I posted a few days ago that Peter Filichia recently pitted the winners of Actor and Actress Tonys against each other after discussing whether or not women should be called actors or actresses. According to Filichia, there was a three to one landslide in favor of Lansbury. Here was my response, which is surprisingly posted in its entirety:
This really IS a tough call! Both were giving career-defining performances. Kiley was anchoring the Best Musical winning juggernaut. Lansbury was a revelation as the star-turn diva carrying the latest Jerry Herman vehicle. Wow, I wouldn’t want to have had to choose!
However, I think that the votes would have had to go to Lansbury, as she had the bigger challenge, the bigger star turn, and the most to prove. Kiley was already renowned for his musical theatre work, but Lansbury only had nine performances as the third-billed star in Anyone Can Whistle, which wouldn’t have been seen by enough of the populace to make a lasting impression. For Lansbury, it was a total transformation from respected character actress into leading lady. Both roles are hard: Kiley had to enchant an audience while making up for a libretto and lyrics that fall short of the mark, comedy and pathos. Kiley’s transformation was incredible, too. However, Lansbury, sliding down the banister with a bugle, became the toast of New York with the magazine covers and spreads, and the incredible press and audience buzz. It was the start of Lansbury’s Act Two as a musical theatre star/legend.
Looking back on it, La Mancha was the musical apex for Kiley, who would never have another successful musical performance after it, while Lansbury as Mame was the first of so many diverse star turns. (Even Prettybelle in its out-of-town flopping, was important enough to warrant a cast album, and Lansbury cannot herself be faulted in the least for that show’s failure).
From a voting perspective, if you were going to vote Man of La Mancha Best Musical, you might be more inclined to vote for Lansbury in an attempt to honor her hard work, discipline, unexpected total triumph and also not let Mame go home without a major Tony. Thank God it’s merely speculation and that there is such a thing as an ‘actress’ or we’d have so much more agita than necessary in choosing the apples and oranges of who is the best of the best.