Category Spotlight

Special Features   Category Spotlight Tony-winning featured actresses from musicals share their memories of snagging American theatre's top prize.
Barbara Cook in The Music Man, which earned her a Tony Award.
Barbara Cook in The Music Man, which earned her a Tony Award.

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Has it really been 50 years since the legendary Barbara Cook won the Tony Award as Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her performance as River City's "Marian the Librarian" in The Music Man? Her career remains one for the books. Recently, I asked my favorite singer about her Tony night: "I was in a daze when they announced my name. I had expected to win the previous year for Candide. When I didn't get that, I didn't think I'd win for Music Man." But the second time was the charm. "I only said a few words, but I really felt honored."

Beth Leavel, last season's winner as the title character in The Drowsy Chaperone, remains wide-eyed: "At a recent event, I was announced as ‘Tony Award-winner Beth Leavel.' I was so awestruck that I could hardly move. I feel very privileged, grateful, lucky, blessed and joyful."

It was in 1950, at the fourth Tony ceremony, that the award was first presented. Juanita Hall won for playing Bloody Mary in Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific, marking the only time, to date, that all four recipients in the musical categories were in the same show: Mary Martin (Actress), Ezio Pinza (Actor) and Myron McCormick (Featured Actor). Only Hall, however, reprised her role in the 1958 movie version.

Richard Rodgers felt that Hall was identified with the "Happy Talk"-ing role, but he preferred the richer vocal quality of London's Bloody Mary, Muriel Smith (who, in 1943 on Broadway, originated the role of Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein's adaptation of Bizet's Carmen). So, Hall's singing was dubbed by Smith. Just two other Featured Actress winners — Carol Haney (The Pajama Game) and Bea Arthur (Mame) — recreated their performances on film. Conversely, Lila Kedrova won for Zorba, the musical version of "Zorba the Greek," in the role for which, 20 years earlier, she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

For the first 16 years, the category's designation was "Supporting or Featured." That changed in 1975, when Rita Moreno won in the drama category. Ending her acceptance speech, Moreno remarked, "Finally, I'd like to say: Miss Supporting Actress, whoever you might have been, I'm a little bit regretful because I am the leading lady of The Ritz; I'm not a Supporting Actress. I mean, if it was up to Googie Gomez [her character], she would say, 'Listen, honey, the only thing I support in the show is my pearls.'" Thereafter, the term "Supporting" was eliminated.

Tonight marks the 58th time that the award has been presented. However, the winner will be the 57th honoree. That's because Audra McDonald is the category's only two-time winner (Carousel, Ragtime). The Berlin-born (Dad was stationed there while in the Army) wunderkind has also taken home a pair of Featured Actress in a Play trophies for Master Class and A Raisin in the Sun — making McDonald the youngest four-time Tony winner ever.

In 1998, McDonald told me that she initially sought the role of Julie in Carousel, "because I had never played a comedic part, and couldn't imagine myself as Carrie. I thought: I can't make people laugh. I was very afraid of comedy." She played the part and reeled in not only "Mister Snow," but also audiences and critics. Calling her "the real find of the production," the New York Times reviewer praised McDonald's voice and her "ready sense of comedy."

At the 2004 Tony-nominee press luncheon, when McDonald was up for Raisin, she brought her beautiful baby girl. McDonald and her husband, bassist Peter Donovan, named their daughter after two of mom's Tony-winning friends: Zoe Caldwell, her Master Class colleague, and the late Madeline Kahn, with whom she did a workshop of Dear World.

Unless the Tony Administration Committee decides otherwise, if a leading lady's name appears below the title (e.g. Barbara Cook), she is placed in the Featured category. Among those for whom that was the case were Maria Karnilova (Fiddler on the Roof), Tammy Grimes in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (she later won as Best Actress in a Play for Private Lives) and Edie (then Edith) Adams in Li'l Abner.

Last year, Adams told me, "Daisy Mae had the brain of a three-year-old. At the time, I was studying with Lee Strasberg, and playing Daisy convincingly drove me nuts. All she said for two-and-a-half hours, eight times a week, was, 'I loves ya, Abner, I loves ya.'"

Carol Haney stirred up "Steam Heat" in The Pajama Game to become 1955's Featured Actress winner. Following her debut, she only made one more appearance onstage, unexpectedly doing a dramatic turn in William Inge's 1959 play, A Loss of Roses, opposite Warren Beatty (a Tony nominee for his Broadway bow and, thus far, only stage role).

Haney, who died in 1962 (age 39), provided musical staging for She Loves Me and Funny Girl. A Tony nominee for the latter, she also received nominations for her choreography in Bravo Giovanni and Flower Drum Song. The last show reunited Haney with its director, Gene Kelly, to whom she'd been an assistant in Hollywood.

An interesting footnote is that Haney and her friend, Gwen Verdon, the previous year's Featured Actress winner (for Can-Can), had danced in pails of water to dub the dancing sounds for Gene Kelly's unforgettable title number in the 1952 classic, "Singin' in the Rain."

A Verdon victory for her breakthrough role in Cole Porter's musical was a special treat for the future Broadway icon. Imported from France to play the lead was Lilo, whose manager-husband did everything possible to sabotage the red-haired ingénue. "In French music halls," Gwen once said, "the star never had anybody around who was better than second-rate. My part was cut until I had nothing to do except dance.

"Then they started taking me out of the dance before it ended and had Lilo come on. In ‘The Garden of Eden' [the Act One finale, which featured Verdon doing a striptease as Eve], I finished way upstage, and Lilo came out, dressed like a peacock." Discouraged and angry, Verdon wanted to quit, "but they insisted I stay for the opening."

On opening night, in a second-act Apache dance, Verdon "did a solo and had an exit while the kids finished the number. At that point, it was so obvious that I was the underdog that the audience decided: ‘We want Verdon!'"

While Gwen was changing for her next scene, Michael Kidd (who did the dances and musical staging for the show) "came from the front of the house, ran into my dressing room, threw me a towel, and pushed me onstage [for a bow]." The role made Verdon a star, and she went on to win three Best Actress Tonys: in Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town and Redhead.

Anita Morris (as Carla) and Liliane Montevecchi (Liliane) were both nominated for the original production of Nine. Morris was scheduled to perform her sexy "A Call from the Vatican" on the 1982 Tony telecast; however, the network considered the number too risqué and substituted the show's "Be Italian," sung by Kathi Moss. On top of that, Morris lost the Tony to Montevecchi. In the 2003 revival, the reverse occurred: Jane Krakowski's Carla won out over Chita Rivera's Liliane.

Prior to 1956, no nominations were announced, only winners were named, and the '56 Featured Actress was Lotte Lenya (The Threepenny Opera), who remains the only honoree to be chosen for an Off-Broadway production.

Here's hoping that tonight's Best Featured Actress in a Musical has a career that equals the success and longevity of that of the fabulous Barbara Cook, who is still going strong. Brava, Barbara.

This story appeared in the 2007 Tony Awards Playbill at Radio City Music Hall.