Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Tony Highs And Lows


11 May 1997

Three shows that failed to win Best Play/Musical Tonys: (L-R) A Streetcar Named Desire, Follies, Dreamgirls
Three shows that failed to win Best Play/Musical Tonys: (L-R) A Streetcar Named Desire, Follies, Dreamgirls
Photo by Photo credit Follies and Dreamgirls: Martha Swope

This week's column is an informal look-back at some of the great--and not so great--moments in Tony Award history:

This week's column is an informal look-back at some of the great--and not so great--moments in Tony Award history:

1947: On April 6, 1947 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the first Tony Awards ceremony takes place. Although there is no Best Musical prize, songs from Brigadoon, Finian's Rainbow, Oklahoma!, and Carousel are performed, while Ethel Waters and Mickey Rooney are also on hand to entertain. Winners receive not the glittering medallions you will see on June 1, but tasteful scrolls and a compact or cigarette lighter. The awards are broadcast in New York on WOR radio and elsewhere by Mutual Network.

1948: If you thought the Best Play Tony went to that season's A Streetcar Named Desire-- now universally considered one of the greatest of all American plays--you'd be incorrect. Mister Roberts beats the Tennessee Williams classic (but which one has had more Broadway revivals?).

Paul and Grace Hartman are the answers to the trivia question, "Who were the first Best Musical Actor and Actress winners?"



1949: Rex Harrison and Martita Hunt are the winning dramatic actors. Because only the winners are announced, stars like Peggy Ashcroft, Robert Morley, Tallulah Bankhead, Jose Ferrer, Charles Boyer, Ruth Gordon, and Mae West, along with Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock in the winning play Death of A Salesman, receive no recognition. Quite a contrast to some recent seasons, when nominators have had to scrounge to fill the categories.

Gower Champion receives his first Tony for his choreography of the revue Lend an Ear; the show introduces Carol Channing, destined 15 years later to be directed as Mrs. Dolly Levi by Champion.

1950: Even Carol Channing's devastating Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes can't beat Mary Martin's incomparable Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. But then almost nothing could have beaten the Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster in the musical categories.

None other than Eleanor Roosevelt presents a special award to a volunteer for the American Theatre Wing's hospital program.

1951: Ethel Merman wins her only performance (as opposed to special) Tony Award for Call Me Madam; had there been Tonys during the first 17 years of her Broadway career, Merman would almost certainly have already won four or five.

1952: Because he is billed below the title, Yul Brynner is only eligible as a supporting musical performer (he won) for The King and I. When Brynner plays the role again on Broadway in separate productions in the '70s and '80s, he is not only above the title, but the lady playing "I" isn't. (In Broadway's current King and I, both halves are above the title.)

1953: Thomas Mitchell wins the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for Hazel Flagg--but he doesn't sing in the show! Similar subsequent occurrences: Natalia Makarova won for her riotous but songless star turn in the 1983 revival of On Your Toes, and Savion Glover was nominated for a non-singing performance in Noise/Funk. But Makarova and Glover are great dancers, and, unlike Mitchell, their performances are appropriately "musical."

1954: Russian composer Alexander Borodin, who died in 1887, wins a Tony for Kismet, the gaudy musical for which his themes were recycled.

Dolores Gray receives the Best Musical Actress prize for Carnival in Flanders, which lasted six performances; Gray's ranks as the shortest-lived Tony-winning performance in history.

1955: Bob Fosse wins his first Tony, for choreographing The Pajama Game, and that show's producer, Hal Prince, also gets his first. Pajama Game songwriters Richard Adler and Jerry Ross win the first of two consecutive Tony victories (the second for Damn Yankees), immediately after which Ross dies.

1956: From time to time, people wonder when and if the Tonys will ever acknowledge off-Broadway. Few take note of the fact that in 1956, Lotte Lenya won the supporting musical actress award for her performance in The Threepenny Opera, playing at off-Broadway's Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel). Lenya's is the only off-Broadway performance ever recognized.

And 1956 is the year of the first Tony telecast (in the New York area only), and the first year that all the nominees (and not just the winners) are made public.

1957: It's the year of My Fair Lady, and nothing stands a chance against it. But fair lady Julie Andrews, receiving her first Tony nomination, loses to Judy Holliday's Ella Peterson in Bells Are Ringing, among the greatest female musical performances of all time.

It's one of the few times in the '50s that a fast flop is nominated as Best Musical: In spite of its brief run, Candide gets a nod.

1958: This time it's The Music Man's year, so West Side Story must be content with Tonys for only its choreography (the best in Broadway history?) and scenic design. How many recent seasons have boasted two musicals as strong as these?

