From the Special Tony Playbill
Backstage stories from 19 of the most memorable shows to win the Tony Award for Best Musical (continued).
Several years ago, long before they ever thought of writing a Broadway musical, much less their 1987 Tony Award-winning Les Miserables, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil were in a hotel room in Montreal and happened to watch the Awards ceremony on television.
"I didn't know what a Tony was," recalled Boublil, who with Schonberg would win the Best Book Tony for their musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic novel.(Boublil shared Best Score honors for his lyrics, written with co-winner Herbert Kretzmer, while Schonberg won for his music.) "But I remember it was the year of 'Send in the Clowns,' and I was thrilled to hear it on the program. I didn't even known that the song which is one of my five favorite songs ever written was from a musical. It was unbelievable for us to find this much emotion in a song and that one that could express it in a musical? Formidable!"
Producer: Cameron Mackintosh
My Fair Lady
Following the extraordinarily succcessful opening of My Fair Lady on Broadway, Alan Jay Lerner, who won a Tony for the book and lyrics, made it a contractual point that all subsequent foreign productions of the musical had to be exactly identical to the elegant New York production, which took home a Tony Award as 1957's Best Musical.
"Who knows?" he told Herman Shumlin, the producer. "It may have been the chandeliers that made the show a success." Of course, the phenomenal hit was due to the combined efforts of a talented creative team and company, including Lerner and the Tony-winning composer Frederick Loewe, director Moss Hart, designers Oliver Smith and Cecil Beaton and stars Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. But Lerner was only half-kidding. After all, there had been road blocks galore. Before Lerner and Loewe, Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers had admitted defeat in attempting to wrestle George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion into a musical format. "It can't be done," Hammerstein warned Lerner. "We tried for a year."
Then Mary Martin expressed interest in playing Eliza Doolittle. But after hearing the first five songs that Lerner and Loewe had written for the show, she reportedly told her husband, Richard Halliday, "Those dear boys have lost their talent." And even on opening night on Broadway, a frantic Moss Hart was certain that the show was a flop. So much for Oscar, Moss and Mary as prognosticators. But Lerner liked to recall that, hereafter, whenever he or Loewe felt stuck, "One of us would say to the other: 'You poor dear boy, you have lost your talent!' "
Producer: Herman Levin
1776, the sleeper hit of the 1969 season, had long been germinating in the mind of Sherman Edwards, a high school history teacher and pop songwriter. How could the struggle to forge the Declaration of Independence, material drummed into the head of schoolchildren through well-thumbed history books, be made into exciting material?
Edwards himself began the daunting task, but then producer Stuart Ostrow shifted the assignment to veteran writer Peter Stone, so that Edwards could focus on music and lyrics.
"We're not thinking of them as heroes," said Edwards during the show's tryout in, appropriately enough, Washington, D.C. "They were live, very human people once, struggling in the early summer heat of Philadelphia, coping with little money and cooperation." They were also craving a little sex on the side. Thus director Peter Hunt cast Betty Buckley as Martha Washington one of only two women (the other was Viginia Vestoff's Abigail Adams) in the otherwise all-male cast of 26 in order to spark competition for her favors between Thomas Jefferson, played by Ken Howard, and Howard da Silva's Ben Franklin. And even if audiences already knew how it all turned out, those who were working to free the colonies from England didn't, particularly John Adams (William Daniels) and his Royalist opponent John Dickenson (Paul Hecht). Consequently there was much nail-biting as the calendar pages turned from June to July and only seven of the thirteen colonies had put their John Hancock to the agreement.
The show ran for 1,217 performances, took the top Tony that year, also winning ones for Stone, Edwards and Hunt. Subsequently, 1776 became the only Broadway musical to play in its entirety in the White House when Richard Nixon invited the company to entertain.
Producer: Stuart Ostrow
James Hammerstein, who this season directed State Fair on Broadway, recalls that after reading James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, he told his father that it would be impossible to adapt it to the musical stage. "I've already done it," replied his father who by then had begun to transform with Richard Rodgers two of the stories one about the nurse Nellie Forbush and Emile DeBecque, the other about the crafty native, Bloody Mary into a musical that would not only win the Tony in 1950 but also the Pulitzer.
