“IT’S AN HONOR JUST TO BE NOMINATED”

Ron Fassler
9 min readJan 10, 2023

January 10, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

Though the Tony Awards have been handed out since 1948, the citing of nominees didn’t enter the mix until 1956. Since then, as many as two, three, four, five or six have rounded out a single category, or just one, as in the sad season when Aaron Tveit found himself the sole nominee for his performance in Moulin Rouge! (yes, it was put to a vote and mercifully, he won).

“It’s an honor just to be nominated” is the oft-heard refrain and yet when someone isn’t, or god forbid loses, the discussion is always amplified by the screams of someone being “robbed!” That’s a misnomer, as its almost always more about being the victim of bad timing when there are too many to choose from in the same season. You might wonder how Robert Redford could have missed out on being recognized for the role that made him a star in Neil Simon’s blockbuster Barefoot in the Park, but check out the four actors who filled the category in 1964: Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Alec Guinness and Jason Robards. My friends, THAT is competition!

Though nominated, it’s hard to imagine Colm Wilkinson losing a Tony in 1987 for creating the role of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. But he was up against Robert Lindsay’s tour de force in Me and My Girl (and it didn’t help either that Wilkinson was in the same category as his co-star Terrence Mann, who played Javert).

Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean in “Les Les Misérables” (1987).

In 1973, you couldn’t have said Robert Morse was robbed for his masterful comic playing as Jerry/Daphne in Sugar, the first musicalization of Some Like it Hot, or shouted “foul” when Len Cariou left the ceremony empty-handed after delivering a multi-faceted and beautifully sung portrait of the middle-aged Fredrick Egerman in A Little Night Music (at age thirty-three, no less). They weren’t cheated; only merely shared the misfortune of being up against Ben Vereen’s career-defining performance as the Leading Player in Pippin, that’s all. Conversely, and without naming names, there have been years when a Tony winner (by sheer luck) is in a show that if it had been timed differently, and opened in the prior or following year, would have made them a dead duck. But no matter: you win a Tony; you’ve won a Tony. To this date, no one’s had to return one.

Robert Morse (“Sugar”), Ben Vereen (“Pippin”) and Len Cariou (“A Little Night Music”), all in 1973.

Then there’s the matter of the so-called “snub.” A pejorative term, it rarely explains the story. For example, if in a given year the Tony Administration Committee deems no more than four can be nominated per category, and it’s been a good season, someone worthy is going to get left off by simple math. It’s not out of malice, but often a matter of who got a single vote more. It’s not a snub.

Okay, it is a snub when you’re Danny Kaye, giving one of the most talked about performances of the 1970–71 season, as he did in Two By Two, after a near-thirty year absence from Broadway musicals. Among a host of rave reviews for his Noah, struggling to build the ark, the New York Daily News declared “Danny Kaye is magnificent. He displays a new and uncanny mastery of the stage.” Then, In a shocking public slap in the face, Kaye was denied a nomination, with many suspecting it was due to his well-known onstage antics, in which he displayed a nightly disrespect towards his fellow cast members. With few fans within the small world of theatre people, Kaye was left out in the cold. THAT was a snub!

These days, the Tony nominations are decided by secret ballot from among a group of fifty, which rotate every three years. In trying to figure out the reasons why a well-received performance misses out, it has been surmised that it’s possible a nominator might feel that since everyone is already going to vote for the very popular “A,” then why not vote for “B,” the nominator’s personal favorite and unlikely to get a nod? The result is that to everyone’s surprise, frontrunner “A” is left out, likely due to more than one nominator having the same thought. This leads to the cry of “How could this happen? A prime example of this was a Hollywood scenario that played out in 1958 when Maurice Chevalier, who was considered a veritable shoo-in for an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Gigi, was left out of the running. In a rare move, a special committee quickly convened and voted Chevalier an Honorary Oscar “for his contribution to the world of entertainment for more than half a century,” to make up for the oversight.

Speaking of Oscars and Tonys, how about the trick the young Patty Duke pulled off when she won the Academy Award for her performance in The Miracle Worker after it didn’t earn her a Tony nomination three years prior when she created the role on Broadway? A head scratcher.

Patty Duke (with Anne Bancroft) in the Broadway produciton of “The Miracle Worker” (1959).

