TONYS FOR THE AGES (AND AGELESS)
June 11, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Tonight’s 71st annual Tony Awards ceremony differs from a number of those over the past few years, in that there are many heated contests with no clear front runners. Hamilton, still packing them in at the Richard Rodgers, was anointed as the obvious winner-take-all nearly a year before the June 2016 broadcast (it opened in August 2015). The musical ended up winning 11 of its 15 nominations, falling one shy of tying the record-breaking twelve Tonys awarded in 2001 to The Producers. It’s highly unlikely there will be any runaway winners like those two shows this evening, as the wealth feels like it’s going to be spread around a bit. Of course, time will tell.
For me, keeping tabs on the Tonys became something of an obsession as far back as 1967, the year they were first broadcast on national television. Wanting to know everything I could about the awards, I was disappointed to discover at that time that there was no published book providing any historical background. So at ten years old, I set upon my local libraries in search of answers, finally settling on an almanac-style book that contained all the Tony Awards winners. My heart soared when it also listed all the nominees — which was a revelation. Did Mary Martin’s Maria really beat out Ethel Merman’s Rose? This left me no other choice than to make copies of the pages, bring them home, then personally type all the information on my mother’s old Remington portable typewriter. That way I had my own one-of-a-kind book.
Yes, I was a lonely child.
On that March 26, 1967, I tuned into my family’s black and white TV (we didn’t own a color one for a few more years). I even had a horse in the race as that thoroughbred, Robert Preston (my favorite actor) had been nominated alongside his co-star Mary Martin for the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical I Do! I Do! They were also going to host the hour-long ceremony (yes, one hour + four musical numbers. See? It can be done). At the time of the broadcast, I hadn’t yet seen (or had any hopes of seeing) them in I Do! I Do! — though I was completely familiar with the show having memorized the cast album. Six months later, to my great shock and surprise, and by the grace and generosity of my Great-Aunt Helen (who knew what it would mean to me), I was taken to see Martin and Preston for what would be my first Broadway show.
Okay … those are the Tonys of yesteryear. But what about this evening’s awards? Here then are a few things to watch for in terms of Tony history and records that might or might not be broken:
First, the youngest acting nominee of the evening is not, as you might suspect, twenty-three-year-old Ben Platt for Dear Evan Hansen. It’s twenty-one-year old Eva Noblezada for the revival of Miss Saigon. If she were to win, it would make her the youngest Best Actress in a Musical winner. And before anyone says that Liza Minnelli also won at age twenty-one for Flora the Red Menace, I know she did. But I did the math … and by the date of the awards ceremony back in 1965, Minnelli was 93 days past her twenty-first birthday. Noblezada, if she wins tonight, will be eighty-four days past it.
This is a moot point as Bette Midler is widely expected to win in that category for the love-in that occurs at every performance she is giving in Hello, Dolly! When it happens, it will make this ageless performer the oldest winner ever cited as Best Actress in a Musical. And you bet it’s going to be a thrill when the audience rises as one to pay tribute when Ms. Midler ascends the stage to accept her Tony. Having began her career on Broadway during the run of the original production of Fiddler on the Roof, first as Rivka, one of the townspeople, then later moving up to the eldest daughter Tzeitel, it’s been a long and extremely successful road for that twenty-one-year-old young woman from Hawaii in her Broadway debut. Just for fun, here’s a link to a glimpse of her from those days, pushing a broom around while signing “Matchmaker” with fellow Fiddler cast members on the 1968 Tony telecast.
And what of Richard Thomas, nominated for a Tony as Featured Actor in a Play for his Horace Giddens in the revival of The Little Foxes this season? Thomas began his career on Broadway at the age of seven when in 1958, he joined the company of the Tony Award winning Best Play Sunrise at Campobello. Over the years he has distinguished himself time and again, particularly when he took over the leading role during the run of Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July as Kenneth Talley Jr. Had he created that part, I believe it would have resulted in a nod back in 1981. But I would like to think that Thomas receiving his first Tony nomination after fifty-nine years of stage work means that good things DO come to those who wait.
And speaking of waiting … the oldest nominee tonight is the veteran costume designer Jane Greenwood. At eighty-three she is up for her superb work on The Little Foxes, in what is her 20th nomination! And though she received a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2014, she has never won in direct competition.
A win tonight could bring Greenwood’s audacious accomplishment to a close, but also the added distinction of coming within a hair’s breath of the age Angela Lansbury was in 2009, when she won her fifth Tony for the revival of Blithe Spirit. I didn’t do the exact math on that one … I’m too exhausted. I need to save my strength for what is going to be a long, but undoubtedly fun night ahead.
And one last shout out to the actor Denis Arndt, who gave a beautiful performance opposite Mary Louise Parker earlier in the season in Simon Stephens’s two-hander Heisenberg. Nominated for Best Actor in a Play, after a lifetime of work in some of the best regional theatres in the country, not to mention dozens of films and television shows over a long career, Heisenberg marked Arndt’s Broadway debut.
He is seventy-nine years old.
Age is only a number, right?
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book