Actress-singer Lena Horne poses next to a poster advertising her one-woman show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Ca., November 15, 1982. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac)
Actress-singer Lena Horne poses next to a poster advertising her one-woman show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Ca., November 15, 1982. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac)

Looking Back at Lena Horne’s Broadway Legacy

On Tuesday, November 1, the Broadway theatre soon to be formerly known as the Brooks Atkinson Theatre will officially be renamed the Lena Horne Theatre after the iconic African American singer, dancer, actress, and civil rights activist. To celebrate Horne joining the ranks of legends such as James Earl Jones and August Wilson as an artist with a Broadway theatre named in their honor, take a look back at Horne’s Broadway achievements — including becoming the first African American leading actress in a musical to receive a Tony Award nomination, and headlining the longest running one-woman show on Broadway.

Born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917, to Edwin Fletcher “Teddy” Horne Jr. and Edna Louise Scottron, Horne started her career in the Cotton Club chorus line in 1933, leading to her first film and stage opportunities.

Some of her earliest film credits include musical films Panama Hattie (1942), Stormy Weather (1943), and Cabin the Sky (1943). Before those credits, however, she made her Broadway debut in 1934 as a Quadronne Girl in Dance With Your Gods, and later performed in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939. Of that credit, her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, stated, “On February 13, 1939, Brooks Atkinson wrote a review of the musical Blackbirds of 1939 for The New York Times. His review was generally unfavorable except for the mention of ‘a radiantly beautiful girl, Lena Horne, who will be a winner once she has proper direction.’”

After shooting many films, Horne shifted her focus to the stage in the 1950s, recording a live album, Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, which became the biggest selling record by a female artist in the history of the RCA Victor label at that time. Her return to Broadway came in 1957 when she starred as Savannah in Jamaica, which led to her receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, the first African American woman to do so.

Horne wasn’t back on Broadway until a limited run alongside Tony Bennett in Tony & Lena Sing, which played at the Minskoff Theatre in 1974. Shortly after Horne’s passing, Bennett wrote in his 2012 memoir, “Lena was such a class act, a great lady with an incredible work ethic. We sang Harold Arlen songs that had been arranged as duets for us, and later both Cary Grant and Fred Astaire separately told me that the concert with Lena was the best show they’d ever seen in their lives.”

She is also fondly remembered for another musical film, The Wiz. In 1978, Horne took to the screen again to star as Glinda the Good alongside Diana Ross, performing “Believe in Yourself,” which became a musical staple for her.

Horne’s next and final Broadway outing was perhaps the most notable credit in her Broadway career. Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music opened at the Nederlander Theatre on May 12, 1981, and went on to become a major success.

The show was originally scheduled for a limited run, but extended to a full-year run through June 30, 1982, becoming to this day the longest-running one-woman show on Broadway. “[Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music] was her fullest expression as an artist and storyteller,” said Gail Lumet Buckley, her daughter, on behalf of the Horne family.

Lena Horne passed away on May 9, 2010, and yet more than 12 years later, she continues to make history on Broadway, now becoming the first Black woman to have a Broadway theatre named in her honor. Her legacy is still celebrated within the entertainment community, now in the form of a theatre, as well as in the words of some of today’s most monumental Broadway performers.

 “Lena Horne was a woman of fierce talent, incredible strength, and profound conviction,” says six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald. “With the utmost grace, she broke down barriers. Beyond her indelible work on stage and screen, she was a civil rights activist who continues to inspire many of us today.”

Adds Tony Award–winning actress LaChanze, “Lena Horne devoted her life to theater and the entertainment industry for seven decades. She was a pioneer. A trailblazer. An inspiration to so many of us who stand on her shoulders to this day.”

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Doug Pizac