It’s Tony season and who better to educate us about the wonderful world of theatre than Thomas S. Hischak, author of The Oxford Companion To The American Musical: Theatre, Film and Television. Hischak is a Professor of Theatre at the State University of New York College at Cortland. He is the author of sixteen books on theater, film, and popular music as well as the author of twenty published plays. In The Oxford Companion To The American Musical Hischak offers over two thousand entires on musicals, performers, composers, lyricists, producers, choreographers and much more. In the original post below Hishak reflects on past Tony losers. Be sure to check back every week on Tuesday for more from Hischak on Tony.
The Tony nominations are made by a relatively small group of individuals who come up with the candidates for each category. The voters are a few hundred people in the theatre profession who then choose from the nominated names and titles. So while a person can be nominated many times over the years, only the voters can create winners and losers. Nonetheless, shortsightedness can sometimes be seen in the nominations. In 1963 the committee nominated A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for best musical, actor (Zero Mostel), featured actors (David Burns and Jack Gilford), featured actress (Ruth Kobart), book (Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart), producer (Hal Prince), and director (George Abbott). Yet Stephen Sondheim‘s score was absent. Did the committee dislike him? No, they felt the show’s success had little to do with the score. They nominated two British scores (Oliver! and Stop the World – I Want to Get Off), Little Me, and the forgettable Bravo Giovanni. They should be embarrassed.
Another embarrassment occurred in 1996 when it was clear this small group strongly disliked Big and Victor/Victoria. Certainly not musical theatre classics, but the committee nominated anything rather than those two shows. Rent and Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk were both refreshing picks (Rent won) but to round out the category they added the widely panned revue Swinging on a Star and the dark and forgotten Chronicle of a Death Foretold. With nominations like that, the voters could hardly be faulted for the outcome. Yet who else is to blame for the bizarre and oddly opinionated results over the years? Let’s look at three people Tony has no love for.
1. Walt Disney. I know he’s dead and never produced a New York show in his lifetime, but his name on a Broadway marquee is enough to send most Tony voters into a snit. Remember, the voters are people in the theatre profession. The Disney Company, even after six musicals, is considered an upstart outsider. They call the Disney offerings “theme park” shows, which proves that they’ve only visited Six Flags. When the very conventional Beauty and the Beast opened in 1994, it was in the grand tradition of British pantomime and Broadway family spectacle that has been around since Babes in Toyland (1903). The nominating committee included Beauty and the Beast in nine categories, including Best Musical. But the voters gave the Best Musical Tony to the poorly-reviewed and unpopular Passion. The lone Tony for Beauty and the Beast went to the costumes because Ann Hould-Ward was a Broadway designer, not a Disney person. Of course, the joke was on the voters. Passion closed six months after the ceremony while Beauty and the Beast ran 14 years. The Tony voters have similarly rejected all the subsequent Disney musicals except The Lion King which they correctly saw as theatre auteur director Julie Taymor’s re-imagining of the popular film. More simply put: they liked The Lion King on stage because it didn’t resemble the movie. The Little Mermaid on Broadway is a popular recent entry but if it walks away with more than one or two minor awards, I’ll be very surprised. The Tony voters still aren’t ready to allow the interloping Disney Company to run Broadway.
2. Stephen Schwartz. With such long-run hits as Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show and Wicked to his credit, Schwartz doesn’t really need a Tony. So is it mere coincidence that Tony has overlooked Schwartz? Doubtful. I believe many Tony voters see Schwartz as an American version of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, a songwriter who is rich and popular because he’s more “pop” than Broadway. Ask voters what their favorite Schwartz score is, they’ll probably say The Baker’s Wife, a beautiful if conventional romantic musical that never made it to Broadway. Schwartz’s score for Pippin lost to Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Understandable, even if it’s a case of apples and oranges. And The Magic Show nominations were odd, to say the least. Non-acting magician Doug Henning was put up for best featured actor (!) but the lively, delightful score was ignored. What was nominated instead? The Wiz (which won), Shenandoah, The Lieutenant and Letter for Queen Victoria. Not exactly tough competition. When the Off-Broadway Godspell was finally a contender in 1977, the Schwartz score was considered a familiar classic so everyone voted for Annie. On the Twentieth Century beat his score for the short-lived Working. He also wrote the lyrics for another admired but shorter-lived musical, Rags, which lost to Les Misérables. In 2004 it looked like Schwartz might win a well-deserved Tony at last when he made a sensational comeback to Broadway with his score for Wicked. The fact that the voters opted for the non-score of Avenue Q is incredible. Maybe they were trying to be hip, but overlooking the score of the big show was an embarrassment that will be laughed about for decades.
3. Julie Andrews. Everybody loves Julie Andrews. I mean everybody. Except Tony. The fact that she’s never won a Tony Award is even odder because to many she represents the best of American musical theatre. Andrews’ indelible Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady lost to Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing, another legendary performance. Camelot was not even nominated for Best Musical (Bye Bye Birdie won that year) and Andrews’ Guenevere lost to Elizabeth Seal in Irma la Douce. Is this suspicious or what? When Andrews finally returned to Broadway in the problematic Victor/Victoria, her performance was the only nomination the musical received. Miffed at the committee for they way they ignored every other aspect of the show, she announced she wouldn’t accept the award if she was voted Best Actress. Equally annoyed, the voters gave it to Donna Murphy for The King and I. Murphy had already won a Tony for Passion and here was a chance to make up for past errors. But it was not to be. Everybody else still loves Julie Andrews though.