Tonight's ceremony marks the 39th annual national telecast of the Tony Awards. One person, and one person only, has been aboard the Tony bandwagon since that first broadcast: the man in the pit, musical director Elliot Lawrence.
For 20 years before that, the Tonys had been an inside affair, celebrated in hotel ballrooms and carried on local radio and sometimes TV. In 1967, the American Theatre Wing invited the League of New York Theatres and Producers to join them in the presentation of the awards. A grander ceremony, featuring fully staged excerpts from the nominated productions, necessitated moving the festivities into a theatre proper. Lawrence was musical director of The Apple Tree, the then-current tenant of the theatre selected to host the awards (the Shubert). Given his extensive background in live TV, Lawrence was the logical choice to conduct that year's Tony Awards. He has continued to do so, ever since.
Lawrence, who turned 80 on Valentine's Day, has spent a life — almost literally — in music. His father was general manager of a Philadelphia radio station, whose orchestra occasionally made personal appearances. One day, four-year-old Elliot leapt on the podium and started conducting. ("I couldn't stand not being in the show," he explained.) The boy was such a hit that they kept him in the act. At the age of 12, Lawrence gathered a bunch of 13- and 14-year-olds to form his own 15-piece band. Band Busters turned pro, and was featured on "The Horn & Hardart Children's Hour." "It was a pretty good band," he remembers almost 70 years later.
After forming his own orchestra at the University of Pennsylvania, he became musical director of Philadelphia's local CBS affiliate, WCAU. "Listen to Lawrence," a weekly program, debuted in January 1945. The reaction was immediate; influential jazz critic George T. Simon called Lawrence's group "the greatest studio band in the country." Within a year, Lawrence moved onto the national podium, and, in 1947, the Elliot Lawrence Orchestra was named the Band of the Year by Look magazine.
After a busy career conducting for the golden age of television, Lawrence was asked to conduct an historic 1959 broadcast of "The Ed Sullivan Show" from Moscow. One of the performers approached him with a proposition: He had been offered a job as director-choreographer of a new Broadway show, and he urged Lawrence to join him. "You should get out of television, nobody even cares who the conductors are on television. Come to the theatre, it's a whole different ballgame."
"Sure," said Lawrence, up to his ears in rehearsals (with a Russian orchestra and no common language). Gower Champion got the show; Elliot Lawrence got the job; and the unlikely Bye Bye Birdie was a sleeper hit when it opened in April 1960. The plot, not coincidentally, includes a paean to Sullivan and a hectic, on-location broadcast of "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Not only was Bye Bye Birdie unconventional; the sound was unconventional as well. "It was the beginning of a real revolution in how bands in the orchestra pit should sound. We — composer Charles Strouse, Gower and I — didn't want it to sound like the old theatre sound. We wanted it to sound like the music people heard at the time, what the kids heard on their records."
Birdie brought Lawrence his first Tony nomination. (In those days, there was a Best Conductor category.) He won the following year for his second musical, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. "This was one of the great experiences, with Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, Bob Fosse. Oh boy, I thought, is the theatre always going to be like this? Abe said, 'No, you have to savor it — to go against everything else that is going to happen to you in the theatre.'"
Lawrence remained in great demand along Broadway, with musicals including Meredith Willson's Here's Love, Sammy Davis's Golden Boy, Bock & Harnick's The Apple Tree, and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme's Golden Rainbow. At the same time, Elliot's musical direction of the annual Tony Awards put him in demand in TV land — and, over the years, earned him two Emmy Awards and 11 nominations.
Things do not always go as scripted, of course. One of Lawrence's most memorable moments was Ethel Merman's final appearance on the Tonys. "For TV, we allowed a four-bar intro, so she could enter," Lawrence explained. "We played four bars of 'I Got Rhythm,' and I cued her to come in.
"Ethel got an ovation, naturally. But she was near the end of her career, and she loved that ovation. She refused to come in. I kept cuing her. She wasn't going to start singing as long as the audience kept applauding. We thought four bars were enough, but not for Ethel. That's when your heart stops in live television. The orchestra went ahead and played, she was still taking bows. She finally started singing, we jumped back to the beginning and caught up with her."
Inevitably, Lawrence found himself gazing across the pit at people that he had long worked with and knew very well. The experience never failed to bring out the tears. "Gwen Verdon was one, Chita Rivera was another. Even though they weren't primarily singers, there was something about the way they sang that touched you in that certain way." And when people Lawrence is close to win, the experience can be extremely emotional. "Bobby Morse, I knew back from the days of How to Succeed. After a very long time, 28 years later, he won again for Tru. When he came on stage, the audience was cheering, he leaned down over the pit. 'Elliot,' he said to me, 'we did it again.'"
This evening Elliot Lawrence is back at the podium, doing it again — for the 39th time — for Broadway's proudest night: The Tony Awards.
Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "A Must See: Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" and a columnist for Playbill.com.