With the terrific Tonys telecast still fresh on the brain, it brought to my mind how far this once humble ceremony has come. On this day 50 years ago, the 20th Tony Awards ceremony took place and it was a very different affair indeed.
The early Tony Awards were sponsored entirely by the American Theatre Wing, a small but dedicated organization to good works in the theatre back then the same as they are today. But 1966 marked a temporary take-over by the League of New York Theaters, consisting of theatre owners and producers, known today as the Broadway League. Not only did the ceremony take place at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, but it was in the middle of the afternoon for the first (and last) time. The following year it was broadcast live across the nation on ABC bringing the Tonys to the masses for the first time, and forever onward at night and always in a theatre.
The 1966 Tonys was broadcast as well, but on the radio. And locally—WCBS in New York City. It was hosted by Ginger Rogers (then starring on Broadway as the second Mrs. Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!) and George Abbott, youthful and robust at a mere 79 years old (he lived and worked as a director past the age of 100). The bulk of the awards went to Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s Man of La Mancha, which took home five, including Best Musical and Best Actor for Richard Kiley. Close on La Mancha’s heels was the Best Play of 1966, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, otherwise known as Marat/Sade. This German play with music was written by Peter Weiss and directed by one of them most innovative directors of the past century, Peter Brook. Still working today at age 91, Brook’s dazzling work brought him the first of his two Tony Awards.
Another show that received multiple awards (three of the four Tonys given for performances in a musical) was Mame, which made a musical theatre star of Angela Lansbury. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee had adapted Patrick Denis’s novel Auntie Mame into a hit play in 1956, and wrote the book for the musical version as well, along with Jerry Herman, just coming off writing the score for the smash hit Hello, Dolly!
Although Lansbury had appeared in a musical the season before, that show closed in a week (Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’s largely experimental Anyone Can Whistle). Even with four Academy Award nominations under her belt, and numerous roles in plays on Broadway, Lansbury had to audition many times to convince the director of Mame, Gene Saks, and the trio of producers that she could carry a musical. And carry it she did. It was the first of five Tony Awards awarded to Lansbury over the years, four of which were for Leading Actress in a Musical. No one else—not even Audra MacDonald has four to boast of in that category. Well, not yet.
One interesting note: This was the last time that the familiar Tonys with their masks of comedy and tragedy would be given out in a case. They were put on a pedestal for the next year’s ceremony entirely due to the fact it would make it easier for them to be handed out and seen by the audiences who would be watching the awards on television for the first time.
Anyone want to harbor a guess as to whether Ms. Lansbury’s first Tony is still in its case or has been transferred to a pedestal? Inquiring minds want to know.
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