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The Tonys, 52 Years Apart
Usually I work the press room at the Tonys. This year, however, I decided to spend it with friends old and new at the home of Ken (Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time) Bloom. We were all huddled under or near his framed three-sheet of – what else? -- the original Follies.
We had a great time, as I assume you did at your own personal Tony parties. Oh, sure, we shrieked in surprise at some winners and rued some losers, but the Diet Coke flowed freely and the Georgetown cupcakes I brought were a big hit. Bless the souls at the bakery that decorated each cupcake with a logo of a show: Bonnie & Clyde, The Columnist, Death of a Salesman, Newsies, Evita, Clybourne Park, Ghost, Wit and Other Desert Cities. While Roxie Hart alleged that “Amos just lovvvved my cupcakes,” he might have liked these even more.
Of course, with a crowd like this, the observations (“God, she looks rough”) and bon mots flowed freely, too. Bryan Brooks sagely noted that Once’s winning Best Musical and Best Book but not Best Score was only the third time in Tony history that that had happened: Two Gents and Billy Elliot were the other instances.
The one observation that I made that got some head-nods happened after Audra McDonald won her fifth Tony – but her first for a leading role. Since she’d won her last in 2004, the Tony Award itself was redesigned to gain an inch or so in height. So that this new Tony is bigger than McDonald’s other four is actually logical in the scheme of things.
Tell you what, though: The line about the Tonys being for "50 shades of gay" was lamentable, especially right at the top of the show. It essentially said that straights wouldn't be interested in the next three hours. Lord knows how many wives had just finished convincing their husbands that watching the Tonys wouldn't kill them -- only to have the guys hear this joke and storm up from their chairs in disgust.
It’s certainly the type of joke that wouldn’t have been made in the early days of the Tonys, when the word most used to describe Broadway was “high-class.” That spurred me to say, "You know what we should do? As soon as this show is done, we should watch that video that Ken has of the 1959-1960 Tonys to compare and contrast."
"Yes!" Ken roared. And so, a little after Neil Patrick Harris wrapped up, we were off and watching a primitive black-and-white kinescope of The 14th annual Tonys, which took place in the Grand Ballroom of the long-ago-razed Hotel Astor on April 24, 1960.
Some had carped because this year's broadcast began with a number from a 2010-2011 show: The Book of Mormon. And what opened the 1960 broadcast? The Merm doing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” would be an excellent guess, given that she and Gypsy were nominated. Of course, so were Mary Martin, all those von Trapp kids, and The Sound of Music, too, so “Do-Re-Mi” would seem to have been an equally likely choice. Or was there a surprise song from the three other nominated musicals: Once upon a Mattress, Destry Rides Again or Fiorello!?
No. The 1960 broadcast began with a song whose melody was then already 180 years old, albeit with a lyric written “only” 146 years earlier: "The Star-Spangled Banner."
At least The Book of Mormon's song was from a musical. Of course, by the end of the ‘60s, "The Star-Spangled Banner" would show up briefly in the title song of Hair and "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men" in 1776 -- musicals that would have seemed improbable-to-impossible in 1960.
And instead of a cast full of young men who are genuine cast members in Mormon, the 1960 ceremony offered Vivian Della Chiesa, an opera star. Note the attempt to look high-class right from the get-go.
Our national anthem was the only song we got the whole night. So Elena Roger would have fit right in, for as you saw, the star of Evita didn’t even get much chance to sing on the broadcast. This has to be the first time that a person playing a title character of a musical barely opened her mouth during a Tony number.
Well, there were snippets of songs on the 1960 broadcast, via what the orchestra played as winners came up to the podium. Their choices weren’t always so inspired. When Cecil Beaton of Saratoga beat out Miles White of Take Me Along for Best Costumes, the orchestra played “Take Me Along” as Beaton made his way to the stage.
After the national anthem, things got pretty poky with Lee Tracy, then starring in The Best Man by Gore Vidal -- and not Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. That’s why this year’s Tonycast went five minutes over: saying The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man instead of just the real title of the show ate up time.
Tracy read a four-minute speech about the American Theatre Wing. Here’s some sample dialogue: “Our students practice their art when deemed ready to do so by participating in plays and sketches at various civilian and veteran hospitals for the purposes not only of entertainment but of service to the medical profession for the purposes of rehabilitation and for the purpose of therapy.”
One irony: he mentioned a Menken – then-president Helen; another Menken was mentioned this year. Christopher Plummer, who presented on Sunday, also presented in 1960. Is he reliable or what? He’s like a Plummer when you need a Plummer.
Tracy gave way to host Eddie Albert, who was at the time playing Harold Hill in The Music Man. He started earnestly, too, but finally at 8:54 into the broadcast, he got a laugh from the crowd, albeit for not a very sophisticated joke. After he introduced “Tony custodian” Laurie Peters -- the original Liesl – and mentioned that she was 17, he looked at her and leered, “It’s a wonderful business we’re in.” You’d think that the person writing his material would have at least given him the line that she was “17 going on 18.”
Along with Peters, the “Tony custodians” (who dealt with medallions in cases and not statuettes) were Sally Castillo and Ed Kenney of Flower Drum Song. Albert said Kenney came from Hawaii; Castillo from the Philippines; and Peters from Cleveland Heights. I mention this only to stress that each time the person’s hometown was mentioned, it received a rush of applause from the crowd – but whenever a nominee was announced, not one of them ever got a single handclap of applause from anyone at any table.
