And the Tony didn’t go to… Part II

It’s Tony Awards time, yet again. The last month has been spent praising the nominees, cursing the nominating committee for what it got wrong (namely, The Bridges of Madison County) and filling out our personal ballots and surveys. We’ve also been subjected to polls, videos, luncheons, speeches, think-pieces, as well as the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards, which all point the way toward “Broadway’s biggest night” tomorrow evening on CBS.

The race for Best Play seems to be nonexistent; it’s wide open with an edge to either All the Way or Act One, but no one seems to have great love for any of the five nominees. Best Musical has been met with some controversy this year, as only one book musical with an original score has been nominated. The other three new musicals are a revue, a jukebox musical and another Disney film-to-stage adaptation. Part of the controversy was the gaffe over the new fifth nominee rule. As per the voting guidelines a fifth nominee wasn’t necessary but confusion proved somewhat embarrassing. If they want to make it possible to expand the number of nominees, they should just expand the number of nominees and be done with it.

My mantra remains the same: awards are weird. Yes, they are wonderful for whomever is lucky enough to be voted the winner. Plus, it has been shown that Tony wins can have a financial impact. However, the outcome does not discount the fact that there are some truly wonderful performances that haven’t been honored. When a person doesn’t win a Tony Award, it doesn’t discount his or her achievement. Furthermore, a Tony win or loss doesn’t validate or invalidate the experience of an audience member.

There are many factors which can effect the voting. There can be a tendency to overlook fall shows, which have closed or lost momentum. Sometimes there is category fraud, where a performance is nominated in the wrong category, such as a featured performance being nominated as lead and vice versa (ask Patti LuPone about losing for Anything Goes or see Rita Moreno’s Tony acceptance speech). Sometimes it’s a real nail-biter, such as Ethel Merman in the successful Gypsy losing to Mary Martin in the SRO smash hit The Sound of Music. In some instances co-stars are nominated opposite against each other, like Dorothy Collins and Alexis Smith in the original Follies. Whatever the case, it is interesting to go back and see how voters voted over the years.

Following up on last year’s post about Tony-losing plays and musicals, here’s a select list of major leading contenders – some iconic – that were not Tony winners. The winner(s) are in parentheses.

1956-57: Julie Andrews, My Fair Lady (Judy Holliday, Bells Are Ringing)
1959-60: Ethel Merman, Gypsy (Mary Martin, The Sound of Music)
1963-64: Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl (Carol Channing, Hello, Dolly!)
1965-66: Gwen Verdon, Sweet Charity (Angela Lansbury, Mame)
1971-72: Dorothy Collins, Follies (Alexis Smith, Follies)
1975-76: Chita Rivera & Gwen Verdon, Chicago (Donna McKechnie, A Chorus Line)
1983-84: Bernadette Peters, Sunday in the Park with George (Chita Rivera, The Rink)
1987-88: Patti LuPone, Anything Goes (Joanna Gleason, Into the Woods)
1997-98: Marin Mazzie, Ragtime (Natasha Richardson, Cabaret)
1998-99: Carolee Carmello, Parade (Bernadette Peters, Annie Get Your Gun)
2002-03: Bernadette Peters, Gypsy (Marissa Jaret Winokur, Hairspray)
2003-04: Donna Murphy, Wonderful Town & Tonya Pinkins, Caroline, or Change (Idina Menzel, Wicked)
2011-12: Jan Maxwell, Follies (Audra McDonald, Porgy and Bess)

1954-55: Barbara Bel Geddes, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Julie Harris, The Lark)
1956-57: Rosalind Russell, Auntie Mame (Margaret Leighton, Separate Tables)
1959-60: Claudia McNeil, A Raisin in the Sun & Geraldine Page, Sweet Bird of Youth (Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker)
1974-75: Elizabeth Ashley, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Ellen Burstyn, Same Time, Next Year)
1975-76: Tovah Feldshuh, Yentl (Irene Worth, Sweet Bird of Youth)
1981-82: Geraldine Page, Agnes of God (Zoe Caldwell, Medea)
2004-05: Kathleen Turner, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Cherry Jones, Doubt)
2007-08: Amy Morton, August: Osage County (Deanna Dunagan, August: Osage County)
2008-09: Janet McTeer & Harriet Walter, Mary Stuart (Marcia Gay Harden, God of Carnage)

1956-57: Robert Weede, The Most Happy Fella (Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady)
1975-76: Jerry Orbach, Chicago (George Rose, My Fair Lady)
1981-82: Raul Julia, Nine (Ben Harney, Dreamgirls)
1983-84: Mandy Patinkin, Sunday in the Park With George (George Hearn, La Cage Aux Folles)
1986-87: Colm Wilkinson, Les Miserables (Robert Lindsay, Me and My Girl)
1991-92: Nathan Lane, Guys and Dolls (Gregory Hines, Jelly’s Last Jam)
1997-98: Brian Stokes Mitchell, Ragtime (Alan Cumming, Cabaret)
2000-01: Matthew Broderick, The Producers (Nathan Lane, The Producers)
2005-06: Michael Cerveris, Sweeney Todd (John Lloyd Young, Jersey Boys)
2006-07: Raul Esparza, Company (David Hyde Pierce, Curtains)
2012-13: Bertie Carvel, Matilda (Billy Porter, Kinky Boots)

