The Top-Ten Dead Folks on Stage in 2013

Whether they’re serenading you in concert or just treating you to an intimate autobiographical chat, the deceased have been well-represented in the theater this year.

In 2013 dead folks were all the rage on the stage. The sheer number of bio-shows about real deceased people is remarkable and seems to prove the old adage that sometimes history is more interesting than fiction. We’ve compiled a list of our 10 favorite corpses to tread the boards in 2013:

Holland Taylor as Texas governor Ann Richards in Ann.
Holland Taylor as Texas governor Ann Richards in Ann.
(© Ave Bonar)

1. Ann Richards
The feisty former governor of Texas came roaring back to life this year in Ann, Holland Taylor’s loving homage to Richards. Appearing alone on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont, Taylor seemed every bit the ghost of Richards giving an impassioned commencement address, from her pitch-perfect Texan drawl all the way up to her “Republican lady hair” (Richards was actually the last Democratic governor of the Lone Star state, but it seems the hair preceded the electorate).

Eric Anderson and Amber Iman as Shlomo Carlebach and Nina Simone in Soul Doctor.
Eric Anderson and Amber Iman as Shlomo Carlebach and Nina Simone in Soul Doctor.
(© Carol Rosegg)

2. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
Shlomo Carlebach was the undisputed grand-Zadie of contemporary Jewish liturgical music when he died in 1994. A modern-day wandering minstrel, Carlebach had a unique talent for blending the Orthodox Judaism in which he was raised and the hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Eric Anderson seemed to resurrect Carlebach when he played the rabbi in Soul Doctor on Broadway. While that show is sadly no longer with us, we’ll always remember Anderson’s Drama Desk-nominated performance. Also, there’s this.

3. Nina Simone
The legendary jazz singer and pianist showed up all over the Great White Way in 2013: first in Soul Doctor, where she was thrillingly portrayed by newcomer Amber Iman, and then in A Night With Janis Joplin by Broadway veteran De'Adre Aziza. Simone’s music was a big influence for Joplin and she actually had a very long personal and professional friendship with Carlebach. Of course, she appears as a supporting character in both shows. Can someone please put together a dueling-Ninas bio-concert for next season?

4. Janis Joplin
Listening to Mary Bridget Davies belt out “Piece of My Heart” in A Night With Janis Joplin is like being in the presence of Joplin herself. Davies’ vocal imitation is so precise that if you close your eyes you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. One of the most unique voices to come out of rock and roll, Joplin died tragically of a heroin overdose at the young age of 27. Luckily, you can still hear her music eight times a week at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre.

5. John Lennon
The departed Beatle appeared on Broadway in Let It Be, which looked and sounded a lot like that other Beatles show that played two years ago. There was also 2005’s Lennon, which traced the life and legacy of the more rebellious half of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team (and was allegedly bankrolled by Yoko Ono). If this trend continues, John Lennon might give David Belasco a run for his money as Broadway’s most prolific specter.

Bette Midler as Sue Mengers in I'll Eat You Last.
Bette Midler as Sue Mengers in I'll Eat You Last.
(© Richard Termine)

6. Sue Mengers
Hard-bargaining Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers passed away in 2011, but her stories will live on forever. They were especially lively coming out of the brassy and sassy mouth of Bette Midler, who returned to Broadway after a 33-year absence to play Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last. This intimate chat with Mengers was snubbed by the Tonys, but producers got the last laugh when they forced voters to buy their own tickets if they wanted to see the show. (Really, what was the point in handing them out for free?) Mengers would have approved.

7. Billie Holiday
2013 was a golden year for vocal impersonations (see Janis above) and Dee Dee Bridgewater is among the leaders of the pack with her spot-on take on Billie Holiday in off-Broadway’s Lady Day. While the bio portion of this bio-musical about the groundbreaking and troubled jazz singer leaves much to be desired, the music alone is worth the price of admission.

8. Mike McAlary
Mike McAlary and Sue Mengers share the distinction of being the only people on this list who are less famous than the actors portraying them on Broadway. The late New York City tabloid columnist was played by two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks in Lucky Guy, Nora Ephron’s final play and tribute to the newspaper business in which she cut her teeth. Not only did this play resurrect one man, but for many viewers it invoked the ghost of New York past, a grittier, dirtier city that has largely ceded to the tourists’ playground that surrounds the Broadhurst Theatre today.

Fiona Shaw as the Virgin Mary in The Testament of Mary.
Fiona Shaw as the Virgin Mary in The Testament of Mary.
(© Paul Kolnik)

9. The Virgin Mary
She’s the mother of God and she’s dead. Or is she? Fiona Shaw’s earthy and modern performance in The Testament of Mary had many audience members questioning if this was really the headscarf-wearing semi-deity from their Irish grandmothers’ garden. (We were also quite skeptical that she was really a virgin after seeing this controversial play by Colm Tóibín .) Of course, not everyone appreciates such skepticism, and the few performances of this short-lived show were regularly picketed by Catholic protestors.

10. Marie Antoinette
A perennial favorite for her potential to dazzle through costume design alone, the famously decapitated French queen held court once again in Soho Rep’s Marie Antoinette. As portrayed by Marin Ireland, the great queen came off more like a 21st century train wreck trust funder than an 18th century monarch. But perhaps that is why she beguiles us so, lo these 220 years later: The clueless and spoiler rich girl is a timeless archetype. Marie Antoinette will never really die. She lives in the heart of every Kardashian and Hilton and real housewife, right alongside the spirit of Christmas. God bless us, everyone.

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A Night With Janis Joplin

Closed: February 9, 2014