Theatre yesterday and today



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Last night’s opening of Lucas Hnath’s new play A Doll’s House, Part 2, was the final play of the 2016–17 Broadway season. All shows that opened between April 28th of last year and April 27th of this year, are in consideration for the Tony Awards, with nominations forthcoming on Tuesday May 2nd, and the annual broadcast June 11th on CBS June.

The top winners at the 1963 Tonys: Zero Mostel (Forum), Vivien Leigh (Tovarich)

and Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

Prior to 1967, the first year the Tonys were telecast on national television, the awards were very small events held in a hotel ballroom in New York City. And it was on this date April 28, 1963, when one such affair took place and Tonys were handed out in 21 categories (somewhat unevenly). More than half the winners comprised just two shows: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which won five, and Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which won six. Nothing too surprising, as both shows dominated the season with rave reviews and solid box office.

Arthur Hill & Uta Hagen in Virginia Woolf and Zero Mostel in Forum —

 from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Virginia Woolf’s competition made it almost a lock for Best Play. The show that probably finished second in the voting was Herb Gardner’s comedy A Thousand Clowns, which was a popular hit and starred Jason Robards and Sandy Dennis, who would win the Tony (and funnily enough, the Oscar three years later for playing Honey in the film version of Virginia Woolf). Another nominated play was Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. First produced in 1941 in Zürich, it was eligible as a new play, and not a revival, since this was its Broadway premiere. It didn’t receive very good reviews, in spite of an inventive staging by Jerome Robbins in one of his rare excursions into non-musical theatre. It only managed two months on Broadway, even after its star, Anne Bancroft, won an Oscar as Best Actress for The Miracle Worker 11 days after Mother Courage opened. Not only was it no help at the box office, it also did nothing to sway the Tony nominators, as Bancroft ended up off the list of Best Actresses. As for the photo below, anyone who has been watching the FX mini-series Feud, about the longtime battle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, will know the meaning of this bizarre shot (and how it came to happen).

Joan Crawford presents Anne Bancroft backstage with her Miracle Worker Oscar.

Forum’s competition were three musicals that received mixed reviews, yet nevertheless would all have decent runs and would even go on to future Broadway revivals. One of them, Oliver!, would five years later become an Oscar winning Best Picture. It was also the only other show to win more than one Tony that night at the Americana Hotel in 1963, three in total. One was for its conductor Donald Pippin, a category that no longer exists, and one for its set, that featured an elaborate use of a turntable that, for its time, was revolutionary (pardon the pun).

Clive Revill and Georgia Brown as Fagin and Nancy in Oliver!

Oliver!’s third Tony went to Lionel Bart as Best Composer-Lyricist over Stephen Sondheim for his Forum score. Even worse for Sondheim, was the embarrassment of being completely overlooked, not even being nominated for his subtle and witty score. In his 2010 book, Finishing the Hat, Sondheim wrote of this Tony Awards night from a perspective of forty-seven years later: “Forum was nominated for eight Tony Awards (and won six), the only major category missing being Best Score. As I sat at home licking my wounds and watching everyone receive their silver disks and thank one another profusely, I had nothing to console myself with but the knowledge that the show was a huge success and I would make some money.”

The other two 1963 musicals nominated were Stop the World — I Want to Get Off, Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s avant-garde oddball piece that yielded enormous popular hit songs such as “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” “Gonna Build a Mountain” and “Once in a Lifetime.” It was revived in 1978 with Sammy Davis Jr., who had forged a successfully relationship with Newley and Bricusse, having recorded all three of those songs, in addition to many others, including “The Candy Man” and “Who Can I Turn To?” The fourth slot for Best Musical was rounded out by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s Little Me. Wildly funny with a terrific score, it has always stubbornly remained an uneven musical, never fully satisfying as a fine meal. Though it offers treat after treat, it’s like eating a dinner that consists only of desserts. And still, it’s yielded two Broadway revivals. One in 1982 and one in 1998 (the latter garnering a Tony for Martin Short, playing eight of the leading men’s roles — one more than Sid Caesar did when he created the role in the original production). It was even revived as recently as 2014 for a one-week run at City Center’s Encores! (Christian Borle took on the roles, which went back to seven). For a problematic show, the lure to find an actor who can fill all the men’s parts offers a wealth of talent to choose from, which is what keeps it a popular choice for revival. Though for some odd reason, it was determined for the 1982 production to split the roles between two actors; James Coco and Victor Garber, an idea that just didn’t work. As funny as Coco was, you yearned for Garber to have taken all the parts on himself (as he was fully capable of doing so). It also belied the whole point of the show, as it was written specifically for Sid Caesar, whose talents were deeply familiar to playwright Neil Simon as Caesar was his former employer when Simon wrote for both is television series. Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour.

Sid Caesar in four of seven garbs in Little Me (1962).

By the way, this was a Broadway season that featured (in addition those already named) the following actors in a diverse number of plays and musicals. Get ready for this, it’s a mind blower.

Alan Arkin

Ray Bolger

Gertrude Berg

David Burns

John Carradine

Howard Da Silva

William Daniels

Nanette Fabray

Ben Gazzara

John Gielgud

Jack Gilford

Anita Gillette

Julie Harris

Pat Hingle

Bert Lahr

Vivien Leigh

Geraldine Page

Ralph Richardson

Robert Ryan

Gene Wilder

Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett in the British import revue Beyond the Fringe.

And… Robert Preston, Cyril Ritchard, Eileen Heckart, Glynis Johns, Cedric Hardwicke, Lillian Gish and David Wayne… all in the same show: a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Too True to Be Good.

Glynis Johns in what would could conceivably have been the title role in Too True to Be Good (1962).

And last but not least, the highest price ticket for any of these shows was $9.90. And it was to see The Sound of Music, then near the end of its three-year run. Go figure.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: