What can make Tony Awards night even more thrilling? A Tony year in which both the leading actor and actress of a play (or musical) walk off with Tony honors.
Consider the numbers: In the 69 years since the first Tonys were presented in 1947, and out of the 287 awards have been given to performers in leading roles, the winners in the leading categories have come from the same production only 19 times.
Some of the happy (or not-so-happy) winning couples are the expected ones: Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza in South Pacific, Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd. But among the remaining 16, there are some interesting surprises.
Paul and Grace Hartman
Angel in the Wings, 1948 (Musical)
The Hartmans were dancers and comedians—“dance satirists,” as they called themselves. Paul was the man with the rubber face, Grace the spirited and intelligent personification of comic grace. In Angels in the Wings, the Hartmans parodied a samba, a native fertility dance, a vaudeville magician. The critics and audiences loved them for when the Hartmans performed, as Atkinson said, the whole world looked “pretty giddy.”
Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin
South Pacific, 1950 (Musical)
This particular leading pair almost didn’t happen. Martin was at first concerned about performing with the veteran star of the Metropolitan Opera, whose voice, while perhaps no longer equal to the heights of Mozart, was still a mighty one. But her doubts soon ended, after Richard Rodgers told her that she and Pinza wouldn’t have to sing together. The magnetism between Pinza and Martin dazzled the audiences and helped make South Pacific one of the hottest tickets in Broadway history.
Sidney Blackmer and Shirley Booth
Come Back, Little Sheba, 1950 (Play)
Blackmer and Booth were both veterans of the theatre, he a founder of Actors’ Equity with credits dating back to 1921 and she having made her Broadway debut at the age of 18 in 1925. But when Blackmer and Booth got together as Doc and Lola in William Inge’s powerful and tragic Come Back, Little Sheba, they ignited the stage as they had never done before. Daniel Mann, the play’s director, said of Booth that “she doesn’t act, she lives on the stage.” The same could be said for Blackmer, whom the critics called a “thunderbolt.”
Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston
Damn Yankees, 1956 (Musical)
Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, and Lola got one hell of an actor to play her on Broadway: Gwen Verdon. Her performance as Lola solidified her place as a legendary leading lady—one who would forever be associated with the work of Bob Fosse, Damn Yankee’s choreographer. Lola’s devil was Ray Walston, and he was a perfect one. The critics said Walston was engaging, suave, and sinister, with an ability to express both a devilish disdain for human good and a diabolic delight at human discomfort.
Gwen Verdon and Richard Kiley
Redhead, 1959 (Musical)
Three years after Damn Yankees, Verdon was again one half of a Tony-winning couple. Her partner was Richard Kiley, the show was Redhead—a murder-mystery musical—and the director and choreographer was Bob Fosse, to whom she was (by then) married. Verdon long called Essie, her character in Redhead, her favorite role. Though Kiley had appeared in Kismet in 1953, he considered this role his true singing debut.
Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1963 (Play)
This Edward Albee classic is emotion-filled, mind-scarring, gut-wrenching theatre. Arthur Hill came to the role of college professor George following highly praised performances in Look Homeward, Angel and All the Way Home. As his wife Martha, Uta Hagen already had a Tony, for her performance in The Country Girl. Their performances were so legendary—and the show was so long, at over three hours—that it became a nightly ritual for actors from other plays to come to the Billy Rose theatre after their own shows were over and watch the harrowing final act from the back of the orchestra.
Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury
Sweeney Todd, 1979 (Musical)
He was the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, dispatching his victims via razor to revenge the brutal treatment of his wife at the hands of an evil judge. She was Mrs. Lovett, purveying the best—and worst—meat pies in London, their ingredients were the barber’s victims. Cariou won his first Tony for his performance in the title role, but Lansbury won her fourth. Both stars saw the musical, written by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, as an enormous challenge. Clearly Tony voters thought both succeeded.
John Rubinstein and Phyllis Frelich
Children of a Lesser God, 1980 (Play)
Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God is a story of a stormy relationship between a speech therapist and a deaf student who becomes his wife. Medoff wrote the play especially for Frelich, a founding member of the National Theatre of the Deaf. Audiences, critics—and Tony voters—agreed that her performance was full of heartrending emotion and towering strength. They felt the same about John Rubinstein, who spoke for both himself and his co-star. He said and signed his lines and said hers aloud as she signed them to him.
Ben Harney and Jennifer Holliday
Dreamgirls, 1982 (Musical)
Dreamgirls is synonymous with its tour-de-force Act 1 finale “And I Am Telling You,” a song that is itself synonymous with its original performer, Jennifer Holliday. Her co-star Ben Harney came to Dreamgirls after playing the Tinman in The Wiz and performing in Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Look Back at the Original Broadway Production of Dreamgirls on its 36th Anniversary
Though both Irons and Close won Tonys for their performance in this Tom Stoppard drama, their feelings on their respective roles were very different. Irons described a three-year search for a play that could bring him to Broadway, and that The Real Thing turned out to be the perfect fit. He told the New York Times, “If I had commissioned someone to write me a play, they could never have written anything this perfect.” Close, on the other hand, described her role as “thankless,” and felt the play was really about Henry. “It was terribly frustrating.”
