WE ARE THE WORLD: The Tonys Have Rewarded Diversity

Tony Awards   WE ARE THE WORLD: The Tonys Have Rewarded Diversity
 
The long roster of Tony winners unquestionably tells a tale of theatrical excellence, tracing la crème de la crème of the second half of the 20th Century, just as a tally of Oscar recipients would be a study in movie magic and the Emmys a guide to television highlights. But there's another story to be gleaned from 51 years of Tony history. From the beginning, the Antoinette Perry Awards have exemplified a vision that can be summed up in one word: Diversity.

This pioneering spirit of inclusion -- which has so often blazed trails of tolerance for other entertainment mediums to follow -- has touched upon every category, though, as is often the case, it is the performers who first spring to mind. The Tonys were only three years old when Juanita Hall won for her performance in South Pacific in 1950, proving that the Awards are color-blind and talent-focused. And this was no mere token victory: Since then, 23 African-American actresses have since taken home Tonys. How do the Oscars measure up? Two. There have been many movies with African-American stars and themes, but the Tonys consistently lead the way for the Oscars and other awards when it comes to standing up and cheering for great performers of all backgrounds.

The long roster of Tony winners unquestionably tells a tale of theatrical excellence, tracing la crème de la crème of the second half of the 20th Century, just as a tally of Oscar recipients would be a study in movie magic and the Emmys a guide to television highlights. But there's another story to be gleaned from 51 years of Tony history. From the beginning, the Antoinette Perry Awards have exemplified a vision that can be summed up in one word: Diversity.

This pioneering spirit of inclusion -- which has so often blazed trails of tolerance for other entertainment mediums to follow -- has touched upon every category, though, as is often the case, it is the performers who first spring to mind. The Tonys were only three years old when Juanita Hall won for her performance in South Pacific in 1950, proving that the Awards are color-blind and talent-focused. And this was no mere token victory: Since then, 23 African-American actresses have since taken home Tonys. How do the Oscars measure up? Two. There have been many movies with African-American stars and themes, but the Tonys consistently lead the way for the Oscars and other awards when it comes to standing up and cheering for great performers of all backgrounds.

The diversity of Tony wins doesn't stop with performers. Broadway has consistently ignited the dialogue on an astounding number of significant issues, long before society thought it was polite to talk about "such things." When it comes to a cause, Broadway rallies and the Tonys take notice, honoring scores of playwrights, directors, composers and designers who have boldly addressed such controversial subjects as race, the disabled, gay rights, apartheid, Vietnam, AIDS and the Holocaust. From 1947, year one of the Tonys, when Michael Kidd won for Best Choreographer for Finian's Rainbow, which juxtaposed sharecroppers' struggle with Jim Crowism against the Irish immigrant experience, through the complicated dynamics of anti-Semitism from within the Jewish community that won Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo a Tony for Best Play last year, the Tonys have proven time and again that their eye for excellence is connected to a social conscience.

And so, here are this writer's nominees for the best moments in the Tony Awards' long history of not merely talking the diversity talk, but walking the diversity walk.

1: The Ellis Island Award: Since David Wayne's Best Featured Actor Tony for his portrayal of a transplanted leprechaun in Finian's Rainbow, the Tonys have been a melting pot. Other Tony-winning immigrants include Best Actress and Best Actor Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach in Best Play The Rose Tatoo (1951); Best Actress Gwen Verdon for New Girl in Town (1958), a musical version of the Eugene O'Neill play, Anna Christie (that won the Roundabout Theatre a Tony for Best Revival in 1993); Best Featured Actress Irene Worth grappling with her German-Jewish roots in Neil Simon's Tony-winning Lost in Yonkers (1991); and last season's Best Musical, which broke our hearts with a tragic side of the immigrant saga when the third-class passengers who dreamed of a better life in America never got there, forever lost to the sea on the S.S. Titanic.

2: The Whose Life Is It, Anyway? Award: When it comes to the range of real-life personalities, A&E's "Biography" series has nothing on the Tonys, from saints to strippers: Becket (Best Play, 1961) and Gypsy (Best Musical Revival, 1990); from politicians to poets: Fiorello! (Best Musical, 1960) and Dylan (Alec Guinness, Best Actor, 1964); from druggies to divas: Lenny (Cliff Gorman, Best Actor, 1972) and Master Class (Zoe Caldwell, Best Actress, and Best Play, 1996), and from prosecutors to Presidential wives: Inherit the Wind (Ed Begley, Best Featured Actor, 1956) and The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (Julie Harris, Best Actress, 1973). 3: The Politically Incorrect Award: When it comes to politics, the Tonys have never been afraid to press a hot-button issue when it's red hot: McCarthyism in Arthur Miller's The Crucible (Best Play, 1953); the Irish troubles in Borstal Boy by Frank McMahon (Best Play, 1970); the Vietnam War in David Rabe's Sticks and Bones (Best Play, 1972); apartheid through John Kani and Winston Ntshona's shared Tony for their performances in Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island (Best Actor, 1975); political repression in Kander and Ebb's Kiss of the Spider Woman (Best Musical, 1993), and AIDS in Tony Kushner's two-part, two-time winner Angels in America (Best Play, 1993 and 1994). In 1964, Harold Shumlin won a Best Producer Tony for The Deputy, a play about the Roman Catholic church's involvement in the Holocaust, which is still a source of controversy. How about a revival?

