Remembering the Tony-Winning Plays -- Part 2

Tony Awards   Remembering the Tony-Winning Plays -- Part 2
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.

Peter Weiss's 1966 Tony Award-winning play, whose full title was The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, shocked and astonished theatregoers when it opened at the Martin Beck Theatre. The bold and innovative staging by the legendary director Peter Brook set the play in the bathhouse of the asylum, where the Marquis puts on a play using the inmates as actors about the stabbing of the French revolutionary leader. The German-born Weiss, whose father was Jewish, fled Germany when Hitler came to power and eventually settled in Sweden.

"My plays do not have conventional lead roles," he once said. "The lead roles are played by history and ideas." During the Broadway run audience reaction was mixed, and dissatisfied customers did not hesitate to express their feelings during the performances. At one performance a vociferous member of the audience and Ian Richardson, who played Marat, exchanged loud and vehement boos. And one night a cast member, annoyed by angry calls from the front row, shouted to the audience, "Shut up!"

The David Merrick Arts Foundation

The first winner of the Tony Award as Best Play (1948) was written by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan and based on Heggen's hilarious novel about life on an out-of-the-battleship during World War II. It starred Henry Fonda as a warm and understanding Navy officer who constantly outmaneuvers his crazily compulsive captain. The show's press agent, John Springer, recalled in Peter Hay's book Broadway Anecdotes that it was an instantaneous hit from opening night, when a theatre filled with celebrities stood and applauded curtain call after curtain call. Marlene Dietrich got up on her seat, clapped and cheered. Finally, Fonda asked for quiet and addressed the star-saturated audience. "That's all that Josh Logan wrote for us," he said, "but if you really want us to, we'll do it all over again."

Leland Hayward

A three-time winner of the Tony for Best Play, Stoppard was victorious in 1968 for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in 1976 for Travesties and in 1984 for The Real Thing. A native of Czechoslovakia, he was born Thomas Straussler; Stoppard was the name of his mother's second husband. He moved to England when he was 8, 22 years before Rosencrantz, his absurdist, Godot-like comedy about the two most minor characters in Hamlet, opened in London. Asked at the time on British television what Rosencrantz was about, he answered, "It's about to make me very rich."

The David Merrick Arts Foundation

Howard Sackler's play, which starred James Earl Jones and also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama along with the 1969 Tony Award as Best Play, was based on the real life story of a boxing legend, Jack Johnson, the first African-American to become heavyweight champion of the world. Johnson's ascendancy to the crown in 1908 was greatly deplored by the white racist society of the time, and the rebellious Johnson did little to appease his public. Sackler, however, once said that the play was not a tale of race. What interested him, he said, was "the destiny of a man pitted against society. It's a metaphor of struggle between man and the outside world."

Herman Levin

Wendy Wasserstein became the first woman to win the Best Play Tony on her own in 1989 (Frances Goodrich had shared it with Albert Hackett in 1956 for The Diary of Anne Frank). Wasserstein's Heidi Chronicles was a serio-comic look at the effects of feminism on one female veteran of the women's-liberation wars.

"I was so nervous sitting in the audience on Tony night," Wasserstein recalls. "I was wearing a shawl. I just sat there thinking, 'Should I wear the shawl to the stage if they call my name?' Then I won, and I went up to the stage without the shawl, because I thought it would get in the way. And then there were all these men on the stage, all the producers to acknowledge. And one thought kept running through my mind. I knew I couldn't say it, because this was special, the first Best Play Tony for a woman. But all I kept thinking was: 'So many men, so little time.' "

The Shubert Organization, Suntory International Corp., James Walsh, and Playwrights Horizons

The seven-hour version of Charles Dickens's novel won the Tony Award as Best Play in 1982 and featured a cast of 45 and Broadway's highest ticket price: $100. Written by David Edgar, it was co-directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. Nunn has said he saw the epic adventure set in 1830's England as a dramatic debate between two expectations of life, "between Ralph Nickleby, who thinks that human existence is nasty, brutish and short, and his nephew Nicholas, who believes that all that's necessary for the triumph of evil is for the good to do nothing."

One of his goals, he said, was to be filmic, "presenting the wide shots, the epic things, but also the close-ups. We wanted to lose the constrictions of theatre, yet also be as vulgarly exuberantly theatrical as possible. We wanted audiences of all ages, and we wanted to break down every barrier that prevented contact between stage and auditorium."

James M. Nederlander, The Shubert Organization, Elizabeth I. McCann, and Nelle Nugent

William Gibson's 1960 Tony Award-winning play told how a 20-year-old teacher, Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), nurtured the young blind and deaf Helen Keller (Patty Duke) and taught her how to communicate with the world. It focused on Keller's learning one word water and movingly climaxed when Helen suddenly associated the water from a pump that was streaming over one hand with the word that was being spelled on the palm of her other hand. Years later, Gibson recalled that writing the play was relatively simple. "That play is full of joyful optimism, and it came out of a certain period in my life," he said in 1982. "My two kids were just born. I was making money as a writer for the first time. There was a whole sense of life growing, burgeoning. It was a marvelous time in my life."

Fred Coe

Tennessee Williams won the Best Play Tony Award in 1951 for The Rose Tattoo. Maria St. Just, Williams's friend for 35 years and the model for Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (a Best Play Tony nominee in 1956) once described the author of A Streetcar Named Desire and Camino Real and The Night of the Iguana and Suddenly Last Summer and Sweet Bird of Youth this way: "He was always concerned about the person who had the least chance in life, the least chance of making a success. He was always for the underdog."

He wasn't particularly good-looking, she said; "he was clumsy. You couldn't put him in a limousine, because he'd fall out the other side. If there was something to trip over, the darling would trip over it. But there was his genius. He had X-ray eyes, and they went right into situations. He felt so deeply about everything. He was just so passionate, and he understood the smallest detail that would be in anyone's heart, the tiniest desire, the tiniest rejection, the tiniest affection."
Cheryl Crawford

The Best Play Tony Award of 1963 went to Edward Albee's searing drama about an unhappy college professor and wife (Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen) who spend an evening fighting with each other over an imaginary child and trying to "get the guests," a couple they have invited over for dinner. The title of the play came to Albee when he found the words "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled amid the graffiti in the men's room of a Greenwich Village bar. When Virginia Woolf opened in London, the British censor insisted on changing Hagen's entrance line, "Jesus H. Christ!" Albee made it "Mary H. Magdalen," which the censor approved but on opening night Hagen, accustomed to the Broadway version, entered and declared, "Jesus H. Magdalen!"

Theatre 1963, Richard Barr, and Clinton Wilder

-- By Mervyn Rothstein

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