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10(ish) Mothers in Musical Theatre

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Mothers. They come in all shapes, sizes, and personality types. Some are great (like my mom, who was so great that one of my biggest problems growing up was getting my friends to stop asking her to adopt them), others not so much. Musical theatre, which any of my regular readers know serves as my core frame of reference for life, is filled with mothers as different as those in the real world. Here, for anyone looking to discover some musical mamas, is a list of 10(ish) mother characters that sing their hearts out.

Enjoy, and Happy Mother's Day!

Please Note: Spoiler Alert! The motherhood aspect in some of these musicals is not straightforward, so consider yourself warned about possible plot spoilers before you read the descriptions.

Mother and Sarah from Ragtime The "-ish" in the title of this piece comes from the fact that I have two pairs of moms included in the list. This first entry is for Ragtime's Mother and Sarah (Marin Mazzie and Audra McDonald in the original Broadway production in 1998, respectively), two women at the turn of the 20th century from very different worlds: Mother is a white woman whose life has been entirely devoted to watching her husband's dreams be realized, while Sarah is a black woman courted by a ragtime pianist. They come to motherhood from different paths, but it is also motherhood that makes their respective paths cross:

Rose from Gypsy You can't talk about musical theatre mother characters without the genre's most well-known stage mother. Rose is the woman pulling the strings behind the scenes for the careers of her children "Dainty" June and Louise (later, Gypsy Rose Lee). Played by everyone and their mother over the years, it should be difficult to choose a favorite version of the showstopping moment when Rose finally gets her turn at center stage, but Bernadette Peters' revival in 2003 will always be tops to me:

Kim from Miss Saigon A young girl in Vietnam who has a short liaison with American soldier Chris, Kim (played by Lea Salonga in the original Broadway production in 1991), quite literally sings "I'd Give My Life for You" to her son Tam, which says more about her dedication to her child than I ever could:

Diana from next to normal Motherhood isn't easy, and Diana - the mother of a son and a daughter - endures personal tragedy almost unable to be imagined and must cope with both her own mental illness and maintaining her family, a balance that sometimes seems impossible to strike. In "I Miss the Mountains" she reflects on her life, both past and present:

Fantine and Madame Thenardier from Les Miserables My second pair of mothers from the same show are Fantine (my favorite: Ruthie Henshall) and Madame Thenardier (my favorite: Jenny Galloway). Fantine, a single struggling mother, leaving her child in the care of Madame Thenardier, herself already a mother to children like Eponine and Gavroche, is at the core of the show. One's trajectory is written as a tragedy and the other serves as the comic relief, and you would be hard pressed to find a pair of mothers more different.

Golde from Fiddler on the Roof

Another classic role, Golde has been played by a million (non-scientific estimate) women over the years, but perhaps the most well-known incarnation of the story is from the film version, where she was played by Norma Crane. Golde may not be the character with the most music in the show, but even Tevye would have to admit she was the true core of their family.

Margaret from The Light in the Piazza If I could play any mother role tomorrow, Margaret (played by Victoria Clark in the 2005 Broadway production) would be in my top two choices. While on vacation with her developmentally disabled daughter Clara, Margaret confronts her own life and expectations about love and growing up in tandem with watching her daughter first experience romance with an Italian man named Fabrizio. Fable is a classic piece of powerful introspection and rumination:

Kala from Tarzan Not all great mothers are biological, or even human. When Disney brought Tarzan to Broadway in 2006, Merle Dandridge showed audiences just how strong maternal bonds can be even if you don't give birth to the child when she played Kala, the Gorilla who adopted the orphaned Tarzan.

Sylvia from Finding Neverland A widow with four young children who are her entire world, Sylvia (played by Laura Michelle Kelly in the 2015 Broadway production) rediscovers joy when she comes into contact with J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan.

Alice from Bright Star Embodied by Carmen Cusack in the 2016 Broadway production, Alice Murphy's motherhood journey is anything but simple. Initially pregnancy is delightful news, but when her child is ripped from her arms her despair is enough to break even the hardest of hearts. Still, by the end of the show her life's happiness is restored and the audience shares in her exultation:


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