4: The I am what I am Award: Starting with John Kerr's 1954 Best Featured Actor award for his portrayal of a teenager grappling with his sexual orientation in Tea and Sympathy, the Tonys established that closets are, indeed, for clothes. Other actors who have won for not playing it straight include Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George, 1967), Michael Moriarity (Find Your Way Home, 1974), Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, 1983 -- he won Best Play, too!), George Hearn (La Cage aux Folles, 1984), B.D. Wong (M. Butterfly, 1988), Ron Leibman's Roy Cohn (Angels in America, Millennium Approaches, 1993), John Glover (Love! Valour! Compassion!, 1995), and Lily Tomlin, whose galaxy of characters that won her a Best Actress Tony in 1986 for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe included Edie, a tough-talking, consciousness-raising lesbian.

5: The I Have a Dream Award: As Lt. Cable sings in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Best Musical of 1950 South Pacific, "You have to be taught to be afraid of people whose skin is a different shade." Even before Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington, the Tonys honored Jerome Robbins' racially charged, gang warfare ballets in West Side Story (1958), and continued the tradition through to Savion's Glover's raging tap dances in Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk (1996). Other Tony wins that taught us about racial harmony include Hallelujah, Baby! (Best Musical, 1968), The Great White Hope (1969), Fences (1987) and, in 1974, both Best Play and Best Musical: The River Niger and Raisin.

6: The What did you do in the war, Mommy? Award: Long before girls were admitted to West Point, the Tonys were honoring women whose lives were forever changed by the realities of war: The Diary of Anne Frank (Best Play, 1956); Cabaret (Best Musical, 1967); Miss Saigon (Lea Salonga, Best Actress, 1991); South Pacific (Mary Martin, Best Actress, 1950); The Sound of Music (Mary Martin again, Best Actress, 1960); and the 1974 World War II musical, Over Here, in which Janie Sell stepped in for the missing Andrews sister and won a Best Featured Actress Tony for making America's favorite family act functional once more.

7: The How I Learned to Pray Award: There's a lot of talk about New Age spirituality these days, but faith and religion are nothing new for the Tonys, which, at the first awards ceremony, honored Ingrid Bergman with a Best Actress Tony for her performance as Joan of Arc in Joan of Lorraine and has been paying tribute to the full spectrum of faiths every since. The power of prayer has won performance awards for Patricia Neway (The Sound of Music, 1960), Amanda Plummer (Agnes of God, 1982), Ray Walston (Damn Yankees, 1956), Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons, 1962) and Delores Hall, who raised the roof with the spirit of song in 1977's Your Arm's Too Short To Box With God. Stephen Spinella won two Tonys for as an AIDS patient turned prophet: Best Featured Actor (Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, 1993) and Best Actor (Angels in America: Perestroika, 1994). And Joan of Arc clearly has clout with the Tonys: Julie Harris won the second of her five Best Actress Tonys for her 1956 performance as the warrior martyr in The Lark.

8: The Spirit of Harry Belafonte Award: Four years after Juanita Hall, Harry Belafonte became the first black male to win a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his showstopping calypso number in a the 1954 revue, John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte, still a beloved entertainer over 40 years later, paved the way for such Tony-winning black actors, writers and directors as James Earl Jones, Cleavon Little, August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, Charles "Honi" Coles, Chuck Cooper, Joseph A. Walker, Ben Vereen, Laurence Fishburne, Lloyd Richards, Ted Ross, Ron Richardson, Geoffrey Holder, Cleavant Derricks, Zakes Mokae, Jeffrey Wright and Ben Harney. The all-time Tony record-holder -- black or white -- in Belafonte's original category, Best Featured Actor in a Musical? African-American Hinton Battle, for Sophisticated Ladies (1981), The Tap Dance Kid (1984) and Miss Saigon (1991).

9: The Windsor and Wallis Simpson Award: Following your heart can wreak havoc on your life, but it can also win you a Tony. Cultures have collided as true lovers crossed racial, ethnic, religious and class barriers in Tony-winning productions like Rent (1996), M. Butterfly (1988), The King and I (1952), My Fair Lady (1957) and No Strings (1962), Richard Rodgers' first show (and first Tony, for Best Composer) after Oscar Hammerstein's death, an interracial love story that starred Richard Kiley and Diahann Carroll, who won that year's Tony for Best Actress. In 1969, James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander braved heaps of hate mail for their onstage love scene, and were each rewarded with Tonys for that year's Best Play, The Great White Hope. Sometimes the Tonys reward both sides of the tolerance coin: Playing a Jewish widow from Brooklyn who finds a new lease on life and on love through a chance encounter with a Japanese man, Gertrude Berg won the 1949 Best Actress award for A Majority of One, but Zero Mostel received a 1965 Tony for his performance as Tevye, a Jewish father who renounces his daughter when she marries outside of the faith in Fiddler on the Roof.

10: The Miracle Worker Award: The Special Award to the National Theatre for the Deaf in 1977 wasn't just politically correct lip service, it was part of the Tonys' legacy of honoring the unique challenges that face the disabled. Other such Tony-winners include "that deaf, dumb and blind boy" in The Who's Tommy (Pete Townshend, Best Score, 1993); Sunrise at Campobello (Dore Schary, Best Author and Producer, 1958); 1979's Best Play, The Elephant Man, and that same year's Best Actress, Constance Cummings, for her performance as a stroke victim in Wings; Lily Tomlin's 1977 Special Tony for Appearing Nightly, which dazzled audiences with a paraplegic's fantasies of flight; and Mark Medoff's Best Play of 1980, Children of a Lesser God, which also won Tonys for its deaf star, Phyllis Frelich. Tom Conti won the 1979 Best Actor award for Whose Life Is It, Anyway?, and when Mary Tyler Moore replaced him the next year, she was awarded a Special Tony. Of course, the namesake of this particularly diversity struck Tony lightning six times in 1960, including Best Play (The Miracle Worker) and -- for her unforgettable performance as the teacher who taught Helen Keller how to communicate -- Anne Bancroft, Best Actress.

-- By David Drake

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