Collage by Alex Hodor-Lee
On Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live on Tuesday night, Patti LuPone finally revealed what she thought of Madonna’s performance in the movie Evita (a role Patti played to huzzahs and a Tony award on Broadway). Having seen a scene from the film, LuPone, who's now on Broadway in Tony Award-nominated War Paint, snapped, “She’s dead behind the eyes. She couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag. She should not be in film or on stage.” And my response to that is: I’m sure Patti LuPone checked out a scene from Evita hoping to enjoy it! And to be fair to Madonna, she barely talks in the movie, so it’s one of her better performances.
But LuPone vs. Madonna is hardly the only feud on Broadway's history. In fact, musical divas have been duking it out since long before Lea Michele was born, and theater-goers have all the benefited from the delicious schadenfreude. That's because, more so than divas of other varieties, from pop to the screen, they know how to throw shade theatrically. Ryan Murphy could pick up a few cues from these broads for the next season of Feud.
You can go as far back as Broadway belting legend Ethel Merman, who was notoriously unkind about supporting players doing well in her starring vehicles. In 1940, she famously slashed the super talented Betty Hutton’s numbers from the Cole Porter musical Panama Hattie—only to suffer karma nine years later when Hutton landed the lead role in the movie of Annie Get Your Gun, which Ethel had originated on Broadway. Of course, Hutton had replaced a messy Judy Garland, who later on was all set to play musical theater battle-ax Helen Lawson in the movie of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.
Then, Garland got messy again and was replaced by Susan Hayward. And Lawson—who cuts out Neely O’Hara’s (Patty Duke) number because it’s too good—was based on Ethel Merman! In 1956, Merman also didn’t get along with her Happy Hunting costar Fernando Lamas, to put it mildly. In fact, Lamas was so contemptuous of the Merm that he’d conspicuously wipe his mouth after kissing her onstage and would also stand in a way to try and upstage her. But good luck trying to upstage Ethel Merman.
In 1964, Barbra Streisand starred on Broadway in Funny Girl, winning raves and mass admiration. Her understudy was Lainie Kazan, who went to the same Brooklyn high school as Streisand and nowadays, when she's best known as the mom in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, admits to having coveted her starring role. After 18 whole months, Kazan was thrilled to finally go on one night when Streisand took ill. Crafty Kazan alerted the press (through her mother) that she was going on, and she ended up getting great reviews. Well, Babs was not, shall we say, amused.
Around the same time, Streisand would regularly have lunch with Broadway legend Carol Channing. Both were nominated for the Tony (Barbra for Funny Girl and Carol for Hello, Dolly!). After Channing won the Tony, Streisand suddenly stopped accepting her invitations to lunch! But Streisand had the last laugh. She got to star in the splashy 1969 movie of…Hello, Dolly! No word yet on Streisand review of the new Dolly on Broadway, Bette Midler, who also revived another Merman role on screen, Mama Rose in the TV movie adaptation of Gypsy, which, incidentally, Streisand is said to want to remake as a starring vehicle!
In her 2016 memoir Then & Now, the great Barbara Cook says she admired the late Elaine Stritch, but with Stritchie, it was always me-me-me. Cook was doing a beautiful ballad in a nightclub engagement a few years ago, when Stritch, sitting near the stage, chose to loudly rustle around her shopping bag, find her insulin needle, and give herself an injection. “She just couldn’t wait three minutes,” writes Cook, perturbed. In another horrible incident, Cook remembers telling Stritch, “For Christ’s sake, Elaine, don’t try to tell me how to sing the f---ing song!”
Geraldine Page was a brilliant, fiery actress who often acted on impulse. According to her daughter, Angelica Page, one night during the 1982 melodrama Agnes of God, Geraldine slapped costar Amanda Plummer, who allegedly snapped out of it and was brilliant after that. According to Angelica, another costar, Elizabeth Ashley, said to Geraldine after the show, “Slap me tomorrow night!” That wasn’t the end of Geraldine’s happy hands. Four years later, in the off-Broadway play A Lie of the Mind, Geraldine felt costar Rebecca De Mornay was getting too much up in her space. So she went into her usual routine and slapped her! The actress was fired—meaning De Mornay!
But it wasn't just the women.
In 1985, Rex Harrison co-starred with fellow Oscar winner Claudette Colbert in a boulevard comedy called Aren’t We All?, first in London and then on Broadway. During a rehearsal break, Harrison—thinking Colbert was nowhere near—remarked to someone about her, “Where’s the f---ing French dwarf gone to?” Sadly for him, she happened to be in the room, within earshot! Colbert deliciously punished Harrison by only speaking to him in French (which he didn’t understand) for the rest of the run.
During the curtain call after one of the very few performances of the flop 1976 musical Rex—no relation to Harrison—noted British actor Nicol Williamson thought he heard a chorus boy, Jim Litten, mutter “That was crap.” Enraged, Williams promptly slapped Litten as the crowd gasped. But what the poor guy had actually said was, “That’s a wrap.” Williamson acted up again in 1991, when, during a performance of the comedy I Hate Hamlet, he unexpectedly hit with the flat end of his sword his costar Evan Handler, later best known for his menschy work on Sex and the City. Handler, dismayed by all the weeks of Williamson’s horrid behavior, walked off stage mid-performance and never came back. When contacted, Williamson’s agent said it had been an accident.
Similarly, in 2000, Mandy Patinkin, LuPone's original co-star in Evita, raised a ruckus as one of the stars of the musical The Wild Party. During performances, he improvised all kinds of abusive behavior, including slapping and spitting. Costar Toni Collette got fed up and gave him a “retaliatory shove”, which prompted Patinkin to play the victim and threaten to quit. Patinkin seems to have confronted his demons, and complaints about his behavior now seem distant, thankfully enough, so he's free to play avuncular characters like Claire Danes' mentor on Homeland.
And now, should I regale you with tales of Patti LuPone versus Andrew Lloyd Webber? Or Patti LuPone versus an audience member who once dared to take a photo? Nah. That’s a wrap.
Related: Read all our recaps of Ryan Murphy's Feud.
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