Broadway Backstory: Judy Kuhn

Beau Salant ‘18/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Judy Kuhn. Photo Credit:
Judy Kuhn. Photo Credit:

Welcome to the first installment of our new column, Broadway Backstory! Every week, we’ll be profiling somebody from the Broadway world (actors, composers, directors, choreographers, all of ‘em!) and providing previews of their work, both past and upcoming!

The first recipient of the Broadway Backstory treatment is actress Judy Kuhn. A three-time Tony Award nominee, Kuhn made her Broadway debut in 1985 in the original production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and followed that up with a few flops before finally making it big in the original production of the legendary classic Les Miserables, in the role of Cosette. This performance brought her her first Tony Award nomination, in the category of Best Featured Actress in a Musical. She lost to her co-star Frances Ruffelle, who played Eponine.

Bolstered by the award recognition, Kuhn made the jump to leading lady status in the musical Chess in 1988. While the show was greeted with mostly negative reviews, Kuhn received ecstatic praise for her performance, particularly for her singing of the song “Someone Else’s Story,” which has since become a standard in musical theater and a popular song for young actors to sing for auditions. She received her second Tony nomination for the role, her first in the category of Lead Actress in a Musical.

Ryan Silverman, Melissa Errico and Judy Kuhn in Passion. Photo Credit: NYTimes
Ryan Silverman, Melissa Errico and Judy Kuhn in Passion. Photo Credit: NYTimes

The early 90’s greeted Kuhn with another series of commercial flops before her luck turned once again in 1993 when she starred in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of She Loves Me in the lead role of Amalia Balash. Both the production and Kuhn earned strong reviews from critics, and Kuhn once again found herself up for the Lead Actress in a Musical Tony Award. Sadly, Kuhn’s Tony-nominated performance was not immortalized on the production’s cast recording, as Kuhn departed the show before it was recorded.

Since then, Kuhn’s appearances have been few and far between, predominantly off-Broadway shows, regional productions and benefit concerts. Notably, she appeared in the Los Angeles production of Sunset Boulevard in the supporting role of Betty Schaefer and the off-Broadway revival of Passion in the dynamite lead role of Fosca.

You’re probably wondering: have I ever seen her in anything? Well the answer is…probably yes! While she didn’t make a live appearance, Kuhn provided the singing voice of Pocahontas in the animated Disney film of the same name, where she can be heard singing the now iconic anthem “Colors of the Wind,” among other great songs.

Judy Kuhn and Michael Cerveris prepare for Fun Home. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus/
Judy Kuhn and Michael Cerveris prepare for Fun Home. Photo Credit:

Kuhn is my unabashed favorite Broadway actress of all time. To me, it’s a true achievement when one actress can both create new roles (as Kuhn did in Les Miserables and Chess) and reinterpret and reimagine classic roles (as she did in She Loves Me and Passion) and do both brilliantly. It signifies a true mastery of the craft, and few performers have done both as well as Kuhn has throughout her career. Not to mention, Kuhn has shown her adeptness at both harrowing drama (Les Mis) and uproarious comedy (She Loves Me), proving just how versatile of an entertainer that she is.

Her singing voice is nearly flawless. One needs only to listen to her fabulous renditions of the aforementioned “Someone Else’s Story” or “Colors of the Wind” to understand that Kuhn’s versatile voice captures a remarkable range. From her quietly sung soprano moments to her vibrant, mezzo-soprano belt, Kuhn vocal proficiency is stunning.

So what’s next for her? Kuhn will make her long-awaited return to the Broadway stage this month in Fun Home, which is currently in previews and opens officially on April 22nd. Fun Home played off-Broadway last year to mass critical acclaim, and Kuhn’s performance as Helen Bechdel, the mother of the show’s protagonist, has been called a heartbreakingly emotional portrayal and some of her best work to date. If critics respond as positively to Kuhn’s work on the Great White Way as they did off-Broadway, Kuhn could find herself with her fourth Tony Award nomination, her first time back in the race in 22 years.

Regardless of what her future looks like, Kuhn has already cemented her legendary status on Broadway with the incredible work that she has been doing since the mid-80’s. Her versatility and range as an actress are close to unmatched, and she will go down as one of Broadway’s greatest talents.

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