Theatre Yesterday and Today, February 1, 2023, by Ron Fassler.
To continue with more on replacements, the story of how Larry Kert has remained the only actor to earn a Tony nomination for a role he didn’t create on Broadway is a less-than-routine place to start. To my knowledge, how it came about has never been repeated in quite the same way.
In 1970, when Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s new musical Company was in its Boston tryout, its leading man Dean Jones, then mostly known for light comedy and Disney family flicks, was giving a deeply rooted and movingly sung performance as Robert, the most difficult role in the show (as well as its lead). During the run, he distraughtly told Company’s producer-director Harold Prince that he couldn’t continue onstage anymore. That his own marriage difficulties at the time were making things too painful for him as well as having issues with performing in anything “too nihilistic,” as he put it many years later. It wasn’t a good fit.
Sympathetic, but with a musical out of town and investors to whom he’d like to pay dividends, Prince agreed to let Jones out of his contract, but asked if he would please remain until opening night on Broadway. “Give me a great performance to launch the show, and you can go,” he told him. And as evidenced by Jones’s rendition on the original cast album, he did just that (I saw him portray Robert with enormous conviction and power at the first Saturday matinee after it opened, May 2, 1970). By the time the record album hit the stores, Larry Kert was the new Robert, performing eight times a week at the Alvin. Known to audiences as having created the role of Tony in Sondheim’s first Broadway musical West Side Story, Kert remained with Company for 18 of its 19 months. The next spring, when the Tony nominations were announced, an exception was made to the rule that only actors in the opening night cast were eligible for consideration. In this one case, it was allowed that Kert’s name be placed in nomination for Best Actor in a Musical so that he, not Jones, got the nod. This historic first made Kert the only replacement to ever compete at the awards ceremony (he lost to Hal Linden for The Rothschilds).
Eight years later, Prince found himself in a different, but no less dire situation while directing the big-budget musical On the Twentieth Century. Madeline Kahn, as brilliant an actress and singer as there ever was, had been giving inconsistent performances as Lily Garland since early in the out of town engagement and on through the preview period in New York. She had a great opening night for the critics but told Prince afterward (much to his frustration) she was unsure she had it in her to do it as well going forward. Future two-time Tony winner Judy Kaye, cast as Lily’s maid, Agnes, and assigned to be Kahn’s standby, had been going on with alarming frequency as Kahn was missing a slew of performances. Finally, after nine weeks and with things not getting better, Prince took the drastic measure of firing Kahn and replacing her with Kaye. Subsequently, a short time later, Kahn got a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical, and not Kaye (the Larry Kert scenario was never again to repeat itself). In fairness, Kahn had played more performances as Lily than Kaye at that point. In a somewhat uncomfortable situation, when Kahn attended the Tony ceremony, she had to sit and watch the title song of Twentieth Century performed with Kaye leading the company in the role she had created (the Tony went to Liza Minnelli for The Act).
Though it can be a problem finding a bona fide star unconcerned with the optics of taking over a well-established role, some very famous names have made the choice to not view it that way at all. “The hell with that! It’s a great part and I want to do it!” explains how so many have placed their egos on hold and happily replaced in plays and musicals time and again. Bernadette Peters did it twice in recent years (to fine notices) taking over from the Tony Award winning Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree in A Little Night Music (2010) and then for Tony winner Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! (2018).
Back in September 2005, after years of it being tossed about, the Tony Administration Committee announced the creation of a genderless Best Performance by an Actor or Actress in a Recreated Role category. It was decided that the twenty-four-person group would meet the following spring to see if there was enough support to warrant it, stipulating that a minimum of sixteen votes would be required in order to declare a winner. Neither Jonathan Pryce, who took over for John Lithgow in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Harvey Fierstein, who had replaced Alfred Molina in a revival of Fiddler on the Roof, received enough votes. A short time later, the award was cancelled, and the category eliminated by unanimous decision, never to be brought back.
In the 76-year history of the organization, just three special Tonys have been presented to replacements. Pearl Bailey in 1968 for Hello, Dolly!; to Mary Tyler Moore in 1980 when, in a gender reversal, she took over for Tony Award winner Tom Conti in the British drama Whose Life Is It Anyway?, and to Richard Burton, when he was the fourth Dr. Martin Dysart in the Tony Award winning Best Play Equus. Of the latter two special Tonys, eyebrows were raised because in both cases, MTM and Burton had been the hosts of the broadcast and were each handed their awards on air as “a surprise.” Many believed this to be the behind-the-scenes work of producer Alexander H. Cohen, who muscled the Tony Committee to do it (and when it came to muscling, few matched Cohen’s ability to get what he wanted). In giving the Tony away to his co-star, Keith McDermott, perhaps Burton himself felt deep-down it wasn’t exactly kosher.
