Theatre yesterday and today



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Hard to believe what with the extraordinary success of the Broadway revival of Chicago, now running for over 20 years, that its original 1975 production went home the night of the 1976 Tony Awards with zero trophies to show for its eleven nominations.

That was due to the steamroller effect of the show that took home the lion’s share of awards that season—a juggernaut called A Chorus Line. How else to explain the first Chicago being ignored? It had arguably Bob Fosse’s best work as a director and choreographer, and a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb which has undeniably stood the test of time. Not to mention the star power of Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. With personal ownership of seven Tony Awards between these three actors, all left the Shubert Theatre on April 18, 1976 empty-handed.

I’m reminded of this with Hamilton running away with 11 Tony Awards last night while the mesmerizing Shuffle Along was left standing at the altar. What if last year's big winner Fun Home had opened this season? It’s highly unlikely it would have taken home the Tonys for Musical, Directing, Book and Score that it did last June. It’s not to take anything away from its success that night, but the competition always plays into any contest. The season you open in is the season you open in. Timing is everything.

Back in 1976, A Chorus Line grabbed 9 out of its 12 nominations; Chicago went 0-11. This same thing happened to Kander and Ebb again in 1997 when their musical Steel Pier received 11 nominations and won none. Adding insult to injury, Kander lived to see his own ignominious record broken when in 2010, The Scottsboro Boys, a show he completed with the help of others after the death of his partner Fred Ebb, was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and its number of wins added up to zilch.

Of course, Tony love was shown to Kander and Ebb over the years, as they were honored for their scores to Cabaret, Woman of the Year and Kiss of the Spider Woman. But the main point of all these statistics is that sometimes you have the good fortune to create something very well received, only to have it eclipsed by something that people like just a little bit more.

I’ve always felt that “best” is not an appropriate awards term. Though it will never be officially utilized, the reality is that people are voting for their “favorite,” not necessarily what they consider the “best.” Or take into account when Ralph Fiennes won a Tony for playing Hamlet. How did the other actors in his category feel when they knew off the bat he had the better role? That said, he is the only actor to have ever received a Tony for playing the Prince of Denmark. In fact, (and this may be surprising) of the 11 actors who have been Tony eligible in Hamlet revivals since 1947, besides Fiennes, only Richard Burton has been nominated. As great a part as it is, there’s no question it’s not an easy one.

With sweet irony, in 2014 Chicago surpassed the fifteen-year run of its chief nemesis at the 1976 Tonys, A Chorus Line. Chicago would then go on to break the record of Cats, which broke the record of A Chorus Line. And with Phantom of the Opera, Broadway’s longest running musical, a British import, Chicago is now boasting itself “America’s Longest Running Musical.”

All’s fair in love and war (and advertising) and sometimes it’s nice to have the last laugh.