Robert Lindsay and Maryann Plunkett
Me and My Girl, 1987 (Musical)
Both Lindsay and Plunkett danced up a storm in Me and My Girl, a heavily revised version of a 1937 West End musical, but neither had experience dancing on Broadway. Plunkett had previously replaced for Carrie Fisher in Agnes of God and Bernadette Peters in Sunday in the Park with George. Lindsay was a classic actor, known for his performances in Shakespeare plays. Me and My Girl’s associate choreographer Karin Baker worked with the pair until they were ready for Broadway.
Jonathan Pryce and Lea Salonga
Miss Saigon, 1991(Musical)
Pryce was already a Tony winner when he won for Miss Saigon in 1991, playing the slimy and opportunistic Engineer. Salonga was making her Broadway debut, only 20 years old and soon to become one of Broadway’s favorite leading ladies.
She went on to be the singing voice of Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin, Eponine in Les Misérables, and most recently, Kei Kimura in Allegiance.
Look back at Miss Saigon on Broadway
Rivera was a Tony-winning Broadway legend when she appeared in Kander and Ebb’s Spider Woman, with performances in the original companies of West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago, and The Rink already under her belt. Her role as Aurora, a 1940s movie star, was especially well-suited to Rivera’s trademark dancing style and persona. Carver was making his Broadway debut following a 20-year career in Canada, playing Molina, a gay window dresser obsessed with Aurora.
James Naughton and Bebe Neuwirth
Chicago, 1997 (Musical, Revival)
The second Tony-winning couple in a Kander and Ebb show, this particular pairing is also the first to come from a revival. After originating as an Encores! concert presentation, this revival of Chicago transferred to Broadway and became the most-successful revival in Broadway history—it’s still running today. Neuwirth and Naughton were part of Chicago’s star-packed cast; Neuwirth was already a Tony winner for another Fosse-choreographed performance in Sweet Charity. Naughton was a Tony winner for his performance in 1990’s City of Angels.
Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson
Cabaret, 1998 (Musical, Revival)
Kander and Ebb were back with another Broadway revival in 1998, and another Tony-winning couple. Cumming reprised his role as the Emcee from London, where this Sam Mendes-helmed production originated. His take on the role was dramatically different from Joel Grey’s tuxedo-wearing Master of Ceremonies in the original production, and was well-received. Richardson was new to the production for Broadway, though well-respected for her performances on stage and film, including a 1993 Broadway revival of Anna Christie that Richardson appeared in opposite future-husband Liam Neeson.
Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle
The Real Thing, 2000 (Play, Revival)
Apparently, these roles are ripe for success on Tony night, because when The Real Thing returned to Broadway for its first revival, it found its two leading players walking away with Tony Awards yet again. Dillane is best known these days for his role on HBO’s Game of Thrones (The Real Thing remains his sole Broadway credit), but Ehle has continued a career on Broadway, winning a second Tony for her performance in 2006’s The Coast of Utopia. Ehle is also nominated for a 2017 Tony Award, and if she and Oslo co-star Jefferson Mays win, she will be a part of another Tony-winning couple.
Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2003 (Play, Revival)
Dennehy and Redgrave starred in the third Broadway revival of this Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Eugene O’Neill play, taking on the roles of James and Mary Tyrone. Dennehy was already a Tony winner for his 1999 performance in Death of a Salesman. While Redgrave wasn't yet a Tony winner, she had a long career on screen and onstage, both on Broadway and the West End.
Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur
Hairspray, 2003 (Musical)
Though this pair won Tony Awards for leading actor and actress in a musical, they played mother and daughter—Edna and Tracey Turnblad. Fierstein was already a three-time Tony winner, for writing and starring in 1983’s Torch Song Trilogy and for his book to 1984’s La Cage Aux Folles. Winokur, while not making her Broadway debut, had only appeared on Broadway as a replacement supporting player (Jan in the 1994 revival of Grease). Her endearing and spunky performance in Hairspray put her on the map and made her a Tony winner.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis
Fences, 2010 (Play, Revival)
This August Wilson revival has provided a lot of success for Washington and Davis; both won the Tony for the Broadway production, and both brought their performances to the big screen in a 2017 film adaptation. Washington starred in the film, produced, and directed it, picking up Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Picture. Davis won an Academy Award for her performance in the film version, though notably it was for supporting actress despite her win in the leading actress category at the Tony Awards.
A First Look at Fences on Broadway
If you want to keep score on Tony night, there are four opportunities for a new Tony-winning couple to join the list above: Chris Cooper and Laurie Metcalf for A Doll’s House, Part 2; Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle for Oslo; Josh Groban and Denée Benton for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; and David Hyde Pierce and Bette Midler for Hello, Dolly!
This article has been edited and updated from a piece by Mervyn Rothstein that ran in the 1992 Tony Awards Playbill.
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