardson and her mother starred in a one-night only concert version of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" as a fundraiser for the Roundabout. Following the rapturous reviews for this staging of the 1973 Tony-winning best musical, there was talk of a full-scale production to come.

Below is a clip of Natasha Richardson's powerful performance of "Maybe This Time" from her Tony-winning turn in "Cabaret."

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Photo: Paramount Classics

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