1957-58: Laurence Olivier, The Entertainer (Ralph Bellamy, Sunrise at Campobello)
1959-60: Sidney Poitier, A Raisin in the Sun (Melvyn Douglas, The Best Man)
1963-64: Richard Burton, Hamlet (Alec Guinness, Dylan)
1973-74: Jason Robards, A Moon for the Misbegotten (Michael Moriarty, Find Your Way Home)
1974-75: Peter Firth – Equus (John Kani & Winston Ntshona, Sizwe Banzi is Dead/The Island)
1998-99: Kevin Spacey, The Iceman Cometh (Brian Dennehy, Death of a Salesman)
2004-05: Brían F. O’Byrne, Doubt (Bill Irwin, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
2010-11: Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart (Mark Rylance, Jerusalem)

And the Tony didn’t go to…

It’s a heated race in many of the musical categories this year with a lot of Kinky Boots vs. Matilda vs. Pippin going on. Some of these races are neck and neck, creating actual suspense – which is rare for any entertainment awards these days. For some perspective, here’s a look at just some of the shows that have lost top prize at the Tony Awards, as well as a list of actors who’ve never been honored. It’s not a complete list, by any means but shows some of the races that I find more interesting. Some years show losing plays and musicals that have had more staying power than the winners, other years it’s a highly successful production that has been pitted against a juggernaut (eg: 1987, 1988 Best Musical). Awards fever seems to take us by storm every April through June, but the one thing I know year in and year out: Awards are weird.

From the beginning of the Tony Awards in 1947 until 1955, there were no announced nominees in any categories, just winners. Some of the more notable titles not honored in this period but presumably considered include: A Streetcar Named Desire, Picnic, Inherit the Wind, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Call Me Madam, and Menotti’s The Consul (which I include because it swept up at the long-defunct Donaldson Awards).


1956: Bus Stop & Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (winner: The Diary of Anne Frank)
1958: Look Back in Anger (winner: Sunrise at Campobello)
1959: A Touch of the Poet (winner: J.B.)
1960: The Best Man & A Raisin in the Sun (winner: The Miracle Worker)
1961: The Caretaker (winner: A Man for All Seasons)
1964: Barefoot in the Park (winner: Luther)
1965: The Odd Couple & Tiny Alice (winner: The Subject Was Roses)
1967: A Delicate Balance (winner: The Homecoming)
1968: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg & Plaza Suite (winner: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead)
1973: Butley & The Sunshine Boys (winner: That Championship Season)
1975: Same Time, Next Year & Seascape (winner: Equus)
1978: Deathtrap & The Gin Game (winner: Da)
1979: Whose Life Is It Anyway? & Wings (winner: The Elephant Man)
1980: Talley’s Folly (winner: Children of a Lesser God)
1983: ‘night, Mother (winner: Torch Song Trilogy)
1984: Glengarry Glen Ross & Noises Off (winner: The Real Thing)
1988: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone & Speed-the-Plow (winner: M. Butterfly)
1990: Prelude to a Kiss & The Piano Lesson (winner: The Grapes of Wrath)
1991: Six Degrees of Separation (winner: Lost in Yonkers)
1995: Arcadia (winner: Love! Valour! Compassion!)
1998: The Beauty Queen of Leenane (winner: Art)
1999: Closer (winner: Side Man)
2005: The Pillowman (winner: Doubt)
2006: The Lieutenant of Inishmore & Rabbit Hole (winner: The History Boys)
2009: Reasons to Be Pretty (winner: God of Carnage)
2011: Jerusalem & The Motherfucker with the Hat (winner: War Horse)


