FROM THE SPECIAL TONY PLAYBILL
On the evening of June 4, 1978 the first year that CBS aired the Tony Awards broadcast a then unknown Glenn Close attended the Tony Awards at the Shubert Theatre with Kevin Kline, who won his first Tony that night for On the Twentieth Century. Twenty years later, things have changed for Close and Kline, who are now internationally-acclaimed stars (Kline winning another Tony for Pirates of Penzance, and Close winning three for The Real Thing, Death and the Maiden and Sunset Boulevard). But CBS, along with this year's addition of PBS, is still broadcasting the Tonys.
According to Peter Lund, President of CBS, commitment to the Tonys is an integral part of the network's identity. "The management at CBS has changed over the years, so it's not a function of one person," he says, "but there's a fondness for Broadway that permeates the atmosphere. Maybe it's in the water pipes." Leslie Moonves didn't need to drink the water: He arrived at CBS two years ago as President of CBS Entertainment, following a long career in theatre. "I watched the Tony Awards religiously," he says of his 11 years as a Broadway company manager. "Both Peter Lund and myself are television people who are huge theatre fans."
No awards show can compare with the Tonys when it comes to quality of entertainment. "We have the advantage over all other awards shows in that we always draw from the best of Broadway," says managing producer Roy A. Somlyo, who has been associated with the telecasts since 1967. "The Tonys have always been produced as a live theatre event, a fact which has certainly been emphasized in the CBS years," he adds.
Indeed, the energy and magic of live theatre is apparent in such unforgettable moments as Tony-winner Dorothy Loudon's 1978 performance of "Fifty Percent" from Michael Bennett's Ballroom. With only a mirror ball for effect, Loudon conveyed both the loneliness and triumph of a widow who has fallen in love with her ballroom dance partner. Ballroom had already closed, but Loudon was still stopping the show. As did Michael Jeter's acceptance speech for his 1990 Tony for Grand Hotel. Sobbing into the camera, Jeter said, "If you're out there somewhere tonight and you've got a problem with alcohol or drugs and you can't stop, you think life can't change and that dreams can't come true, then I stand here as living proof that you can stop. And dreams come true."
On the same show, Jeter and Brent Barrett performed "We'll Take a Glass Together," a rousing number from Grand Hotel that featured the two actors drinking each other under the bar, as hoofers Charlestoned behind them. The Tony Award audience cheered and so did the TV audience: the next day, lines of ticket buyers formed around the block.
"Historically, an appearance on the Tonys has made a huge difference particularly since we've been on CBS," Somlyo says. "Many shows can point to the telecast as the reason for their survival." Somlyo cites Smokey Joe's Cafe, which opened the show in 1995 with four cast members singing "On Broadway," boosting its box office sales. Two years later, Smokey Joe's Cafe is still running strong.
In addition to promoting new shows, the CBS Tonys have often managed to recapture the magic of a show gone by. The 1981 presentation, for instance, featured numbers from the previous five winners of the Tony Award for best musical: A Chorus Line, Ain't Misbehavin', Annie, Sweeney Todd and Evita. Tony winners Priscilla Lopez, Nell Carter, Patti LuPone and Angela Lansbury each sang signature songs from their respective shows, but the standout was Andrea McArdle, who had created an indelible impression three years earlier at age 13 as Annie. No longer a little girl and suddenly a young lady, she belted "Tomorrow," prompting mid-song cheers from the audience.
During the same show, a comically flustered Elizabeth Taylor mispronounced producer James Nederlander's name as "Needleheimer," then gasped and giggled: "Jimmy, I'm sorry!" The next year, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor opened in the theatre district. It's name? Needleheimer's!
In addition to the stellar performances, the CBS Tonys have given us periodic tributes to legendary artists such as Henry Fonda and Robert Preston. Although there have been many, executive producer Gary Smith fondly recalls one in particular to Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in 1994. The frail looking Tandy seemed on the verge of tears when she and Cronyn accepted their Lifetime Achievement Award. "I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to step once more upon the stage," Tandy said, her voice breaking. Says Smith: "The fact that Tandy died not long after makes the moment all the more important. The Tonys were probably the last time she was seen live by the public."
But there have been plenty of frivolous or simply fun moments throughout the past two decades as well. Many of them involve Nathan Lane, who broke his "always a bridesmaid" streak last year when he won the Tony for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Remember his appearance on the 1995 program in his Love! Valour! Compassion! costume: an apron and high heels, with nothing underneath.
This has been a year of exciting change for the Tonys: say hello to Rosie, to Radio City, and to PBS. But CBS remains a constant, as does the exceptional quality of the Tony Awards Broadcast. After all, CBS is known as the "Tiffany Network," and Leslie Moonves takes that title seriously. "We've always felt that the Tonys represent exactly what CBS represents: the best quality entertainment."
Isabelle Stevenson, President of the American Theatre Wing, is grateful. "It's grand to have received such support from CBS for 20 years. Along with the happy relationship, it has made it possible for the Wing to expand its old programs and create new ones."
According to Peter Lund, the last 20 years are merely the beginning: "I hope we telecast the Tonys forever."
-- By James Ireland Baker