Tony History

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How Broadway's Awards Evolved
The Antoinette Perry Award.
The Antoinette Perry Award.

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The Tony Awards turned 60 June 11. Some two-dozen winners joined the select company of actors, writers, directors, designers and others who have made the trip down the aisle and up onto the podium. Over the years more than 1,100 Antoinette Perry Awards have been given, along with 200 special awards in non-competitive categories. The name Antoinette Perry lives on in the hearts and dreams of everyone who won, or hopes to win, a Tony Award. But who was Antoinette Perry, anyway? And why the Tonys?

Antoinette Perry was born in 1888 in Denver. Stagestruck from youth, she came to Broadway in 1906 in David Belasco's The Music Master, followed in 1907 by Belasco's A Grand Army Man. Perry retired in 1909, returning to Denver to raise a family. Following the death of her husband, she returned to the theatre. "Should l go on playing bridge and dining, going in the same old monotonous circle?" she asked. "It's easy that way, but it's a sort of suicide, too."

Perry began producing and investing in 1923, courtesy of a multi-million-dollar inheritance from her husband, a co-founder of Cities Service Oil Company (now Citgo). Perry also acted in eight plays over a four-year stretch; her final appearance was as Clytemnestra in a 1927 production of Electra. Starting in 1928, Perry directed 17 plays in 16 years, mostly in collaboration with producer Brock Pemberton. This was not simply a dilettante at play; Perry, with two young daughters to support, was wiped out financially in the 1929 stock market crash. Directing jobs included three hits and one super smash, the 1944 comedy Harvey. While Perry was not Broadway's first woman director, she held the record for the longest-running-show-directed-by-a-female until overtaken last summer by Susan Stroman of The Producers.

But the Tony Awards were not formed in recognition of Perry's professional work. When war broke out in 1939, Perry spearheaded the organization of The American Theatre Wing of the British War Relief Society. (The Wing, we are told, was more or less "created in her drawing room.") Following Pearl Harbor, the group was reorganized as the American Theatre Wing War Service, Inc. Perry and the Wing created the Stage Door Canteen in 1942. Located in the basement of the 44th Street Theatre (now the site of the loading docks of The New York Times), the canteen welcomed enlisted men for dancing and refreshments dished out by Broadway performers, including such stars as Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Merman and the Lunts. The Wing operated eight Stage Door Canteens across the country; they also distributed theatre tickets to servicemen by the thousands, as well as sending troupes of actors overseas and to military bases, hospitals and war-material factories. When Perry died of a heart attack in 1946, her many friends in the profession decided to establish "a living and self-renewing memorial to one whose largesse to the theatre in enthusiasm and talent and love was incalculable."

And so it was that on the evening of April 6, 1947 - Easter Sunday - the "Antoinette Perry Awards Supper" was held at the Waldorf-Astoria. Following dinner, dancing and a program of entertainment, the first Tony Awards were announced at midnight and broadcast over radio station WOR.

Those attending the 60th Tony Awards Ceremony might be interested to learn that the 1947 affair offered dinner, dancing, entertainment and the awards ceremony for an all-inclusive price of $7.50 (about the price of a prime seat for a reigning musical hit). The invitation declared "dress optional."

Thirteen awards were presented at that first Tony ceremony. Winners included Helen Hayes, Ingrid Bergman, Fredric March, José Ferrer, Agnes de Mille, Kurt Weill, Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller (for All My Sons). It should be noted that special awards went to a box-office treasurer; a theatre critic; an "angel"; a set builder; and restaurateur (Vincent Sardi, Sr.).

Entertainment included appearances by non-Broadway types like Mickey Rooney, as well as excerpts from that season's Brigadoon, Finian's Rainbow and Street Scene, and holdover hits Carousel and Oklahoma! (The Oklahoma! excerpt was performed by the then-current Curley, Howard Keel, then known as "Harold" Keel.)

Let us add that Tony underwent a last-minute name change. The first announcement of the Toni (as in Antoinette) Award brought the offer of a tie-in from Revlon, manufacturers of Toni (a permanent wave formula). Taken aback by such commercialism - and realizing that Revlon had an existing trademark on the name - it was deemed advisable to change the spelling.

Bloom and Grow Forever

The first ceremony was a grand success. Over the years, the Tony Awards grew and flourished, though not without growing pains. The original idea - to keep the assortment of categories flexible - proved unworkable; by 1949, several key award categories were added, including Best Musical. Winners were chosen by members of the Board of the Directors of the Wing; the 1947 group numbered 15, including critic Brooks Atkinson, producer Kermit Bloomgarden, and actress Helen Hayes (who received an award that evening).

There was a certain amount of logic in this, but such a small group of voters understandably led to a committee-club insularity. ("Don't you think we ought to give it to Kit this time?") In 1948, the Board determined to present not two but three awards for leading actor in a play, to Henry Fonda, Basil Rathbone, and the quickly-forgotten Paul Kelly. But nothing for Marlon Brando, that loutish vulgarian-in-undershirt who was just then setting Broadway aflame in A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams, with his unseemly language, was overlooked as well; five awards, meanwhile, went to the patriotic and unarguably more wholesome Mister Roberts.