1955: Peter Pan (winner: The Pajama Game)
1957: Bells Are Ringing, Candide, & The Most Happy Fella (winner: My Fair Lady)
1958: West Side Story (winner: The Music Man)
1959: Flower Drum Song (winner: Redhead)
1960: Gypsy (winners: Fiorello! & The Sound of Music)
1962: Carnival (winner: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying)
1963: Oliver! (winner: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)
1964: Funny Girl & She Loves Me (winner: Hello, Dolly!)
1966: Mame & Sweet Charity (winner: Man of La Mancha)
1969: Hair & Promises, Promises (winner: 1776)
1972: Follies & Grease (winner: Two Gentlemen of Verona)
1973: Pippin (winner: A Little Night Music)
1976: Chicago (winner: A Chorus Line)
1978: On the Twentieth Century (winner: Ain’t Misbehavin’)
1979: Ballroom & The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (winner: Sweeney Todd)
1980: Barnum (winner: Evita)
1982: Dreamgirls (winner: Nine)
1984: Sunday in the Park with George (winner: La Cage Aux Folles)
1987: Me and My Girl (winner: Les Miserables)
1988: Into the Woods (winner: The Phantom of the Opera)
1990: Grand Hotel (winner: City of Angels)
1991: Miss Saigon, Once on This Island & The Secret Garden (winner: The Will Rogers Follies)
1992: Falsettos (Crazy for You)
1993: Blood Brothers & Tommy (winner: Kiss of the Spider Woman)
1994: Beauty and the Beast (winner: Passion)
1998: Ragtime (winner: The Lion King)
1999: Parade (winner: Fosse)
2001: The Full Monty (winner: The Producers)
2002: Mamma Mia & Urinetown (winner: Thoroughly Modern Millie)
2004: Wicked (winner: Avenue Q)
2005: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Light in the Piazza & The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (winner: Spamalot)
2006: The Color Purple The Drowsy Chaperone (Jersey Boys)
2007: Curtains, Grey Gardens & Mary Poppins (winner: Spring Awakening)
2009: Next to Normal & Rock of Ages (winner: Billy Elliot)

The following actors have not won a Tony (as of June 2015):

Julie Andrews (0-3)
Danny Burstein (0-6)
Carolee Carmello (0-3)
Lee J. Cobb (never nominated)
Gregg Edelman (0-4)
Raul Esparza (0-4)
Tovah Feldshuh (0-4)
Victor Garber (0-4)
Katharine Hepburn (0-2)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (0-3)
Dana Ivey (0-5)
Raul Julia (0-4)
Rebecca Luker (0-3)
Jan Maxwell (0-5)
Marin Mazzie (0-3)
John McMartin (0-5)
Laurence Olivier (0-1)
Geraldine Page (0-4)
Martha Plimpton (0-3)
George C. Scott (0-5)
Kim Stanley (0-2)

On the Town: April Edition

First off, some good news. The Drama Desk Awards committee has decided to reinstate the award for Outstanding Orchestrations, nominating Bill Elliott (Nice Work If You Can Get It), Larry Hochman (Death Takes a Holiday), Martin Lowe (Once), John McDaniel (Bonnie & Clyde), Michael Starobin (Queen of the Mist), and Danny Troob (Newsies). There was a considerable uproar from practically the entire Broadway community as well as theatre fans, with a grassroots campaign to try to rectify the situation. Blogs from Mr. Starobin and Jason Robert Brown went viral, Drama Desk president Isa Goldberg’s inbox was flooded with emails, and an online petition garnered over 3000 signatures, including many of Broadway’s best and brightest. I am relieved to see that all this action had a positive impact, and am glad to see the award reinstated. Congratulations to all the nominees, and all orchestrators, period.

Encores! presented Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream, an unusual failure based on the Steinbeck novel Cannery Row. While there are some lovely tunes in the score (and some gorgeous Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations), there is almost no musical there. Something about bums and prostitutes on the California coast living near each other.  The central conflict between the two would be lovers (a scientist who lives by the sea and a failed prostitute…I think) is that they are two stubborn to admit they love each other. The rest involves colorful characters, including a warm Madam, some bums and a character named Joe the Mexican. I doubt we’ll ever see this show staged again, so it was interesting to hear it at City Center. Will Chase and Laura Osnes played the lovers. Both sang well, but there wasn’t much for them to play. Stephen Wallem and Tom Wopat provided some amusement. The evening belonged to Leslie Uggams, who brought that big voice and charm to the proceedings. Her understated performance of “All At Once You Love Her” brought down the house. I was in hysterics during the last ten minutes, as everything suddenly rushed to the finale. There may have been a musical in Steinbeck’s novel, but it certainly wasn’t for R&H. A live cast album will be released by Ghostlight this summer. This excites me, as this might make it more financially feasible for other Encores! shows to be recorded.

Apparently I did the impossible: I won The Book of Mormon lottery. I was down in the city filming the Leap of Faith video for Patty and Emily, and decided to try. The girls were seeing a different show that night so they offered to help. My pal Russ Dembin joined us, as well. I was delighted and surprised to hear my name called. I entered not expecting to win, but rather to just get an entry in for the upcoming fan performance in June. One thing I’ll never forget is the look on the Lotto Guy’s face as he called my name and as I went to perk up, Patty and Emily started shaking their tambourines. It was the first and only time I’d seen him nonplussed this afternoon. Anyway, I made my way forward, and from the way everyone working the lottery and box office treated me, you’d have thought I just had my first child. I can honestly say I’ve never had a nicer time on line to buy tickets. This marked my first time seeing the hit musical, and my second time playing The Book of Mormon lottery.