Yes, table; The Tonys followed a fancy dinner in those days. Whoever organized the seating did a terrible job, for so many of the winners were positioned f-a-r away from the stage. Guess who took more than a half-minute to get up there? George Abbott, you’re assuming (when he won as Best Director of a Musical for Fiorello!), because he was, after all, already 73. Nope – Abbott skipped up the stairs, which is something to see for those of us who only saw him on Tony broadcasts when he was really old and infirm. The 36-second tripmaker was Anne Revere, winning as Best Featured Play Actress for Toys in the Attic (and wearing a dress that had to come from someone’s attic -- in 1783).
Abbott did say something about the sinuous route a winner had to take. He noted that the Oscars put nominees on the aisle, and that Broadway should, too. Could it be that the Tonys eventually took direction from the man who was acclaimed (rightly or wrongly) as one of the best directors of his time?
Some say that we’ve become a more godless society in the last 50 years, but the fact is that His presence was better noted on Sunday. Numbers from The Book of Mormon, Leap of Faith, Godspell and that show at the Simon proved that Broadway indeed now thinks of Him as Jesus Christ Superstar. He got nary a mention in 1960.
In fact, in one way, the 1960 broadcast was ribald. You’ve probably seen the recent advertising for the off-Broadway hit Cock. Some outlets refer to it as The Cockfight Play. But, in 1960, when Roddy McDowall was nominated (and won) for The Fighting Cock, that show’s title was blithely said on the air. Now: was it carefully planned by the Tony powers-that-be that the famously profane Lauren Bacall gave out that award? Can’t you hear the brass now making plans for the broadcast? “Betty won’t have any problem saying that word.”
To be fair, Darren McGavin co-presented with Bacall, and mentioned the title, too, when he announced the winner. McGavin, Albert told us, was now doing the TV series Riverboat before making a crack about residuals. So this may have been the beginning of TV stars appearing on the Tonys. The difference is that McGavin had done six Broadway shows in the previous six years; some of this year’s TV star-presenters probably haven’t stepped on a stage since high school.
One highlight of watching the 1960 broadcast came because of one of our party attendees. Long ago, he’d worked with one of the presenters who, as he’d told us many times, had done something truly atrocious and uncalled-for during the out-of-town tryout. So, oh, did we roar when The Presenter showed a side of herself that was in keeping with what he’d told us.
Here’s what happened. After This Presenter announced the winner in the category, Laurie Peters walked over to give the winner the prize – and The Presenter snatched it out of her hands so that she herself could grandly present it to the winner.
One reason no one in the 1960 audience ever applauded when a nominee’s name was read: the contenders’ names were read lickety-split fast. Neither an envelope nor a billet was used; the card with the nominees on the front was simply turned over, and there was the winner’s name on the back. So the presenter undoubtedly peeked and knew the winner before he sauntered onto the stage.
To make matters duller, the show was simply a two-camera affair, with one camera positioned on the podium while the presenters read the nominees’ names. That means that not once – absolutely never -- was there a shot of any nominee in the audience as his name was announced. This also cheated the TV audience of seeing David Merrick’s face when Jackie Gleason won for Best Musical Actor for Take Me Along. Believe me, that must have been some look, given that the two fought for the entire time Gleason did the show.
That wasn’t the biggest missed opportunity, though. What expression was on Ethel Merman’s face when Mary Martin was announced as Best Actress in a Musical? We’ll never know – but to think we could have.
But the most astonishing show-biz ignorant moment came from Celeste Holm, who was given the job of announcing Best Musical (not as the ultimate prize, by the way, but at 44:44 of the 60-minute commercial-free CBS broadcast). “It’s a tie,” she gleefully announced, before saying that one winner was Fiorello! – and then calling to the stage bookwriter Jerome Weidman, composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, director George Abbott, and producers Robert E. Griffith and “Harold S. Prince,” who, by the way, had no glasses either on his nose or on his head.
All six bounded up, and only after Mr. Abbott spoke for all -- a full 3:38 after Holm had announced Fiorello! – did she divulge that The Sound of Music was the other winner. Think of those 218 torturous seconds in which Mary Rodgers had to wonder if she and Once upon a Mattress were going to win the prize, before she had to go on stage and pick it up for her daddy who, it was explained, was in Italy.
Impossible that Mary thought that Once upon a Mattress could beat her father’s The Sound of Music? Don’t forget that the reviews for her show were better than the ones for his.
So for slickness, there was much to be desired from the 14th annual Tony Awards. But on the other hand, there was the compensation of seeing such presenters as Vivien Leigh (“I shall never in all my life forget the ‘welcome back’ that I’ve been given on this occasion”) and Helen Hayes (“The theater is peopled with the most beautiful, most witty, most glamorous creatures”). There was an irony in the absent Oliver Smith, winner for Best Musical Sets for The Sound of Music, choosing in advance one Peggy Wood to pick up the prize for him; who knew that five years later, she’d be in the show’s movie version?
And speaking of that musical, there was winner Mary Martin (the last awardee of the night) who directed her remarks to a group of 60 assembled American Theatre Wing students. “Climb ev’ry mountain, ford ev’ry stream,” she instructed, before doing a few more lyrics. The way she recited suggested that the young people didn’t yet know the song.
Plenty of people knew in advance the songs from this year’s new musicals Newsies, Nice Work If You Can Get It and Once – not to mention the songs from the revivals and – oh, yes -- Hairspray. But back then, Broadway wasn’t at sea.
— Peter Filichia
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