Joan Diener (b. Columbus, Ohio, February 24, 1930; d. New York City, May 13, 2006) was an American theatre actress and singer with a stunning figure and an ear-splitting three-and-a-half-octave vocal range.
Diener majored in psychology at Sarah Lawrence College and moonlighted as an actress while still a student. She made her Broadway début in the revue Small Wonder (1948), choreographed by Gower Champion. Lacking an outstanding score, the show nevertheless survived for three months, due undoubtedly to its powerful cast – Diener, Tom Ewell, Alice Pearce and Jack Cassidy.
She met her husband, director Albert Marre, in 1953 while in the role of Lalume, the seductive wife of the evil Wazir in Kismet, “A Musical Arabian Night” assembled by Robert Wright and George Forrest from music of Alexander Borodin. Diener won a Theatre World Award and was catapulted to stardom. Of her performance, Brooks Atkinson wrote, “As an abandoned hussy, brazenly made up and loosely clad, Joan Diener looks like a fine case of grand arson and warms up the whole show.” Diener married Marre three years later; they would have two children.
Most critical reviews of Kismet were lackluster, but luckily a newspaper strike was on, and by the time the presses rolled again, the show’s success was assured by word of mouth. The three stars, Joan Diener, Alfred Drake, and Doretta Morrow, took the show to London, where it ran even longer than in New York. Diener’s next show, the revue Ziegfeld Follies (1956) with Tallulah Bankhead, closed out of town.
In Los Angeles in 1958 Marre directed a production of At the Grand, a musical adaptation of the 1930 novel Grand Hotel, with his wife as an opera diva. This show never reached Broadway, but Diener was to enjoy another major hit in 1965 with Mitch Leigh’s Man of La Mancha, also directed by Marre. She portrayed Aldonza, the lusty serving wench whom the benighted Don Quixote believes to be his ideal, Dulcinea. Although the critics acclaimed her performance unanimously, she was somehow overlooked by the Tony® nominations committee. She did the role in English in London’s West End, in Amsterdam, and in a number of regional American revivals; she did it in French in Paris and Brussels.
Diener joined with composer Leigh and director Marre in two more Broadway attempts: Cry for Us All (1970), which closed after nine performances, and Home Sweet Homer (1975) with Yul Brynner, which closed after opening night. She never had a film career; her two greatest stage roles went to other actresses on the screen – Lalume to Dolores Gray and Aldonza to Sophia Loren.
But for Diener, singing Aldonza was a career in itself. Composer Mitch Leigh admitted to having tailored the music of this notoriously demanding role particularly to her enormous range, and she was always up to it. As co-star Richard Kiley testified: “She had a trained operatic voice and was able to do incredible things, go from the most awful kind of chest sounds of someone from the gutter to the wonderful thread of sound in the reprise of “Dulcinea.” When in 1992 Man of La Mancha was revived with Raul Julia and Sheena Easton in New York, Easton collapsed during one performance. Joan Diener, then age sixty-two, took over in the role she had originated twenty-seven years earlier.
Joan Diener died fourteen years later of complications from cancer.