Since it’s almost impossible to get into the show, I made the conscious choice a year ago not to listen to the original cast album. While hearing the score hadn’t impeded my enjoyment of, say, Urinetown or Avenue Q, I decided that I wanted to go in fresh. The only thing I knew was the translation of the phrase “Hasa Diga Eebowai” and the song “I Believe” from the Tony telecast. Most of the original cast is still in the show, and are likely staying put for a while. Andrew Rannells will likely never have a better role in his career, at least one that displays his considerable talents so effectively. Jared Gertner was on for Josh Gad, but considering how funny Gertner is it didn’t detract from the experience. When I wasn’t laughing, I was smiling one of those silly, ear-to-ear types, just basking in the joy emanating from the stage. And I just wanted to hug the Tony-winning Nikki M. James, she anchors the show with so much sincerity and heart.

The show is expertly crafted with great tunes and winning characters. Hats off to the writers for crafting an exceptional book, building the show to a gut-bustingly hilarious payoff in (“Joseph Smith American Moses” sent me to another plane entirely). Profane, for sure, but with a rather wonderful message. I’ve made up for lost time with the cast album in the days since, finding my appreciation and laughs growing with each subsequent listen. One of the cool things about being a lottery winner: I was sitting front row dead center, right behind musical director/conductor Stephen Oremus, whose conducting is a show in itself.

On the opening night front, there were something like 12,000 opening nights on Broadway this month. An exaggeration, but as sure hell felt like it. I attended one of them: One Man, Two Guvnors, the hardest I’ve laughed at a show since, well, The Book of Mormon. James Corden stars as the charmingly corpulent harlequin in this delicious update of an ancient commedia dell’arte imported from London with its original cast intact. (A band, The Craze which provides the skiffle music heard before and during the show is made up of American performers). Mixing the low comedy with improvised bits and audience participation, the show is nothing less than an all-out riot. Corden dominates the evening, but he is supported by a brilliant ensemble. Special mention to Daniel Rigby, Oliver Chris and especially Tom Edden for inspired bits of hilarity. I won’t say more, as I don’t want to spoil the fun. Just know that by intermission, my sides ached from laughter and I want to go back again and again. Also, you’re going to want the original London cast album. Trust me.

Now. Here. This. has since closed, but I’m glad I got a chance to see the new show from the [title of show] team at the Vineyard. Jeff, Heidi, Susan and Hunter were back and in glowing adorkable form as they shared personal memories, from hilarious to embarrassing to devastating. I can’t say the new show is an instant classic like their first Tony-nominated outing, but it was a joy to see all four performers together again and hear them sing and dance and quirk up a storm. I was especially moved by the segment about grandmothers, having a reaction similar to that at Love, Loss and What I Wore – their memories unlocked my own. I hope they all continue to give us more to see over the years. The quartet exudes such good will, that it is hard for me not to cheer them on. I hope a cast album is forthcoming. (You heard me, Ghostlight).

Tomorrow comes the Tony nominations and all the insanity that awards season brings. Good news: Hugh Jackman is getting a special Tony Award. I don’t know why these awards bodies decide on whims to delete important categories, especially the still-defunct Special Theatrical Event category that the Tonys had for a mere ten years. Since Mr. Jackman is ineligible to be considered in any category, and has done so much for the Broadway community, it is nice to see him so honored. More good news: Bernadette Peters is deservedly receiving the Isabelle Stevenson Award for all the charity work she has done on behalf of Broadway Barks and BC/EFA. I look forward to both acceptance speeches. (And for God’s sake, let them perform!)

Random Thoughts on This and That

The Beacon Theatre on 74th Street and Broadway has been selected for this season’s Tony Awards ceremony. Originally it was said the Apollo Theatre was being considered, but it turned out to be one of several venues under consideration.The New York Times Arts Beat tweeted “The Bad News: It’s Small. The Good News: It’s Actually on Broadway.”

I have wished that the Tonys would return to an actual Broadway house for years. There is an argument that Broadway shows couldn’t accommodate the television event, but for over thirty years they were. How often does a televiewer get to see the inside of a Broadway theater on television? The use of Radio City Music Hall allows the American Theatre Wing and Broadway League to make more money from ticket sales, but as I’ve said before, it loses intimacy and becomes another bloated event that becomes more and more joyless each year. Performances are shorter, celebrities with little to no affiliation with Broadway are given front seats in order to draw ratings. (CBS, let’s face it, the Tonys will never be a ratings winner). I know that Radio City is a landmark, but I’d rather go see How the West Was Won than any live stage show there. The effect comes across on television. If you compare Tony telecasts from the past, there is an immediacy in earlier years that comes as close as possible to putting the show in viewers’ living rooms. But this is least it’s a step in the right direction. The Beacon Theatre is half the size of the Music Hall and should translate better on television. But I have to beg: next year in a Broadway house! (Or see if we can get the Times Square Church out of the glorious Mark Hellinger).