1959: Gwen Verdon wins her fourth Tony in six seasons for Redhead, the least likely Best Musical winner to ever get a Broadway revival. No musical actress has ever won more Tonys than Verdon.

Molly Goldberg herself, the sublime Gertrude Berg, beats such distinguished thespians as Lynn Fontanne, Claudette Colbert, Kim Stanley, and Maureen Stapleton for the Best Actress prize.

1960: Gypsy, now considered by many to be the finest of all Broadway musicals, loses the Best Musical prize to not one but two shows when Fiorello! and The Sound of Music tie for the award. Fans are still arguing about whether Mary Martin's lovely (if aging) Maria von Trapp was deserving of the Best Musical Actress prize over Ethel Merman's electrifying Rose.

1961: Julie Andrews receives her second Tony nomination, for Camelot, and her fellow nominees for Best Actress in a Musical include Carol Channing and Nancy Walker. The winner: the now-forgotten Elizabeth Seal for her luscious Irma La Douce. Just as surprising: Tammy Grimes wins a Supporting or Featured Tony for the title role of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, one of the longest roles in musical theatre history (still in effect was the rule that performers were placed in the featured category if their name was not above the title when the show opened).

1962: Barbra Streisand steals her debut show I Can Get It For You Wholesale but loses the supporting musical actress prize to Phyllis Newman in the flop Subways Are For Sleeping.

Legendary choreographer Agnes de Mille, whose early triumphs preceded the Tonys, wins her last Tony, for the flop Kwamina.

1963: For his first full Broadway score for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Stephen Sondheim fails to receive a nomination for best composer-lyricist, but Milton Shafer and Ronny Graham do, for their deathless Bravo Giovanni songs.

It's the last year for the Best Stage Technicians category.

1964: Hello, Dolly takes the most (10) Tony Awards any musical has ever received. Barbra Streisand loses again, her sensational Funny Girl performance beaten by Carol Channing's fabulous Mrs. Dolly Levi. Streisand obtains a form of revenge a few years later by taking Channing's role in the film version of Dolly! (but which of the two ladies really got revenge remains debatable).

The now-celebrated score of She Loves Me does not even receive a nomination.

1965: Nominee for all-time most inexplicable categorization: Neil Simon wins "Best Author (Dramatic)" for The Odd Couple, but The Odd Couple loses Best Play to The Subject Was Roses. By common consent, the "Best Author" category is never used again.

1966: Zoe Caldwell makes a splash in a Tennesse Williams flop called Slapstick Tragedy, and receives the first of four Tony awards.

Angela Lansbury gets her first of four for Mame, beating out Gwen Verdon (Sweet Charity), who finally loses after winning for each of her four previous Broadway appearances.

1967: Alexander H. Cohen produces the first national Tony telecast for ABC-TV. I Do! I Do! co-stars Mary Martin and Robert Preston are the hosts, and Barbra Streisand presents the Best Musical prize to Cabaret.

Always insecure Best Musical Actress winner Barbara Harris (The Apple Tree) is visibly shaken when gatecrasher Stan Berman takes to the stage during Harris' acceptance speech and plants a kiss on her cheek.

1968: In a weak season for musicals, the shuttered Hallelujah, Baby! takes the prize. Its composer, Jule Styne, whose earlier shows include Gypsy, Bells Are Ringing, Funny Girl, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, wins his first Tony for it.

For her solo show that season, Marlene Dietrich is awarded a special Tony. A somewhat wobbly Dietrich takes to the stage and declares, "I never got an award before. I love Bwoadway (sic), and if Bwoadway loved me, I'm here to say I loved it even more."

1969: With actors billed below the title still relegated to the supporting categories, William Daniels declines a supporting actor nomination for his leading role of John Adams in 1776. This allows a genuine supporting performance, Ron Holgate's Richard Henry Lee in the same musical, to take the award.

1970: On Cecil Beaton's elegant set for the musical Coco, the Tony show is studded with legends, including the Lunts and Noel Coward. The nominees for Best Musical Actress are Lauren Bacall (the victor for Applause), Katharine Hepburn in Coco, and a forlorn Dilys Watling (how much of a chance did she stand for her title role in Georgy?).

1971: The 25th anniversary Tony show, with stars like Yul Brynner, Vivian Blaine, Alfred Drake, Robert Preston, Carol Channing, Nanette Fabray, Angela Lansbury, David Wayne, Tom Bosley, Gwen Verdon, Richard Kiley, and Zero Mostel recreating their numbers and bringing down the house.

The only time a replacement--Larry Kert, who succeeded Dean Jones in Company shortly after the opening--received a performance nomination. Kert loses to Hal Linden for The Rothschilds.

Stephen Sondheim wins his first Tonys, for Company, and takes home two, because this is the only year the score award is divided into music and lyrics.