Because of his penchant for self-mockery, in 1995, when Nathan Lane didn’t get a nomination for creating the role of Buzz in Terence McNally’s Tony winning Best Play, Love! Valour! Compassion!, he rode the wave of shock that resonated throughout the theatre community like an expert surfer in Malibu. Being tapped to co-cost the Tonys that year alongside Glenn Close and Gregory Hines, Lane addressed it full out during the opening monologue which the trio shared:

It was triply odd that three of Lane’s co-stars were cited in the Featured Actor in a Play category: Stephen Bogardus, Anthony Heald and John Glover (who went on to win). Seems to me it echoes that “A” and “B” scenario previously mentioned. He also had two categories in which to conceivably compete. Even though Love! Valour! was ostensibly an ensemble play, Lane had what could certainly have been considered the lead. There was also ample room in the Best Actor category, what with Joe Sears nominated for A Tuna Christmas, a genuinely perplexing choice in that the show ran only 20 performances and closed six months earlier. In any event, the following spring, Lane would win the first of his three Tony Awards to date when he starred in the hit revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

And something definitely weird happened in 1988 when Into the Woodsreceived ten nominations, yet only two of them in the acting categories: Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife and Robert Westernberg as Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf. Neither Bernadette Peters or Chip Zien, two of its above the title leads, were nominated. In Peters’ case, the category was stacked with prime choices (in addition to Gleason’s outstanding performance, there was Alison Fraser for Romance, Romance, Judy Kuhn for Chess and Patti LuPone for Anything Goes). If Peters had been included in the mix, would that have hurt Gleason’s chances with the award potentially going to LuPone? We’ll never know. As for Zien, he was “egregiously overlooked” coining a phrase once used by Julie Andrews on the same subject. Zien and Gleason are the heart and soul of Into the Woods and, as the show was committed to tape for PBS before closing and subsequently watched by millions over the years, their two performances have achieved legendary status.

Gleason went out of her way to mention her onstage husband in her acceptance speech, ironically presented to her by Bernadette Peters (which says a lot about no hard feelings). Thanking him, Gleason lovingly said, “First and foremost there is Chip Zien,” without whom I cannot take the journey every night.”

Joanna Gleason hugs co-star Bernadette Peters upon receiving a Tony for “Into the Woods” (1988).

Zien, even after a dozen Broadway shows to his credit, has still never received a Tony nomination — YET! If you think he was recognized for his Mendel the Psychiatrist in Falsettos, he was eclipsed in the Featured Actor category by eleven-year-old Jonathan Kaplan, who played his stepson, Jason. Here he is performing Into the Woods’ “No More” from the 2020 Covid-inspired online 90th Birthday Concert for Stephen Sondheim. Take note of his iconic green felt hat on the piano and what he does with it at the song’s end:

When you look at some of the actors, many of whom indelibly created roles on Broadway between the 1950s and 1970s, it’s a little shocking how many missed out on being nominated for a Tony. Some of that has to do with the sheer volume of plays and musicals back then that came in each season. In any case, anyone who fails to do so in the future might want to keep this list in their wallet and take it out from time to time for comfort:

Kim Stanley as Cherie in Bus Stop.
Barbara Cook as Cunegonde in Candide.
Chita Rivera as Anita in West Side Story.
Paul Newman as Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth.
Angela Lansbury as Helen in A Taste of Honey.
Laurence Olivier in the title role of Becket.
Art Carney as Felix Ungar in The Odd Couple.
Robert Preston in the title role of Ben Franklin in Paris.
Anthony Newley as Cocky in The Roar of the Greasepaint
George C. Scott as Sam Nash, Jesse Kiplinger & Roy Hubley in Plaza Suite.
John McMartin as Benjamin Stone in Follies.
Robert Duvall as Teach in American Buffalo.
Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Martin Dysart in Equus.

Anthony Newley as Cocky and Robert Preston as Ben Franklin (neither nominated and both appearing in the same 1964–65 season).

Of course, there are times when a role will all but guarantee a Tony nomination. In the five revivals of Gypsy, every Rose was nominated: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, with Ethel, it’s progenitor, one of the two not to snare the Tony (Bernadette was the other). When the Merm lost to her good friend Mary Martin for The Sound of Music, she is famously quoted to have said, “You can’t buck a nun.”

Another such role is Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, with four women nominated in four Broadway productions. That is if you include Virginia Capers — and why not? — who portrayed her in its musical version, Raisin (she won, too). That fun gal Medea comes to mind as well with four nominations out of the five actresses who’ve played the murderous mom on Broadway. As the Danish Prince of Hamlet, in ten revivals since the Tonys began, only three actors have been nominated: Richard Burton, Jude Law and Ralph Fiennes (who won). Go figure.

Lastly, outside the realm of acting categories, you can almost hear Wallace Shawn spitting out “INCONCEIVABLE!” when you consider that Stephen Sondheim wasn’t nominated for his first time out as a composer/lyricist with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, especially when the show won six Tonys in 1963. Or that Jerry Herman was ignored in 1975 for what he believes is his best score (as do many others), the sensational Mack & Mabel. Such pass overs can only be described by the Yiddish word “shanda,” which if you’re unfamiliar with, check out the definition below, in particular the coincidence of example #1 to this piece and for the dead-on example #2:

If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

--

--

Ron Fassler

Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.