I’m currently reading Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, a scathing look at studio era Hollywood with its infamous main character Sammy Glick. Starting out as a copy boy in a NY newspaper, Glick steals, cheats and writes his way into Hollywood power without any talent – except for self-promotion. The film made Schulberg something of a pariah in Hollywood – his own film executive father told him he’d never work in the town again (though he would later win an Oscar for the screenplay of On the Waterfront). Executives were enraged. Insiders were enraged. But the book was a phenomenon, one that continues to be read and studied. Bette Davis later told Dick Cavett that it was the most accurate depiction of Hollywood life she’d ever seen.

A film version was never made, but it has been seen on TV and on Broadway as a musical. The original cast album of What Makes Sammy Run? was just issued by Sony’s Masterworks Broadway in its stereo debut. An overpriced mono CD had been available from star Steve Lawrence‘s personal label (along with his ’68 flop Golden Rainbow). Sony brings the score back to the forefront at a cheaper cost. I’ve yet to get the CD, but it’s on my to-do list. Plans for a film version surface every few years, but it has never come to fruition.

A few days ago, I mentioned that Auntie Mame was getting a DVD reissue. Warner Bros. first released the Oscar nominated classic in 2002 but I have held back on getting it until now. It’s a bizarre OCD quirk of mine, but I really hate the “snap cases” in which DVDs made their premiere in 1997. It’s a minor idiosyncrisy of mine, I know, but since WB has been reissuing these films in the preferable keep case format, I’ve held out on many titles for years. There was a double issue of Auntie Mame and The Shop Around the Corner in 2008, but that was quickly deleted from the catalog. I cannot wait to pop it; if you haven’t seen the film you must as soon as possible. See Lucy in Mame only if you’re having a drinking party (for the record, I’ve not bought that disaster either).

Today is Veterans Day.Yesterday was the United States Marine Corps’ 235th birthday. As the son of a Marine, I want to wish all members of the USMC a Happy belated Birthday! (It was also my parents’ 37th anniversary. Much to my amusement, they chose to celebrate the Corps’ birthday). But to all veterans, I wish you well and thank you for your service. If you are overseas in an area of combat, I hope you get to come home soon. For those of you returning from Iraq, Afghanistan – anywhere, really, welcome home. Not just today, but every day, the federal government should be doing more for our troops coming home. Some need rehabilitation, life-long medical care, help finding jobs or coping with PTSD, etc. After all they’ve done for us, we should do something in return – and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue or cause for debate. We should do everything we can to help these men and women.

The McHugh Medley

The musical Sugar Babies was a very unique enterprise: it was a star-driven revue and tribute to the era of burlesque. Bawdy sketches, numbers and routines – both old and new – made up the evening which starred MGM stalwarts Ann Miller (Occupation: STAR!) and Mickey Rooney (in his Broadway debut). “The show was well received by critics and audiences alike; a genuine crowd pleaser whose sole purpose was pure entertainment; a sort of final farewell to the long dormant genre. There was some skepticism about the show from insiders and outsiders and it wasn’t expected to be a sell-out smash, but that’s exactly what it became.

The musical opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1979, and settled in for a three year run, clocking in at 1208 performances; the final success to play the house. (During the 80s, there was one flop after another until the Nederlanders sold the building to the Times Square Church in 1991). Miller and Rooney headlined the Broadway production for its entire run and later toured. He only missed one scheduled performance during his seven years performing the show. His understudy never went on; when he vacationed during the Broadway engagement, Joey Bishop, Rip Taylor and Eddie Bracken were brought in to cover. As for that one performance he missed on tour? The producers just canceled it.  (The first national tour starring Carol Channing and Robert Morse was short lived).

Sugar Babies was nominated for 8 Tony Awards but went home empty-handed. Another little musical that year named Evita came to town, the event of that particular season. It didn’t matter, the show was a solid hit. Nationwide audiences were given the chance to see favorites Rooney and Miller on the Tony telecast when they performed the eleven o’clock “McHugh Medley” featuring various songs of noted songwriter Jimmy McHugh:


Patricia Neal: In Her Own Words

That voice. That was the first thing I noticed about Patricia Neal when I was a child. I was at home watching television and she was in the John Wayne movie Operation Pacific. There was something in the timbre that stood out to me and I was riveted. To this day, she ranks as one of the few actresses whom I could listen to speak, say or read anything, including the phone book. I can’t remember much about the movie, but it definitely put Neal on my radar. Ms. Neal died two days ago from lung cancer at age 84, leaving behind a great legacy as both actress and advocate.

I’ve enjoyed her film work immensely: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Hasty Heart and of course her Oscar winning turn as Alma in Hud. The latter is especially amazing to me – she is one of the few people to win a leading Oscar for a supporting role. (Awards are weird: she was nominated for the Golden Globe for Supporting Actress). Her career was curtailed by her well-publicized health troubles; a series of strokes in the early 60s which left her debilitated. Her husband, Roald Dahl, was greatly responsible for the rehabilitation she made. In 1968, she made a big screen comeback in the film adaptation of The Subject Was Roses, earning another Oscar nomination. I even remember her from television appearances, including an episode of Murder, She Wrote.