1972: The now-legendary Follies wins numerous prizes, but loses Best Musical to Two Gentlemen of Verona. Follies continues to be performed for the next 25 years, while Verona is rarely seen.

Ethel Merman is given a special Tony, and repays the honor by (gloriously) performing a 15-minute salute to herself.

1973: "Musicals Around The World" is the theme of the Tony show, so the audience at the ceremony must sit and watch pre-taped clips of Show Boat in London, West Side Story in Vienna, Dolly! in Paris, and The King and I in Tokyo, rather than live entertainment from the current musicals. Time is found for "Magic To Do" from Pippin, but not for a number from the Best Musical, A Little Night Music.

Bob Fosse wins Tonys for his direction and choreography of Pippin, the same year he wins an Oscar and an Emmy.

1974: The Tony theme "Welcome Home" calls for just about every current TV star (or near-star) who ever appeared on the New York stage to recreate something they performed in a musical. The concept backfires when the telecast swells to an all-time record of more than three hours; so hostile is the crowd that catcalling ensues when the producer of the winning musical Raisin makes an overly indulgent acceptance speech.

1975: Unique instance: John Kani and Winston Ntshona are deemed eligible (and win) as a single performance for their closely interwoven work in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island.

Mayor Lindsay surprises Angela Lansbury on stage during a production number.

Jerry Herman's sprightly score for Mack and Mabel is not nominated, but Alan Lloyd's-- for a curiosity item (and not even a real musical) called Letter For Queen Victoria-- is.

Accepting her Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for Terrence McNally's The Ritz, Rita Moreno takes the prize for sore winner when she declares that she is not a supporting actress, and that the only thing in the show she supports is her beads.

1976: The Chorus Line Tonys--no other musical need apply, so the top notch Chicago loses in 11 categories (and must wait another 21 years for another chance to win some Tonys). The buzz is that Chicago stars Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera are miffed that Donna McKechnie's (winning) Chorus Line performance is nominated in the leading-role category with theirs, and so decline to perform on the Tony telecast. (Chicago is represented by Jerry Orbach and the ladies of the ensemble in "All I Care About.")

In his acceptance speech, Edward Herrman pays tribute to fellow Mrs. Warren's Profession cast member Ruth Gordon for her courage in going on after her performance was panned by critics.

1977: Broadway's beloved Julie Harris (up again this year for The Gin Game) breaks a record by winning her fifth Tony Award for The Belle of Amherst.

Dorothy Loudon, after a career of flops, can't hold back her enthusiasm when she accepts her Tony for Annie.

Kurt Weill, dead for 27 years, receives a nomination for his Happy End music.

1978: For the first time, several awards are presented prior to the telecast, and only silent seconds of those presentations are aired on the program.

The victorious musical, Ain't Misbehavin', has no dialogue or plot, just a collection of Fats Waller songs, but so artfully theatricalized that the show becomes the first non-narrative musical to take the prize.

Halston receives a Tony nomination--The Act star Liza Minnelli brought him in on the road to re-do all her costumes.

This is the infamous "Bonnie Franklin Tonys"; everything is seen through the eyes of the actress, who narrates in voice-over while sitting (and smiling) in an orchestra seat. Some believe the ratings have never recovered from this concept.

1979: When Len Cariou delivers his acceptance speech as Best Musical Actor for Sweeney Todd, his date seated in the audience is shown on camera and described in an on-screen subtitle as "Mrs. Len Cariou." She is Glenn Close, never Mrs. Cariou, who will go on to win three Tonys of her own.

1980: Deaf actress Phyllis Frelich's overwhelmed, signed acceptance speech for her performance in Children of a Lesser God wins everyone's heart.

Ann Miller, whose tax return at the time is said to list her occupation as "Star," receives her only Tony nomination, for Sugar Babies; Miller loses to new star Patti LuPone's Evita.

1981: Gower Champion, who died on the opening night of 42nd Street, receives a posthumous Tony.

Elizabeth Taylor, on Broadway in The Little Foxes, gets fabulously lost deciphering the names of the producers of the nominated musicals, and steals the telecast.

Accepting her second Best Musical Actress award for Woman of the Year, Lauren Bacall declares that her unnominated co-star Harry Guardino's contribution to the show cannot be overestimated. Bacall is dating Guardino at the time.

1982: Amanda Plummer, nominated as both leading and featured actress, wins a Tony for Agnes of God; she is the daughter of Tony winners Christopher Plummer and Tammy Grimes.

In a close race, Nine beats Dreamgirls as Best Musical, thereby confirming the desirability of opening your show as close as possible to the deadline for Tony eligibility. This policy has stuck ever since.

