The Tonys are coming! The Tonys are coming! Everyone, get your hors d'oeuvres and double-check your DVRs. The suspense! What will be the Best Play? What will be the Best Musical? Who will win Best Actress in a Musical?
I can't take it. What I would give for a crystal ball, or a soothsayer like Brad Oscar's Nostradamus in Something Rotten! (I probably can't ask Brad, though, since he's got a conflict of interest as a nominee… ) I'll just have to take deep breaths and enjoy the not knowing.
By this time next week, the whole fracas will be behind us and we can move on with our lives. Anyway, the awards themselves are only part of the fun. Besides the torture of waiting to see if your favorites take home the gold, there's the all the fun of what actually happens at the ceremony. Every Tony Awards show offers its own array of surprises, sometimes preplanned to delight the audience (like LL Cool J and Carol Channing rapping together or Tommy Tune and Elaine Stritch appearing as Anna and the King of Siam!) and sometimes truly unexpected. Sometimes these shockers are more memorable than who won what.
One of the three women nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in Fun Home, Judy Kuhn has been a nominee three times before, for Les Misérables, Chess and She Loves Me. When she received her first nomination, for Les Miz in 1986 (which went to her costar Frances Ruffelle), she had also appeared that season in the short-lived Rags and was to perform from both musicals on the Tonys telecast. The edit of Rags number to be performed at the ceremony had gone through several different drafts, and at the last minute, Kuhn had less time than she'd anticipated to review them before stepping out on stage. At one point, she thought the orchestra was off, but then realized that the orchestra was on tape and she was the one who was off. Ever the professional, she improvised and you couldn't really even tell it wasn't going as rehearsed, other than repeating the line "Dreams, you gave me dreams…" Even the cacophonous accompaniment sounds intentional (Follies finale, much?) and the unflappable team player Dick Latessa jumps right in with his counterpoint, orchestra be damned. Moments later, Kuhn was back onstage as Cosette. Here's hoping this year proves more relaxing for her.
9. Bret Michaels, Opening Number, 2009
A far more distressful mishap occurred in 2009, when Poison took part in the opening medley, performing their hit "Nothin' But A Good Time" in support of Rock of Ages, which includes that song. Just as a backdrop was lowered to cover the band for Stockard Channing to sing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," Poison frontman Bret Michaels, retreating upstage, was crushed under the descending scenery. The subsequent lawsuit was settled three years later, but the event lives on in the memories of theatre lovers everywhere, not mention, surely Michaels, who must hold the record for least pleasant Tony Awards surprise in history.
8. Barbara Harris, Acceptance Speech, 1967
Accepting her Best Actress in a Musical Tony for The Apple Tree, Barbara Harris fell victim to the then current trend of “gatecrashing” award shows when one such intruder ran on stage (in the middle of her acceptance speech) to plant a kiss on her cheek. Perhaps an actor less comfortable with the unpredictable nature of live performance might have been fazed, but Harris kept her cool, continuing on with her gracious remarks. I suppose she was lucky the guy was at least wearing clothes — it was the era of the streaker. He also congratulated her, but surely flowers sent to her dressing room would have been a more welcome gesture!
7. Len Cariou, Acceptance Speech, 1979
While Len Cariou delivered his acceptance speech as Best Actor in a Musical for Sweeney Todd, the camera panned to his date (future three-time Tony winner Glenn Close) seated in the audience. The onscreen subtitle identified her as "Mrs. Len Cariou" — but they were never married! One would hope that the pair had a nice laugh about it after the fact. Perhaps they could appear on a future Tonys telecast and perform "Adelaide's Lament" as a reference to the incident. Why let bygones be bygones when you can sing about them?
6. Elaine Stritch, Acceptance Speech, 2002
Never one to let anything lie, Elaine Stritch certainly made lemons into lemonade with her unwanted Tony Awards surprise. A Broadway legend who had not any of her four of her previous Tony nominations, Stritch got laughs in her one-woman Broadway triumph, Elaine Stritch At Liberty, explaining, "There's good news and there's bad news. The good news is I have got a sensational acceptance speech for a Tony. The bad news is I've had it for 45 years." When she won the Best Special Theatrical Event award for the show, Stritch's long-awaited acceptance speech was cut off due to time constraints. Thereafter, Stritch appended the line in her script; "There's good news and there's bad news and there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is I have got a sensational acceptance speech for a Tony. The bad news is I've had it for 45 years. The good news is I won a Tony. The bad news is they cut the speech!" Ultimately, poetic victory was had when she won an Emmy for the television version of At Liberty. Her victorious thank you passionately relished the well-deserved honor.
5. Dustin Hoffman, Presenting, 1984
Although "egregiously overlooked" by the Tony nominating committee for his performance in the 1984 revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Dustin Hoffman showed his class and magnanimity by taking part in the award ceremony as a presenter. With a tip of the hat to his production (literally), Hoffman took the stage to present the Best Play award wearing his hat from the show. He received a standing ovation.
4. Audra McDonald, Closing Number, 2013
A definite highlight of recent years was Neil Patrick Harris and Audra McDonald's performance of special lyrics (co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda) to the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys hit, "Empire State of Mind." Even the lyrics themselves were a bit of surprise as they were a summary of the night's events and so therefore had to be written on the fly. Of course, that made it a groovy duet all the more exciting. What really stood out most ultimately, though, was McDonalds's impromptu "mic drop" at the very end, as if to say, "I nailed that!" Ballsy as the gesture may be, no one could quibble with her assessment.
3. Marian Seldes, Acceptance Speech, 2010
When theatre legend Marian Seldes was honored with a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Tony, one wouldn't have thought her acceptance speech would make headlines. The Lifetime Achievement award was given earlier in the evening as one of the trophies presented off-camera, not to be included on the telecast. Making an impression was, however, one of the late, great Seldes's strengths. Her speech, was in fact, not a speech at al; she simply took the stage and silently expressed more than almost anyone else could with a thousand words. Her face beamed gratitude, humility, joy and passion. The way she swung her cane walking off the stage buttoned the moment with the perfect cap of triumph (a subtler version of McDonald's mic drop) and is wonderful final image of Seldes for many fans.
2. Anthony Quinn, Presenting, 1991
A Tony Awards uh-oh that will go down in the history books happened at the 1991 ceremony when Anthony Quinn, presenting the Best Director of a Musical Tony, was given the wrong envelope. Inadvertently, the great star of stage and screen announced the "Best Play" winner (Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers), which was supposed to be awarded 20 minutes later.
When Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman won their Tonys for writing the music and lyrics to multiple-award winner Hairspray, the political movement for Marriage Equality as we know it today was just getting started. In fact, although it was only 12 years ago, it can be easy to forget just how rare it was for LGBT stars to be out of the closet at all, let alone to acknowledge a same-sex partner on television. So, it was downright revolutionary of Shaiman to take their victorious moment in spotlight to proclaim his love for Wittman (pointing out, "We're not allowed to get married in this world, I don't know why…") and plant a kiss smack on Wittman's lips. The bold gesture proved inspiring to millions around the world and was a clear game-changer in Tony Awards history.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed solo plays Patti Issues and Bad with Money. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)