I never had the privilege of meeting the actress, but I was fortunate to see her in person on two close occasions. The first was at the 2006 Theatre World Awards, at which she presented to Jayne Houdyshell (who won for her brilliant turn in Well). Neal received a warm, spontaneous standing ovation that afternoon – the only one that afternoon. Houdyshell was moved to tears to be receiving the award from the legend; ultimately it was the highlight of the afternoon. The second time was that very weekend: I attended the dress rehearsal for the Tony Awards. Sitting up in the tiers at that barn Radio City Music Hall, there is a dry run (with fake winners selected) and a sense of great fun. Well, Neal rehearsed her presentation with Bill Irwin. That evening though, I was as surprised as everyone else when she was presented with a Tony award to replace the compact (original award) that was stolen from her the very first Tony night. Neal was the last surviving member of the first Tony Awards; winning the first-ever prize for Best Featured Actress for Another Part of the Forest.

Neal was interviewed by Rick McKay for his documentary Broadway: The Golden Age and he compiled this video montage of Neal discussing her career as a tribute. It focuses on her early career, and it is fascinating to hear her talk of how she got started in the business. After Another Part of the Forest she went to Hollywood, but returned to Broadway three times: a 1952 revival of The Children’s Hour, a shortlived comedy A Roomful of Roses and her last appearance: as Kate Keller in the original production of The Miracle Worker. Enjoy:


“The Lambeth Walk”

Call me the Ghost of Tony Awards past. I’ve seen a lot written about the lackluster Tony Award telecast that spawned a lot of commentary about the quality of the telecast and the presence of Hollywood actors. As I’ve said, I’m more concerned with the former than the latter. So I’ve been looking at clips from previous awards ceremonies and am in awe of the numbers that used to be shown, in terms of length and quality.

This Tony Award clip comes from Me and My Girl, a 1987 Best Musical nominee. The show was written by Noel Gay in  1937, where it became a huge success after a performance was aired on the BBC (a last minute replacement for a canceled sporting event). The show was a vehicle for British song and dance man Lupino Lane, running 1,646 performances. In 1939, a performance was televised (making it the first British musical comedy to be aired on TV) and film adaptation starring Lane was released (retitled The Lambeth Walk due to the song’s – the show’s major breakout hit –  immense popularity in the days leading into WWII.

The musical was revived in a big way in 1984 at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre , with a new book by Stephen Fry and direction by Mike Ockrent. Tidying up and contemporizing the book, the new production starred Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson and transferred to the West End in 1985. The production housed the Adelphi Theatre for a whopping eight years and 3,313 performances. Lindsay opened the Broadway production in 1986, opposite Maryann Plunkett, George S. Irving, Jane Connell, Jane Summerhays and Timothy Jerome. Once again, the show was a massive success, running for 1402 performances at the Marquis Theatre.

Plotwise, the show is fairly simple. Bill Snibson, a happy-go-lucky Cockney who is named heir to the Earl of Heresford. In order to inherit the title, Bill must learn to be upper class and pass muster with the elite but faces loses his girl Sally in the interim. The show that ensues is a genial, old-fashioned musical comedy about cultural clash between the British classes.

Lindsay’s performance took both coasts by storm. The classically trained actor had a career triumph, receiving rave reviews that most actors could only dream of. He went on to win practically every theatre award in both London and New York (and repeatedly besting Colm Wilkinson’s Jean Valjean). The London production also won the Olivier for Musical of the Year; the Broadway production received thirteen Tony nominations (including one for Stephen Fry) and winning three for Lindsay, Plunkett (Best Actress in a Musical) and Gillian Gregory (Choreography). Jim Dale replaced Lindsay on Broadway, Tim Curry took the show its national tour.

For the telecast, the original Broadway cast performed  “The Lambeth Walk,” the showstopping act one finale in which Bill’s Cockney friends crash an elite party and get the stuffy upper crust to cut loose. It’s one of the more infectious and endearing numbers I’ve seen on the Tonys. Things to take note of: the running time is a leisurely five minutes, including audience participation, and is allowed to build. The television direction is also much simpler. No flashy edits and camera shots. The number is intimate and looks, feels and sounds like a full-out Broadway showstopper. Not rushed, not constrained but just allowed to be. And notice how the audience in the Mark Hellinger Theatre (oh lost!) laps it up. Enjoy.


Reflections on “Give the Tonys Back to Broadway”

Yesterday, I joined the Facebook group “Give the Tonys Back to Broadway.”