This situation changed in 1954. Bob Carr, a theatrical accountant, was invited to attend the selection of the winners in the kitchen of Wing president Helen Menken's mansion on East 64th Street. (Menken had starred in the smash hit 1922 production of Seventh Heaven, and from 1926-28 served time as the first Mrs. Humphrey Bogart.) When someone said, "Let's give it to so-and-so, they haven't had it in a long while," the horrified Carr said, "You can't do that!" Menken and the Board members quickly concurred, asking Carr to administer the voting. He agreed, providing there was "an independent ballot and an independent count." A new and more representative system - with voters drawn from outside the membership of the Theatre Wing - came into play. That system has been expanded through the years; currently, ballots are cast by 754 voters drawn from various theatrical organizations and unions.

The annual dinner-and-dance banquets frequented the Waldorf-Astoria, Plaza and Astor Hotels. Radio coverage moved to local-area television in 1956, although the 1948 ceremony was given an experimental telecast over the Dumont network. On the eve of the 20th awards in 1966, chairman Helen Menken died and the Wing appeared to be on the verge of abandoning the Tonys. The 1966 ceremony was cancelled, replaced by a simple luncheon at the Rainbow Room, without entertainment and closed to the general public.

Tony Plans a Broadcast

At this point fate intervened, in the form of the League of New York Theatres (now the League of American Theatres and Producers). The Tony Awards at that time did not have the visibility or significance of Hollywood's Oscars, but after 20 seasons it was a tradition - and Broadway loves tradition. Irving Cheskin, executive director of the League, made the Wing an offer: "Let us help you get the Tonys on." The Wing, under the direction of new president Isabelle Stevenson, agreed. Alexander H. Cohen, a Broadway producer with grand ideas, was hired to produce the next year's ceremony. No sooner had this been announced than Cohen got a call from the William Morris Agency. "We can get you a TV deal," they said. "Network TV."

The first nationwide Tony ceremony, hosted by Mary Martin and Robert Preston (of the current hit I Do! I Do!), aired on March 26, 1967. Clocking in at a brisk 60 minutes, the event was held at the Shubert Theatre - the better to accommodate the excerpted portions of nominated musicals. The success of the telecast resulted in an expanded version the following year. In 1978, the program found a permanent home on CBS, which this year presented its 28th consecutive Tony Awards broadcast.

The second 20 years of the Tony Awards proceeded under the firm hand of Alex Cohen. The ceremony was quickly established as the aristocrat of award shows; just as quickly, Broadway producers realized that the annual nationwide exposure provided a golden opportunity to promote and publicize their shows, both in New York and on the road. Cohen's final year was 1986, after which with the Wing and the League joined to form Tony Award Productions, which has produced the Awards since 1987.

Finding a Home at Radio City

In 1997, the Tony Award ceremony - which had been making the rounds of the bigger Broadway theatres - moved into Radio City Music Hall. This more than tripled the capacity, allowing extra thousands of theatre people and fans to attend what had theretofore been a necessarily restricted event. Since 2001, Elizabeth I. McCann has been the managing producer of the Tony Awards; fittingly enough, as she is herself an eight-time Tony winner.

And so the stage - both figuratively and literally - is set. On the June 11, for the 60th time in a string going back to the post-War year of 1947, Broadway honored its own as we entered the seventh decade of the Antoinette Perry Awards.

Some Record Holders

Broadway's most frequent Tony-winning performer is Julie Harris, with five awards (not including an additional special award). She is closely followed by Gwen Verdon, Angela Lansbury, Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald, all with four; and Mary Martin and Jessica Tandy, with three. The men lag somewhat behind, with Zero Mostel, Boyd Gaines and Hinton Battle leading with three.

Numerous men - too many to name - have won two awards, with the list including Robert Preston, Phil Silvers, Rex Harrison, José Ferrer, Richard Kiley, John Cullum, Robert Morse, James Earl Jones, John Lithgow, Jonathan Pryce, Brian Dennehy, Walter Matthau, Alan Bates, George Hearn, Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer, Judd Hirsch, James Naughton, Al Pacino, Kevin Kline, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

Stephen Sondheim leads the writing brigade with seven awards, followed by Richard Rodgers, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Arthur Miller with four. (Harvey Fierstein has four as well, winning one each for play, book of a musical, leading actor in a play and leading actor in a musical.) Tom Stoppard, Neil Simon, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cy Coleman, John Kander, Fred Ebb and Hugh Wheeler have each won three.

"Winner of X Tony Awards!" is a popular legend to find swinging on theatre marquee underslings. The Producers broke existing records with 12, topping Hello, Dolly! (with 10) and - with nine awards each - South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof and A Chorus Line. Tied at eight are the original productions of Guys and Dolls, Wonderful Town, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Redhead, Les Misérables and Hairspray. Non-musicals, with no access to songwriter and choreographer categories, understandably post lesser totals. Mister Roberts, Death of a Salesman, The Rose Tattoo, Sunrise at Campobello, The Miracle Worker, Becket, A Man for All Seasons, Child's Play, Amadeus and The Real Thing head the list with five awards each (although some are credited with six, due to temporarily overlapping categories).

The director and choreographer categories have been dominated by Broadway giants, most of whom won awards in more than one category. Prominent among them are Bob Fosse and Tommy Tune, with 9 each; Gower Champion and Mike Nichols with 8; Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, Joshua Logan and Susan Stroman with 5; and George Abbott and Jerry Zaks with 4. Leading the pack - and leading everyone in fact - is Harold Prince, who has won 8 as director and another 10 as producer. Tonight's Lifetime Achievement Tony is his third special award.

Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and "A Must See: Brilliant Broadway Artwork," and a columnist for Playbill.com.

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