Theatre yesterday and today



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If Kevin Kline (as it is being widely predicted) wins the Tony Sunday night for his performance this season in Noël Coward's Present Laughter, it would prove a thirty-six year pause between his second and third awards (his first Tony was for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for On the Twentieth Century). His second was as Best Actor in a Musical for his wickedly funny and overly-athletic re-invention of the Pirate King in Gilbert and Sullivan's 1879 war horse The Pirates of Penzance. No actor's waited longer than Kline—the previous record-holder was when the late Alan Bates picked up his second Best Actor in a Play award for Turgenev's Fortune's Fool in 2002, after his first one exactly thirty years earlier for Butley, by Simon Gray.

Kevin Kline in Pirates of Penzance (1981) and Present Laughter (2017).

Not that I'm looking for any kind of award myself, but Sunday night offers a different sort of milestone (for me, anyway), which is that it's been a forty-five year span between my attending the Tonys in person. I was there that night in 1972 when Bates picked up his first Tony, only a month past my fifteenth birthday.

There I was, up in the cheap seats, although that's a relative term since, at the time, it was the most I had ever paid for a ticket. My first night at the theatre was October 11, 1968 with I Do! I Do!, and by the time the Tonys rolled around on the night of April 23, 1972, I had seen my 169th show the night before, a short-lived play titled The Little Black Book, that would mark the one and only time the two-time Academy Award winning director Milos Foreman worked on Broadway.

Yeah, I saved it.

On Sunday night I will not be up in the cheap seats. It's hard not to fixate on what my ticket to the '72 Tonys cost, which at $10 was two-and-a-half times what I had to pay to rent a tuxedo. My ticket to the gala ball cost an additional $25, and was at the Americana Hotel on 7th Avenue (around the corner from where the Tonys were held that year at the Broadway Theatre). It is now a Sheraton. I remember distinctly that when I arrived there for the party, I was asked to find my name on a seating chart. And though I wasn't at his table, I was pleased to see my name alphabetically following that of Peter Falk, then starring in Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and at the height of his TV fame as Lt. Columbo—which reminds me of a story Lee Grant (Falk's co-star in the Simon play) told me ... that is probably best saved for another column.

I only wish that photos were taken of me dressed in my evening wear, my hair down to my shoulders (it was 1972, folks!). I'm sure I stuck out among the passengers riding into Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad that night from my hometown of Great Neck. I know my nerves were jittery, not in anticipation of being at the Tonys, but how I would fare on the subway ride out to Queens after the ball. The LIRR trains to Great Neck stopped running around 1:00, and since I knew the ball wouldn't be over by then, I had made arrangements to sleep over at a relative's in Queens (the subways never close). I was fairly certain that dressed in a tux was going to make me an easy target for mugging. Not-so-spoiler alert: I did fine.

For those that know their Tonys history, the 1972 ceremony was famous for two things: One was that many a theatre fan's beloved Follies, though awarded seven Tonys, failed to win the big prize for Best Musical. It lost to the Off-Broadway Public Theatre adaptation of Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona, imported from a previous summer's run at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. In fact, that award marked only the second time at the Tonys that the same producer won for Best Play and Best Musical, as Joe Papp, the founder of the Public, was responsible for moving David Rabe's Sticks and Bones from downtown to uptown, and for it winning Best Play.*

The second thing this night was famous for, was the inexplicable decision to this day that led to three of the four nominated Best Musicals not performing a number on the broadcast. Today, this is the whole point—as even musicals NOT nominated now get the chance to strut their stuff. With each successive broadcast, the Tonys become more and more a three-hour commercial for Broadway. And as such, it would be inconceivable that the two top contenders this Sunday night (Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away) would not be represented with excerpts. But in 1972, neither Follies norTwo Gentlemen of Verona were represented. Grease, which would eventually become (for a time) the longest running musical in Broadway history, was the third of the four nominated shows and it didn't get a minute in the spotlight either. And yet, Melvin Van Peebles's pastiche musical of life in the urban ghetto, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, the fourth nominated Best Musical, got the coveted slot. Snippets of songs and monologues from the show ascended to a rousing finish led by Minnie Gentry, dressed as a bag lady, excoriating the stunned and very well-heeled crowd at the Broadway (as well as millions watching at home) with the in-your-face "Put a Curse on You." Check it out on YouTube. It's really something.

Oh, and Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar, which received five nominations (the fewest of any of the shows that performed) managed to get a full production number. People are still scratching their heads all these years later—especially those Follies fans who will forever bemoan the loss of a visual recording of the original brilliant actors in one of any number of songs that could have been done from Stephen Sondheim's extraordinary score.

But for me (as well as I would dare say the audience) the absolute highlight of the '72 Tonys was when Ethel Merman was given a special award for Lifetime Achievement. As the story goes, when “the Merm” was informed that an all-star cast would perform her most famous numbers, she told them, “No way! No one’s doing my songs but me!” Which was how everyone got to enjoy Ethel Merman—starring in a salute to herself.

And I got to see the whole show from the last row of the Broadway Theatre about as far away from the action as possible (the Broadway is enormous). But I didn’t care. After all, there was never any problem hearing Ethel Merman.

* The first time a producer grabbed two Tonys in a single night was when in 1964, David Merrick won for Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's Hello, Dolly! and John Osborne's Luther. He also received a third Tony in the now defunct category of Best Producer of the year. And yes, with facts and figures like these stuck in so many small corners of my brain, there's little left for any new information. Maybe one day we'll be able to empty our trash like we do on our computers.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: