Remembering the Tony-Winning Musicals -- Part 1

Tony Awards   Remembering the Tony-Winning Musicals -- Part 1
 
From the Special Tony Playbill

Backstage stories from 19 of the most memorable shows to win the Tony Award for Best Musical.

From the Special Tony Playbill

Backstage stories from 19 of the most memorable shows to win the Tony Award for Best Musical.


A Chorus Line
Michael Bennett, the late director-choreographer, had never had the least desire to work Off-Broadway. Starting out as a dancer in West Side Story, he was a dyed-in-the-wool Broadway baby, so when Joseph Papp invited him to work at the Public Theater, he took up the invitation only because he had this "little show" about kids in the chorus that he wanted to develop with composer Marvin Hamlisch, and writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.

The show, A Chorus Line, would go on to become the longest-running musical in Broadway history, winning nine Tony Award in 1976, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical (Kirkwood and Dante) and Best Score (music by Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban).

"The workshop was such a hothouse approach to musical theatre that by the time the Tony Awards rolled around, it was more about the company and what we had created together, than anything having to do with politics or business," recalled Donna McKechnie who won a Tony herself as Best Actress in a musical. "I think we all sort of felt that the Tony was just icing on the cake. But, as the night approached, I kept telling myself that this was a moment to treasure, to live the moment, so that I didn't wake up five years later, thinking, 'Oh right, we did win the Tony that year. So when I got up there and the house lights were on, I concentrated on every face I could make out: Michael's, Joe's, Marvin's, all the those who had worked so hard together and thought, 'We've done it. We deserve this.'"

Producers: Joseph Papp, New York Shakespeare Festival


Applause
In 1950, the same year that Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond first gave voice to the anxieties of growing old and losing a hold on her adoring fans in the movie of Sunset Boulevard, the character of Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis, was expressing some of the same fears but in a less gloomy way in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's now classic film, All About Eve.

In 1970 All About Eve was transformed into the musical Applause. The team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green fashioned the book from the movie and Mary Orr's short story about about a scheming and ruthless young ingenue who sweetly plots to take both role and lover away from an aging Broadway legend. Songwriters Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Bye, Bye, Birdie) pitched their songs low for the baritone voice of star Lauren Bacall, herself something of a film legend at 46, who played Margo Channing with indefatigable elan and sophistication.

The show opened on March 30, 1970, at the Palace Theatre, and it was an instant smash, playing nearly 900 performances and winnning four Tony Awards, including Best Musical and one for its star, Bacall, and two for director and choreographer Ron Field.
When Bacall was ready to leave the show, the producers came up with a casting coup by snagging Anne Baxter for the starring role. Rita Hayworth had been announced but withdrew at the last minute, and who better to play Margo Channing than the woman who had played her nemesis Eve in the original 1950 movie?

Producers: Joseph Kipness and Lawrence Kasha

Cabaret
In 1967 network television audiences got their first glimpse at the Tonys, and millions of people tuned in to watch Barbra Streisand present the Best Musical award to Cabaret which, in the words of one of its creators, was "a downbeat show about Nazis, abortions, persecuted Jews and a chorus line of unattractive girls."

Though it was hardly what would be considered of great commercial appeal, the show was an almost instant hit, and the Tony was the final kiss of approval. "It was a show that ended unhappily for just about everyone except for its creators," recalls Joe Masteroff, who wrote the book that complemented the Tony-winning lyrics of Fred Ebb and music of John Kander. Harold Prince, the producer-director who has since won a cumulative total of 20 Tonys, gave an acceptance speech almost as facetious in its tenor as the remarks by producer David Merrick who thanked the TV audience for "not watching 'Bonanza.'"

Prince thanked the "producers" of Cabaret for hiring him to direct the musical, as "I don't know anyone else who'd have me." He was, of course, one of the producers.

Producers: Harold Prince in association with Ruth Mitchell

Cats
In 1983 Cats won seven Tony Awards and, as each was announced, the orchestra would strike up with strains from "Memory," the hit song from the show.
"I'm a bit worried," said Andrew Lloyd Webber as he strode onstage to collect his award for Best Score, "we seem to be a one-tune show."
What he hadn't known was that his own musical director had requested the Tony orchestra to play only "Memory," regardless of how many Tonys Cats received.

Adding a touch of literary glamour was the award of Best Book, which went to T.S. Eliot whose 1939 slim volume of light verse provided the basis for the musical. (He also shared the Best Score award with Lloyd Webber.) The British poet's widow accepted for him, noting that "more than 30 years ago, my husband received a special Tony Award for his Cocktail Party. This award would give my husband particular pleasure to be part of a Broadway musical." And once again, the orchestra struck up, "Memory."

Producers: Cameron Mackintosh, The Really Useful Company, Inc., David Geffen, and the Shubert Organization


Company
"Landmark" is a word all too often used in writing about the musical theatre, but few would contest its appropriateness when talking about the 1971 Best Musical winner, Company. Before this hip musical about marriage and urban angst caught Broadway in its crosshairs, shows were expected to have plots. But director Harold Prince, composer Stephen Sondheim, librettist George Furth and choreographer Michael Bennett conspired with an all-star cast, including Elaine Stritch and Dean Jones, to invent a form of musical theatre that no one had ever quite seen before.

"One of the things that fascinated me about the challenge of the show was to see if a musical could be done without a plot," Sondheim said years later. "Many people who disliked the show disliked it for that reason." Some theatregoers also felt that Company was misogynistic or anti-marriage, but the composer said that they simply mistook the message that relationships were difficult to mean that they were impossible. "What we said over and over again was two is difficult but one is impossible," he said.

The Tony Award for Best Book went to George Furth, and Sondheim won his first Tony Awards for music and for lyrics surprising insofar as he'd already written the lyrics for such classics as West Side Story and Gypsy as well as the entire score for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum. He's made up for lost time since, having added ten more Tony medallions to his well-deserved trove of honors.

Producer: Harold Prince

Fiddler on the Roof
Like South Pacific, the tremendously popular Fiddler on the Roof was also adapted from short stories, these ones about ghetto life among Russian Jews by the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. The show won nine Tonys in 1965 including those for author Joseph Stein, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, producer Harold Prince and, of course, star Zero Mostel, who created the role of Tevye, the poor and henpecked shtetl milkman.

But its success could not have been foretold. "We were very frightened when we went to Detroit for the tryout because we thought it might be too Jewish," recalls Sheldon Harnick who wrote the Tony-winning lyrics to Jerry Bock's Tony-awarded score. "Worse, there was a newspaper strike, and only three of the five weeks had been sold to subscribers." Not to worry, by the end of the run, the show was selling out, and they were greeted with long lines at the next stop, Washington. Obviously the show had hit a universal chord. "It was a wonderful experience and for the first time in our long careers, we didn't have to worry about getting clobbered when we got to New York."

Producer: Harold Prince

42nd Street
David Merrick always had a flair for the dramatic, but nothing in show business annals has ever quite equaled the opening night of 42nd Street, the 1981 Tony Award winner for Best Musical. As the audience leapt to its feet to give the cast a standing ovation, the producer appeared from the wings to announce that the show's director and choreographer Gower Champion had died earlier that day.

"Heartbreak on Broadway!" trumpeted headlines with a touch that might have been borrowed from the old-fashioned musical melodrama about a chorus girl who becomes a star. Based on the Ruby Keeler film of the thirties that lightened the load of Ol' Man Depression, Champion's swan song was a tap-dance spectacular with such standards as "We're in the Money" and "I Only Have Eyes for You" that was a box-office smash. Both the show and Champion would go on to win Tony Awards (his for choreography).
Producer: David Merrick



Guys and Dolls
The carpet at the back of quite a few theatres has been worn out by the nervous fidgeting and pacing of creative teams whose new musical is in previews. They are every bit as stressed out as expectant fathers waiting outside delivery rooms, and the team of writer Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, and composer Frank Loesser was no exception.

"They paced, they worried, they fought," recalled Jo Loesser, widow of the legendary composer who would lead his team to Tony victory for 1951's Guys and Dolls. "Once, when the company was rehearsing 'The Oldest Established,' Frank was so upset with how they were singing it that he screamed and yelled all the way up the aisle and walked out in a fury. The company was left with their mouths hanging open, thinking he was gone for good. A half-hour later, he came in eating an ice cream cone. When somebody mentioned the screaming and yelling, Frank simply said, 'What screaming and yelling?' and kept on enjoying his ice cream.

As much as he liked awards, it was the joy of the work that kept him going." Loesser was awarded the Tony for Best Composer and Lyricist, and the Tony Award for Authors of a Musical went to Swerling and Burrows.

Producers: Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin

Hello, Dolly!
When Hello, Dolly! began its sweep of Tony Night in 1964, Carol Channing suddenly became seized with terror as she waited for the winners to be announced in musical performance categories. "It was winning awards right and left," she recalled years later, her sunflower eyes widening at the thought. "And I started to think I'd feel really rotten if I didn't win, too. I told myself I'd get through it somehow if it happened, but I don't think I could have."

Not to worry. Channing won, of course, even besting Barbra Streisand who was nominated that year for Funny Girl. There were Tonys as well for director-choreographer Gower Champion, producer David Merrick, author Michael Stewart and composer Jerry Herman, whose only previous credit had been Milk and Honey. The 30-year-old songwriter, however, had been so enthused about writing a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker that he composed four songs on speculation for Merrick about this spirited widow who has her sights set on Horace Vandergelder, "the well-known half-a-millionaire".

The out-of-town tryout was a near disaster, hardly foretelling the tremendous hit Hello, Dolly! would become by encapsulating the cheerful optimism of America just before it would be torn apart by the crippling Vietnam conflict. "The pressure was awful," said Channing. According to the star, director Harold Prince flew out to catch the show during its trial period and offered his opinion: "Get rid of that corny old Hello, Dolly! number." Thankfully, the advice was ignored.

Producer: David Merrick


Kiss Me, Kate
When Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway in December of 1948 to rapturous notices and audiences, its success redeemed Cole Porter, who had been considered something of a has-been. In fact the neophyte producers, Saint Subber and Lemuel Ayers, had had a tough time raising the money, all $180,000 of it. The composer of Anything Goes was widely considered to have lost his touch. And a musical based on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew?

Yet, it turned out to be a smash and in April of 1949, it was awarded the Tony for Best Musical of the year as well as for its authors Bella and Samuel Spewack, and Porter as composer and lyricist. Porter's triumph, however, was a bit diminished by the fact that only few months later, Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific opened and stole some of the limelight. (Indeed, it would win the Best Musical Tony the following year.)

As recounted in George Eells's definitive biography of Porter, the composer and a friend happened to be listening to the radio when "Some Enchanted Evening" came on. The friend asked who had written the song and Porter, who always wrote both words and music, responded puckishly, "Rodgers and Hammerstein if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song."

Producers: Saint-Subber and Lemuel Ayers


(Continued in separate story.)

-- By Patrick Pacheco

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