Collectively, the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein team won 26 Tonys, 14 Oscars, 2 Pulitzers and 2 Grammys. The 9 Tonys for South Pacific also included nods to stars Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin as well as to Josh Logan (as director and co-author), Rodgers (as composer) and Hammerstein (as lyricist and co-author). But, by all accounts, it never went to Hammerstein's head.
Shortly after Oklahoma! opened in 1943 and Hammerstein was being hailed as "a genius," the composer took out a full-page ad in Variety. "I've done it before, and I can do it again" read the copy, followed by a rather sizable list of Hammerstein's flops. "I think he wanted to remind people that in the theatre, reversals of fortune are the norm."
Producers: Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Leland Hayward, and Joshua Logan
"Memory," the hit tine from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, actually began life under the title of "One Star." And before it ever became the lonely anthem of a tatty feline, it was the haunting lament of an aging movie legend living in delusional obscurity in a gloomy Sunset Boulevard mansion. Lloyd Webber penned the song in 1979 with Don Black in a then-fruitless attempt to gain the rights to musicalize Sunset Boulevard, the 1950 Billy Wilder classic that celebrated the tragic story of Norma Desmond and her three loves: a handsome young screenwriter down on his luck, the silver-screen, and "those wonderful people out ther in the dark." Lloyd Webber eventually succeeded in getting the rights to the property a decade later. "What is wonderful about the film is its operatic plot," said the composer. "There's an inevitability to it, almost like Greek tragedy. You can take the story further with music." Patti LuPone, who had starred in Evita for Lloyd Webber, premiered the musical extravanganza, directed by Trevor Nunn, in London's West End. But it was Glenn Close, who opened the Los Angeles production, who eventually got the nod to bring Norma to Broadway. Co-starring with Alan Campbell and George Hearn, Close gave a bravura performance as the Diva of all Divas, winning her own Tony in this 1995 Tony-winning Best Musical. Tony Awards also went to Lloyd Webber for his score and authros Don Black and Christopher Hampton.
Producer: The Really Useful Company, Inc.
In 1973, when Stephen Sondheim attended a London production of the English melodrama, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, he came out of the theatre convinced that he had just seen, as he put it, "a piece that sings."
Seven years later, he made it do just that in the form of a Broadway musical, written by Hugh Wheeler, directed by Harold Prince and starring Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou as a conniving pair of entrepreneurs who served up revenge and people in Mrs. Lovett's meat-pie shop. Despite its unconventional and Brechtian subject matter and basically unlovable characters, the show swept the Tonys in 1979, winning eight awards, including Best Musical, Best Score (music and lyrics by Sondheim) and Best Book (by Hugh Wheeler).
Few, however, would have predicted that happy outcome during the show's troubled previews in New York. "New York preview audiences are the hardest critics," Angela Lansbury would recall later. "I don't think I've ever heard as many gasps or murmurs from an audience as I did in those first few weeks. They just weren't prepared for the blood and gore. I don't think I would've been either if I'd been out there. I'm as squeamish as anybody else."
Barely escaping injury from working out the kinks of Eugene Lee's nineteenth century England industrial settings and gagging over the musty costumes, the cast emerged triumphant when the show finally opened. "I was surprised it became a hit. I thought it would be another classic failure," said Lansbury years later.
Producers: Richard Barr, Charles Woodward, Robert Fryer, Mary Lea Johnson, and Martin Richards
The King and I
Rodgers and Hammerstein turned to the exotic world of Siam and the moving and emotional relationship between an English school teacher and a headstrong Asian ruler for their follow-up to South Pacific.
The extravagantly designed show that won the 1952 Tony Award for Best Musical, made a star out of its savagely handsome male lead, Yul Brynner, and turned out to be the swan song of the legendary Gertrude Lawrence. (She died six months after it opened and was buried in the pale-pink ball gown from the show.) The show was actually written as a vehicle for Lawrence, and Brynner won his Tony in the featured category. Moreover, he was not R & H's first choice Alfred Drake was. But the half-Romany, half-Mongol Brynner so indelibly put his stamp on the role that few have attempted to fill the king's golden slippers. (Lou Diamond Phillips successfully assays the role opposite Donna Murphy in the current Broadway production.) Brynner toured in the perennial favorite for years, earning a place in the Guinness Book of Records but it was his glowering "etcetera, etcetera, etcetera!" that made show-business history.