It didn’t take me longer than a split second to click “join” when I saw it. I was deeply disappointed in the quality of the Tony Award telecast on Sunday evening. The opening number, which was a medley dedicated to second hand show music (pop music gone Broadway) was indicative of the weakness of the season and a depressing way to spend the first ten minutes of the show. In fact, were I not at the best party in town I may have turned off the show. When I joined yesterday, I was 776th member. By the time of this writing some 30 hours later, the count is up to 5,000. Hunter Foster, current star of Million Dollar Quartet, is the one who spearheaded this social media movement and has listed the following as the info for the group:

A group for all actors, directors, writers and fans who want to see the Tony awards celebrate the excellence of Broadway by allowing those artists who have made theatre their livelihood to take a more active part in its yearly presentation.

We want the evening to be about Broadway and for the fans of Broadway. This group is about including more of those artists that we admire and look up to, so that it truly becomes an evening to celebrate.

I didn’t join the group in attempt to stop Hollywood actors from returning to the boards or making their stage debuts. I am a little wary of the “come to Broadway for four months and get a Tony trend” but that’s not the crux of this biscuit. So long as the performance is good, it doesn’t matter who is giving it. That’s neither here or there for me. But that seems to be misconstrued as the point of this group.

The reason I joined this group is in relation to the telecast itself, not in reflection to the season or who was featured on Broadway throughout the year. I first started watching the Tonys in 2001; prior to that I was mostly unfamiliar with the telecast but well aware of the award itself. I’ve had issues since my telecast about the direction and pacing of the evening, the distribution of awards (how they are given, not necessarily to whom, though I’m deeply disappointed that Tony voters have yet to give the prize to Jan Maxwell) and overall scope of the awards from beginning to end. Each successive year these issues become more and more pronounced.

In the “olden days” when I started watching, the first hour of the telecast took place on PBS (which also hosted the Drama Desk Awards for a spell), then would switch to CBS for the main portion. As years went by, the telecast of that first hour disappeared, relegating those contending in less glamorous but still important categories to NY1 and a webcast that has yet to be perfected. Costume, set and lighting designers as well as orchestrators and librettists, and in some cases composers and lyricists were now part of this “pre-ceremony” (there’s no getting around the fact that most people tune in to CBS only). Also, depending on the year, those receiving special Tony Awards are also sometimes placed in the earlier slot this year. The greatest example this year is Marian Seldes, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award and gave the most brilliant and memorable acceptance speech of the night.

As for celebrities on Broadway, like I said I have no qualms with that. Let them give Broadway a shot, or let those who’ve found Hollywood success come back home. It’s happened since the dawn of the Tony Awards and there are many great stars who have been nominated for or won Tony Awards since the very first year (Best Actor in a Play Henry Fonda anyone?) It sells tickets, keeps many folks employed and makes most producers salivate with anticipation.

However, the issue I have, and why I think the group was formed, is that when Broadway comes to its year-end celebration of a year’s worth of work – the Tony Awards, those who are actually doing the work seem to get shuffled aside for big names who perform or present. Ratings are the only thing that is really important in television and with a show like the Tony Awards, perennially a ratings loser, seems to be getting more and desperate to draw in audiences, particularly the 18-49 demographic. But it doesn’t sit well with me when Green Day is given five minutes, two songs and the chance to turn Radio City Music Hall into the Grammy Awards while Christiane Noll is relegated to singing half of her big song from Ragtime, for which she is nominated. Kate Baldwin, the effervescent star of Finian’s Rainbow, didn’t even get a moment to shine (even though she was far more movie star gorgeous than half of the Hollywood contingent). I know of a couple of Tony award winning actors who asked to present the following year, but were denied by CBS because they weren’t big enough stars.

That brings about another issue I have with the Tony Awards telecast: the venue. I practically cheered to learn that the Tonys will be unable to be broadcast from Radio City Music Hall next year. Until 1967, the awards were merely a formal dinner ceremony at one of the upscale hotel ballrooms in Manhattan (generally the Waldorf-Astoria) with a local telecast in the NY metropolitan area. It was in 1967 that Alexander Cohen and Hildy Parks nationally televised the awards for the first time on ABC (CBS picked up the Tonys in 1978 and have held onto them ever since), transplanting the ceremony into the Shubert Theatre and showcasing performances from the nominated shows, turning the awards ceremony into a night to celebrate the Broadway season. For the next thirty years, the Tonys were televised in this manner: a Broadway house, performances from nominated shows, performances from theatre legends recreating their signature songs and the presence of immense talent.

In 1997, the Awards moved into Radio City Music Hall, the 6,000 seat landmark entertainment venue on the Avenue of the Americas, adjacent to Rockefeller Center. Watching the performances over the years, I’ve never been quite satisfied with the results. The cavernous auditorium is more than three times the size of the largest Broadway house and the numbers tend to get lost in the space. I was in the front orchestra a few weeks ago for Conan O’Brien’s show and it felt like I was in the back of a Broadway house, relying on the television screens. Put the show back on Broadway – perhaps the Gershwin again (the largest Broadway venue) or as SarahB suggested, the vast but intimate Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. (I, for one, will now and forever nominate the Mark Hellinger for the venue out of respect to the lost venue).