1983: Did T.S. Eliot ever expect to win a Tony for Best Book of a Musical 18 years after his death? Does Cats really have a book?

With his prize for Best Musical Actor in My One and Only, Tommy Tune becomes the first person to have Tonys in four different categories (the others are for choreography, direction of a musical, and featured musical actor).

1984: Broadway breathes a collective sigh of relief as Chita Rivera, after five unsuccessful tries, finally wins a Tony (for The Rink).

Jerry Herman ruffles some feathers when his acceptance speech for La Cage aux Folles refers to the lack of "simple, hummable show tunes" on Broadway; Sondheim fans interpret this as a slap at their idol, whose Sunday in the Park With George score loses to La Cage's.

Dustin Hoffman, conspicuously unnominated for his acclaimed performance in Death of a Salesman, receives a standing ovation when he shows up in costume to present an award.

1985: Things get bad enough musically to require the elimination of the Best Musical Actor and Actress categories, as well as the choreography prize.

A Neil Simon play--Biloxi Blues--finally wins a Best Play Tony Award.

1986: A weak year for musicals sees Tango Argentino up for the prize, and perhaps the worst-ever Best Score nominee, The News.

Bob Fosse receives his final Tony for his last show, Big Deal.

1987: Rags, which lasted four performances, receives multiple nominations, including Best Musical. Nominee Judy Kuhn makes Tony history when she performs in the musical selections from both shows she did that season, Rags and the victorious Les Miserables.

Geraldine Page, who dies during the run of the revival of Blithe Spirit, receives her last Tony nomination.

Another sore winner: Accepting the prize for his Les Miz sets, John Napier demands to know why his Starlight Express sets failed to receive a nomination.

1988: It's those two March 22 birthday boys, Stephen Sondheim vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Phantom of the Opera wins Best Musical, but Sondheim's score (and James Lapine's book) for Into The Woods beat those of Phantom.

1989: The worst season ever for new book musicals sees two revues--Black and Blue and the winning Jerome Robbins' Broadway--competing against what is arguably the worst show ever to be nominated as Best Musical, Starmites. Host Angela Lansbury does her greatest job of acting to date in her gracious introduction to the Starmites medley.

1990: Tyne Daly becomes the second star (Lansbury was the first in 1975) to win a Tony for the role of Rose in Gypsy that its creator, Ethel Merman, was denied.

Annie 2 fails to receive a single nomination, perhaps because it had the decency to fold in Washington, D.C.

1991: Poor Anthony Quinn winds up making one of the all-time Tony gaffes when, presenting the award for Best Director of a Musical, he is given the wrong envelope and announces the winner of the Best Play (Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers) 20 minutes early.

In spite of a barrage of ill will that preceded the non-Asian Jonathan Pryce's recreation of his London role of a Eurasian in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon, Pryce gets a Tony.

1992: Faith Prince has one of the least surprising victories in Tony Award history for her Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.

The scores of the short-lived Nick and Nora and the direct-from-Poland Metro receive nominations in a year filled with new musicals with old music (Crazy For You, Jelly's Last Jam, Five Guys Named Moe).

1993: Anna Karenina, a musical almost no one bothered to catch in its brief life, is nominated for its score and book. Somehow neither is victorious.

Oklahoma's 50th birthday is celebrated with a special Tony.

1994: It's new kid-on-the-block Disney vs. Sondheim in the musical race: Beauty and the Beast loses to Passion, but Beauty flourishes while Passion soon wanes.

A Grand Night For Singing, a compilation of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs with no spoken dialogue, somehow gets a Best Book nomination.

1995: A musical has only to open on Broadway to get a Best Musical nomination, but only two--Sunset Boulevard and Smokey Joe's Cafe- do. With Sunset the only one with a book and a new score, it takes the prize.

Nathan Lane makes a hit as co-host after failing to receive a nomination for his acclaimed performance in Love! Valour! Compassion!. (This slight is righted one year later when Lane wins for Forum.)

1996: Things are looking up: There are seven new musicals to nominate, and Julie Andrews receives her third Tony nomination and this time looks like a shoo-in for the prize. All hell breaks loose when the big-budget musicals everyone expected to be nominated (Big, Victor/Victoria) aren't, and when Andrews declines her nomination (but remains on the ballot) because she's the only thing recognized in V/V. It's the biggest brouhaha in Tony history to date.

1997: Things go much more smoothly, with comparatively few wild omissions in or loud complaints about the Tony nominations. Rosie O'Donnell, who has spent the season capturing the hearts of America and boosting Broadway, is the obvious choice to host the Tony show, and her drawing power allows the telecast to shift from a Broadway theatre to the much larger Radio City Music Hall.

You can e-mail Ken Mandelbaum at kenmanbway@aol.com