Producers: Rodgers and Hammerstein
The Music Man
In retrospect, theatregoers tend to gasp when informed that Meredith Willson's The Music Man won the 1958 Tony Award for Best Musical over the Berstein-Sondheim classic, West Side Story.
But ever since it opened on Broadway in December of 1957 and ran for 1,375 performances, this romantic musical about a con-man in small-town America has charmed audiences around the world.
It was the first time out for the then 53-year-old composer, a native of Iowa City and a one-time piccolo player and flautist in John Phillip Sousa's concert band. Frank Loesser himself, enchanted by Willson's stories of his Midwestern youth, encouraged his friend to write the musical. It was rough going.
"I think I must've done about 30 or 40 drafts," said the composer and librettist who would go on to write The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Here's Love. Willson always considered Music Man to be a "valentine" and veered directors away from caricature. "The humor of this piece depends upon its technical faithfulness to the real small-town Iowans of 1912 who certainly did not think they were funny at all," he wrote at the time.
In addition to the Best Musical Tony, Willson won as author (with Franklin Lacey) and as Composer and Lyricist. The show starred Barbara Cook and Robert Preston for whom swindler Harold Hill became the role of a lifetime. Preston, in fact, only got the part after Danny Kaye, Dan Dailey and Gene Kelly turned it down. It was kismet.
Producers: Kermit Bloomgarden, Herbert Greene, and Frank Productions
The Phantom of the Opera
For all those who have ever considered theatre the poor stepsister to film, consider this: The Phantom of the Opera has outgrossed Jurassic Park, the most successful movie ever made. The take so far has been $1.6 billion dollars, and there are no signs of slowing for this massive international hit with its half-ton chandelier, proscenium arch framed with gilded angels and cherubs and a heart-breaking and classic story of a beast in love with a beauty.
Winning the Tony as Best Musical in 1988 was the crowning triumph for a show that seemed particularly blessed from the moment Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer of such hits as Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Evita and, later, Sunset Boulevard, picked up a copy of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novella.
"I wanted to write something that has high romance," said Lloyd Webber, acknowledging that while his musical does not stand up to high intellectual scrutiny, it exerts a primal tug on people's emotions. "There's no one who doesn't feel they wish they'd been born different, that their fingers were longer, or something."
With lyricist Charles Hart and co-author and lyricist Richard Stilgoe, Lloyd Webber created the show as a vehicle for Sarah Brightman, the ex-Mrs. Lloyd Webber, and Michael Crawford who rose to greater heights in the title role. But it was the choices of Harold Prince as director and Maria Bjornson as designers. which were most inspired.
"I had always wanted to do a big romantic musical, ever since I saw the opening night of South Pacific in 1949. I thought that some day I wanted to do a show with a song like 'Some Enchanted Evening' in it." Arguably, the show's lush theme song, "All I Ask of You" is now in that pop pantheon of great musical standards, and it seems difficult to imagine that any other show not to mention film could equal, much less exceed, the remarkable track record of Phantom.
Producers: Cameron Mackintosh and The Really Useful Company, Inc.
The Sound of Music
1960 was a stunning year in the Best Musical category. It not only saw the contest ending in the first and only tie in the category's history, but also set up a daughter to compete against her father. Mary Rodgers's Once Upon a Mattress was in the running as was her father for The Sound of Music, which, of course, he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein.
Fiorello! and The Sound of Music both emerged winners as Best Musical from a pack that also included, Gypsy and Take Me Along. The ties continued with Richard Rodgers's music for The Sound of Music picking up a Tony in the Composer category along with Jerry Bock's music for Fiorello!, while The Sound of Music's authors, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, tied with Fiorello!'s authors, Jerome Weidman and George Abbott.
"I don't think either my father or I thought I'd ever be nominated for anything, much less a Tony, so we probably laughed off the competition," recalled Mary Rodgers, although Walter Kerr saw fit to praise the then 27-year-old composer as "a chip off the old blockbuster."
Producers: Leland Hayward, Richard Halliday, and Rodgers and Hammerstein
-- By Patrick Pacheco