There have always been stars on the Tony Awards, but there used to be more of a presence of stage stars and pieces from the nominated shows and stars: scenes from nominated plays, musical selections from the nominated musicals. In 1970, Katharine Hepburn and co. performed  a 15 minute segment from Coco. In 1982, the cast of Dreamgirls performed the entire first act finale, lasting 8 minutes. In between there was still chance for novelty performances medleys, tributes – oh, and awards. As the years have gone on, performance times for shows has become more and more limited, a result of increased commercial time and reliance on pop stars to perform. Many shows are required to present abridged songs or medleys that mostly fail to register on TV. Two of the greatest performances I’ve seen since I’ve started watching were Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone performing numbers from their respective productions of Gypsy. There hasn’t been enough of that caliber on the awards in the last 10 years.

Ultimately, it’s all about the ratings. It’s not that the members of the American Theatre Wing or Broadway League are dismissing the actors on Broadway – that isn’t the case at all. One only has to look at all the work the two organizations do year round for evidence. It’s that the awards telecast isn’t translating well. There are consistent sound issues, unfortunate camera choices and an absence of Broadway. Give me American Idiot, just don’t give me a Green Day concert. By pandering to those who aren’t watching, it’s the loyal viewers whose viewing experience is effectively diminished.

One last point, I don’t think this group was formed as a reaction to stars winning the Tony Award. There was a higher number this year than usual, but it’s not based in sour grapes to their winning.  At least not to me. The reality of the matter in terms of wins remains the subjective result of voting. Keep the stars coming in, just don’t forget those who are already here.

Hepburn in ‘Coco’

Coco is one of the more interesting musicals to have played Broadway. Not that’s very good, but it’s still a show with an interesting gestation. Turning the life of Chanel into a tuner was the brainchild of Alan Jay Lerner and Andre Previn and proved one of the hottest tickets of 1970. The reason? Hepburn. Not Audrey, as Chanel reportedly assumed when she signed away the rights, but Katharine, known for her many talents – save musicality. Frederick Brisson was the producer and was preparing the vehicle for his wife Rosalind Russell, but the star was developing health problems from which she would never recover. The resulting show was an oddity: high class musical staging by Michael Bennett (who also stepped in for director Michael Benthall, now past his prime) with several eye-popping fashion parades of Chanel (as interpreted by Cecil Beaton) and a virtually DOA libretto.

The show opened at the Mark Hellinger after 40 previews to atrocious reviews. Hepburn escaped virtually unscathed, but according to Steven Suskin’s More Opening Nights on Broadway, the show received an overwhelming 5 pans out of 6. The book, the lyrics, the score – the critics weren’t having it. There is very little plot and the show is an excuse for Hepburn to give a star turn (and because of her age, its about Chanel coming out of retirement rather than her rise in the industry).

The 1969-70 season was rather weak overall, and the tightest Tony race was that between nonsingers Hepburn and Lauren Bacall for Best Actress in a Musical. The negligible Applause was better received than it should have been and was the big winner that evening; Bacall was triumphant. (Coco won for Beaton’s costumes and a featured actor Tony for a shameless performance by Rene Auberjonois as an over-the-top gay fashion designer hell bent on destroying Chanel).

However, audiences came out in droves to see the great (then) three-time Oscar winner onstage in her first musical. The result wasn’t pretty (Upon the release of the poorly recorded cast album, Hepburn quipped “I sound like Donald Duck.”) and there is very little to connect Hepburn’s performance with Coco Chanel, but Hepburn was a star and she gave the requisite turn that packed in audiences. No one particularly seems to have cared for the show, but the demand was such that Hepburn extended her limited contract, ultimately spending nine months in the show in NY. Her replacement (Danielle Darrieux) was received as an improvement on Hepburn, because she was appropriately Gallic, demure and more Chanel-like. However, she was not Hepburn and box office interest plummeted. Two months after Hepburn left, Coco shuttered. In spite of being critically reviled, the musical managed to run for 329 performances. Hepburn returned to the role on tour, and the show turned a profit. Plans for a London run and a Paramount film never came to fruition.

Interestingly enough, for all of the show’s critical shortcomings, it maintains the distinction of being the longest performance piece in Tony Award history. The television broadcast devoted fifteen uninterrupted minutes to the musical, showcasing the star Hepburn, but featuring several members of the supporting cast – George Rose, Gale Dixon and David Holliday in some scenes. Hepburn delivers, in an amusing sprechstimme, the eleven o’clock number “Always Mademoiselle” and then steps aside for the ladies of the chorus in a Michael Bennett fashion parade. We’re unlikely to see one show receive this sort of treatment again.