That said, don’t be surprised if Lea Michele finds herself going home with a special Tony Award come June 11th (even if Alexander Cohen is long dead). It’s entirely possible she will be voted one for the way in which she brought her talent and professionalism to Funny Girl, rescuing it from an almost certain premature death. And if it happens, and she does get to make a speech, it would be appropriate for her to thank Julie Benko, the standby who, from all reports, did wonders as an interim Fanny Brice while things were very much up in the air.
One of the best replacements I ever saw was my very favorite actor, Robert Preston, when in 1978 he stepped into the formidable shoes of George C. Scott in Larry Gelbart’s comedy Sly Fox. This was a case of one great theatre star following another; actors who couldn’t be more different in style and, in this particular case, their approach to the role. I saw them both and I will defer to theatre critic Walter Kerr’s assessment when he returned to the play:
“It would take a very brave man to say that Robert Preston is playing Sly Fox better than George C. Scott did. I am a very brave man. Robert Preston is playing Sly Fox better than George C. Scott did.”
In terms of making the taking over of a role an “event,” some producers have gone to drastic measures to ensure maximum publicity in the hopes of drumming up the box office. After all, many such replacements come in after a show has been running a year or more (sometimes a lot longer than that). As mentioned in the previous column, Chicago has been doing it consistently for two decades, most recently with Jinkx Monsoon of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame, currently in the role of Mama Morton, previously done exclusively by female actresses. Twenty years ago, when in the same musical, film star Melanie Griffith was brought as Roxie Hart for two months, the show played to standing room only. With no stage experience and not even a singer or dancer, interest in Griffith had some ticket buyers mischievously hoping to witness a train wreck. It was a bit of a shock when Ben Brantley in the New York Times tapped Griffith as ‘’a sensational Roxie, possibly the most convincing I have seen.’’ That stated, Clive Barnes in the NY Post offered a different take: “I was reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon of an ice-rink café with a waiter wearing skates, his tray piled high, saying to anyone who would listen, ‘Don’t expect too much. It’s my first time on ice!’”
There are also times when big announcements are made about replacements to little success. One such instance occurred when, with great fanfare in a full-page ad in the New York Times, former film star and television personality Robert Stack was announced to be joining the company of the long-running original production of La Cage Aux Folles. Its director, Arthur Laurents (never one to mince words), was livid that Stack was hired by the musical’s producer, Alan Carr, without his consent. Laurents had listened to Stack sing at an informal audition and addressed his concerns to Carr at that time, to which his producer told him “But Bob’s aunt was an opera singer!” Rehearsals were a disaster and poor Stack was let go the night before he was supposed to go into the show. Similarly, during a 2011 revival of the same musical, Jeffrey Tambor was cast as a replacement for Kelsey Grammar in the same role of Georges but left the production after performing onstage for four performances. The press release mentioned that “Tambor was experiencing complications from recent hip surgery and the pain and the challenge of performing in a musical eight times a week proved to be too physically demanding,” a song we’ve all heard before.
And just in case you’re beginning to think there’s a curse over the head of anyone who plays Georges, you’re not wrong. Actor Daniel Davis was fired from the first Broadway revival of La Cage in 2005 due to what has been described to me (by way of cast members witness to his behavior) as his displaying a very nasty disposition. Davis was replaced by Robert Goulet, who from all accounts, was a total sweetheart (apologies for descending into gossip, but inevitable whenever Arthur Laurents’ name is brought into any theatre discussion).
Finally, special mention must be made of the original production of Grease, which opened in 1972. In its consistent casting of actors under the age of thirty, the musical created a cottage industry of future stars who came and went during its eight-year run. Most famously John Travolta, who did not play Danny, the role he got to do in the 1978 film version, but rather the nerdish Doody. Other Danny’s who took over were Richard Gere, Peter Gallagher, Patrick Swayze and Treat Williams. The aforementioned Judy Kaye made her Broadway debut as a replacement, as did Marilu Henner and Randy Graff. And two directors of some renown, Scott Ellis and Jerry Zaks, made their Broadway debuts as actors in Grease as well. Even the co-creator of the successful sitcom Mad About You, Danny Jacobson, was an alumnus of Rydell High.
There are so many great performances by replacements to continue with, both sung and unsung, they could fill a book. And why not? If this turns out to be a light-bulb moment, you read it here first.
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.