Remembering the Tony-Winning Plays -- Part 1

Tony Awards   Remembering the Tony-Winning Plays -- Part 1
From the special Tony Playbill

From the special Tony Playbill

Backstage stories from some of the best known non-musical plays to win the Tony Award.


Robert Bolt's powerful historical drama, which won the Best Play Tony Award in 1962, starred Paul Scofield in a thrilling performance as Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, who stayed true to his beliefs in a battle to his death with his sovereign over issues of religion and authority. Bolt began writing plays as a teacher in the English countryside. He went on to write the screenplays for the movie version of the play, as well as for Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. A political activist, Bolt spent a month in jail in 1961 after taking part in a demonstration against nuclear warfare. But he refused to be classified as one of the British "Angry Young Men" playwrights. He was, he once said, "anxious rather than angry."

Robert Whitehead and Roger L. Stevens

Peter Shaffer's play pitted Antonio Salieri (Ian McKellen), the powerful yet musically mediocre court composer in late-eighteenth-century Vienna, against an "obscene child": his foul, womanizing rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tim Curry), who, unfortunately for Salieri, happened to be a genius. When the 1981 Tony Award-winning play opened, Shaffer declared he was positive that in real life, as in the play, Salieri had intrigued against Mozart. "I don't really believe that Salieri poisoned Mozart, as gossips in 1791 had it," he said. "But Salieri, after all, did try to commit suicide in 1823, and he did claim that he had murdered Mozart. Whether he did or not, the subject was still constantly on his mind after 32 years, still haunting him. He must have had enormous guilt about something."

The Shubert Organization, Elizabeth I. McCann, Nelle Nugent, and Roger S. Berlind

The two-part, seven-hour epic about life, gay and straight, in the United States in the age of AIDS made Tony Kushner the first playwright ever to win successive Best Play Tony Awards, in 1993 and 1994.

Its characters included a venomous, dying Roy Cohn (in a Tony-winning performance by Ron Leibman), a ghostly Ethel Rosenberg and a winged angel who descends to earth in a stirring climax of part one (Millennium Approaches).

"It's important to be ambitious," Kushner once said. "I like it that people are appalled and amused by the size of this work, that it claims such space." Writing, however, he said, was agony he put on 35 pounds penning Millennium Approaches. "If I have to write a difficult scene, I'll avoid it for a week and eat my way through several bodegas." Looking back now, he says, "both Tony nights were completely wild. The hardest thing about them was picking out what vest and accessories to wear. The party on the first night, in 1993, was like a high school prom. The party the second time around, in 1994, was like swimming naked in the Amazon River and worrying about piranhas."

Producers (Millennium Approaches):
Jujamcyn Theatres, Mark Taper Forum/Gordon Davidson, Margo Lion, Susan Quint Gallin, Jon B. Platt, The Baruch-Frankel-Viertel Group, Frederick Zollo, and Herb Alpert
Producers (Perestroika):
Jujamcyn Theatres, Mark Taper Forum/Gordon Davidson, Margo Lion, Susan Quint Gallin, Jon B. Platt, The Baruch-Frankel-Viertel Group, and Frederick Zollo in association with the New York Shakespeare Festival, Mordecai/Cole Productions, and Herb Alpert

This Tony Award-winning Best Play of 1985, the second play in Neil Simon's autobiographical Brighton Beach Trilogy (the others are Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound), finds Eugene Morris Jerome, a character very much like Marvin Neil Simon, in the Army in World War II.

Simon, the most popular and successful playwright in Broadway history, once told The New York Times he wrote the plays because "you discover things by writing it can be therapeutic. And I wanted to know how this extremely shy, not enormously well-educated boy came to do what I consider a very hard thing to do write plays. I wanted to see how I became the person I am. I seem to be, in my own mind, a very unlikely candidate for success. It's like when I see Joan Collins on the Johnny Carson show, I say, 'Yeah, she was made to be on the Johnny Carson show.' But when I see myself there, I say, 'What are you doing there? You belong in the Bronx playing stickball.' "

Simon also won a Best Play Tony for Lost in Yonkers in 1991 and a best playwright Tony for The Odd Couple in 1965. And his honor roll of nominations include Barefoot in the Park in 1964, The Odd Couple in 1965 (there were separate awards that year for play and author), Plaza Suite in 1968, Last of the Red Hot Lovers in 1970, The Prisoner of Second Avenue in 1972, The Sunshine Boys in 1973, Chapter Two in 1978 and Broadway Bound in 1987.
Emanuel Azenberg and The Center Theater Group/Ahmanson Theatre

Arthur Miller's moving modern tragedy won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1949 and starred Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman, the doomed Everyman of twentieth-century life. Miller remembers that the producers were concerned that the public wouldn't like the title. "They commissioned a poll," he says, "asking people if they would go to see a play with that name. And about 90 percent of the people said they wouldn't." Other polls at the time, however, had confidently announced that Thomas E. Dewey would oust President Harry S. Truman from the White House. And Miller's title remained.

The playwright recalled the first public performance, in Philadelphia, when there was at first no applause after the curtain went down: "Some people stood to put their coats on and then sat again, some, especially men, were bent forward covering their faces, and others were openly weeping," he wrote in his autobiography, Timebends. ". . . It seemed forever before someone remembered to applaud, and then there was no end to it. I was standing at the back and saw a distinguished-looking elderly man being led up the aisle; he was talking excitedly into the ear of what seemed to be his male secretary or assistant. This, I learned, was Bernard Gimbel, head of the department store chain, who that night gave an order that no one in his stores was to be fired for being over-age."

Kermit Bloomgarden and Walter Fried

Peter Shaffer's play about a child psychiatrist (Anthony Hopkins) seeking to discover why a stable boy committed a horrible crime is best remembered for the devastating scene in which the boy (Peter Firth), completely naked onstage, acts out the dastardly deed: blinding six horses portrayed by actors in stylized horse heads created by John Napier amid horrifying shrieks of pain. The 1975 Tony Award-winning play was based on a real case, the outlines of which were told to Shaffer by a friend. Shaffer once said that he was glad he never found out the actual story and that, in fact, the play was, like any play, in a sense autobiographical. "I don't mean on a factual level. I don't go around the country blinding horses. Nor am I a psychiatrist. But the obsessive situation both characters find themselves in fascinates me. In a nonliteral way, I identify."

Kermit Bloomgarden and Doris Cole Abrahams

August Wilson's drama, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the 1987 Tony Award as Best Play, is the story of a great black baseball player, played by James Earl Jones in a searing Tony-winning performance. His career over, he must spend the rest of his years hauling garbage. Set in the 1950's, it is one of a series of Wilson plays, one for each decade of this century, dealing with the lives of African-Americans. (The others include Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars.) "What I hope to do," Wilson has said, "is 'place' the tradition of black American culture, to demonstrate its ability to sustain us."

Carole Shorenstein Hays and The Yale Repertory Theatre

Eugene O'Neill's somber, semi-autobiographical drama of alcohol and addiction in a thinly disguised re-creation of his own theatrical family has been called the greatest American play. The 1957 Tony-winning American premiere production electrified Broadway; it starred Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Jason Robards Jr. and Bradford Dillman and was directed by Jose Quintero, who directed 17 O'Neill plays in his 32-year career. Colleen Dewhurst, herself a star in many O'Neill productions, said at the the celebration of his 100th birthday in 1988 that the playwright, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and four Pulitzer Prizes, "almost single-handedly revolutionized the American theatre."

It was O'Neill, she said, who had the courage for the first time to confront on the American stage things that were until then solely the province of novelists. He was also "the first Broadway dramatist to write serious roles for black actors," she said, referring to The Emperor Jones. The critic Benedict Nightingale wrote that O'Neill "seems to be possessed" by his characters; "he's almost literally living out those emotions, then and there, at his writing desk. It's entirely logical that he should have emerged each evening from the composition of Long Day's Journey gaunt and sometimes weeping his eyes would be all red, and he looked ten years older in the morning."

Leigh Connell, Theodore Mann, and Jose Quintero

Terrence McNally's serious and funny saga of eight men spending three summer holiday weekends, often naked, at a country home dealt with what it means to be gay in the United States in the mid-1990's and won the 1995 Tony Award for Best Play. McNally, whose highly successful plays include Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, The Ritz, The Lisbon Traviata and Lips Together, Lips Apart, and who also wrote the Tony-winning book for the Tony-winning musical Kiss of the Spider Woman, once said that he chose the title Love! Valour! Compassion! to make himself "write big. . . You gotta keep raising the stakes." One of his basic credos, he told The Los Angeles Times, is that "life is basically mysterious. It's wanting to kill your lover and jumping out of the closet to scare your friend. You can be terrified of dying one minute, and the next, there's a shooting star, and it's so beautiful that your mouth falls open. Humans make terrible mistakes and hurt one another, and then there's that arm around your shoulder."

Manhattan Theatre Club, Lynne Meadow, Barry Grove, Jujamcyn Theaters

(Continued in Part 2)

-- By Mervyn Rothstein

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