How Did It Happen? The Best Musical Tony Losers That Should Have Won
The ancient Greeks probably didn’t have their own version of the Tony Awards. But if they did, one thing is for certain: each year when winners were announced, some Hellenic hell was raised. “What!? That won?” “I can’t believe it!” and “(S)he was robbed!” must have rung out across the agora.
Whether or not it happened then, it certainly has been occurring for decades. Whenever any award winner is announced from the podium—be it for a Tony or an AriZoni (Phoenix’s top theatrical award)—choked outcries of rage are heard. “How could they not have chosen [fill in the blank]?”
When one looks at the seven-decade history of the Tony Awards and its annual Best Musical statuette, the results from three years raise the most eyebrows and voices. They involve one show with strippers, one with showgirls, and one with Sharks. But let’s go in chronological order.
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In The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s 1960 Oscar winner, executive Jeff Sheldrake had just arranged to borrow his low-level employee’s apartment for a tryst. Sheldrake then called his wife and lied that he’d be home late because he had to entertain a client by taking him to a Broadway show.
When Sheldrake’s wife asked him what they would see, he answered, “The Music Man. What else?”
How about West Side Story? There’s a good chance the Arthur Laurents–Leonard Bernstein–Stephen Sondheim masterpiece was also running when Sheldrake made his statement. Of the 1,241 straight days that The Music Man played Broadway, West Side Story was around for 868 of them—640 during its original 1957–1959 run and 228 more in its 1960 return engagement. But The Music Man was apparently the only show on this tired businessman’s radar.
And on April 13, 1958, it was the Tony voters’ choice, too, as Best Musical.
West Side Story didn’t win either Best Book (Arthur Laurents) or Score (music: Leonard Bernstein; lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)—but for good reason. Although those categories had been in place during the first years of the Tonys, they were discontinued in the early fifties and weren’t reinstated until 1961–1962. So we’ll never know if the show would have won in either, neither, or both of those categories.
But if there had been a Best Book prize, would West Side Story have won? Would voters have felt that the strangely unbilled William Shakespeare had provided the template with his Romeo and Juliet? Weren’t Tony and Maria just updates of the Bard’s star-crossed lovers, while the Montagues and Capulets were now two street gangs: the “American” Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.
Laurents’s critics point out that his book too easily suggested that juvenile delinquency was society’s fault. Many wondered why the only parent in the show was Maria’s father as an offstage voice. Still others didn’t believe that Tony’s death would indeed make the Jets and Sharks reconcile. And love at first sight? (But that happens in Romeo and Juliet, too, and critics don’t seem to mind it there.)
Give Laurents credit for considerably upping Shakespeare’s stakes. The Bard had Romeo kill Juliet’s cousin, which, although tragic, can’t compare to Tony’s killing Maria’s brother Bernardo. And while the plot of Romeo and Juliet turned on an undelivered letter, West Side Story was more complicated: Maria asked her best friend Anita to deliver information to the Jets, and after they sexually harassed her, she lied, which resulted in greater carnage.
In The Music Man’s favor is that it’s an original musical, created from scratch by book writer/composer/lyricist Meredith Willson. So-called “Professor” Harold Hill is actually a con man who comes to River City, Iowa, and promises to start a boys’ band, although he doesn’t know a lick of music. Much of the town is easily seduced by him, but Marian Paroo, a full-time librarian and part-time music teacher, certainly is not.
At one point, she is about to excoriate him. “Mr. Hill,” she says sharply, and when he says, “Uh-uh-uh,” audiences fully expected to have him say invitingly, “Call me Harold.” Instead, he issues a correction: “Professor Hill.”
However, Marian had a much younger brother, Winthrop, who’d been terribly depressed since his father had died. That Winthrop had a pronounced lisp hurt the lad’s self-esteem.
But when Harold gave Winthrop a shiny new cornet to play in the band, the boy came back to life—which made Marian immediately love Harold. For months, no one had come close to unlocking the boy’s heart. Now that someone had, she was grateful as the first-act curtain fell.
(On the other hand, shouldn’t Marian have worried about the day of reckoning that would inevitably come? The boy would undoubtedly become more distraught when he learned that the “professor” won’t be able to start a band.)
So neither West Side Story nor The Music Man has a perfect book. What musical does? But both have marvelous scores.
While Bernstein and Sondheim would seem to have easily won over Willson, we can’t be certain. Two of The Music Man’s songs were showing up on many TV variety shows: “Seventy-six Trombones,” Harold Hill’s first-act rouser, and “Till There Was You,” the big second-act ballad that he shared with Marian. Even the Beatles made the latter the only Broadway show song they’d ever sing.
Bernstein and Sondheim’s score had two hits, too: “Maria” and “Tonight.” But those became popular only years after, when West Side Story’s film version became immensely popular. In the late fifties, the only melody that the nation truly knew from West Side Story was the music to which the Jets snapped their fingers in the prologue: it had become the background music in a TV commercial for Ban, a deodorant.
Actually, The Music Man’s score shouldn’t be sold short. Willson didn’t merely write a score full of thirty-two-bar songs. His opener, “Rock Island,” may have only had the wisp of a melody, but it was innovative: it had a trainful of traveling salesmen matching the rhythm of their parlor car rolling on the tracks.
Harold Hill’s introduction to “Seventy-six Trombones,” as well as his warning to River City that “Ya Got Trouble,” were each soliloquies set to music. Rhyme was rarely used, but rarely missed, too. Willson’s turning a piano lesson into a song was unique and unprecedented, too. Add in three numbers for a barbershop quartet—the last of which formed half of a delightful quodlibet—and The Music Man had a solid score.
But of course, so did West Side Story. What’s remarkable about Bernstein’s music is that even now, more than fifty years after its debut, it doesn’t feel dated.
West Side Story was Sondheim’s Broadway debut. He has often criticized his early work, as most artists do. Nevertheless, he provided some wondrous lyrics. We’ve all had the experience of waiting all day for something which we’ve been desperately looking forward to. But have we expressed it as well as “Make this endless day endless night?”
In the “Quintet,” the Jets snarled, “Well, they began it!” immediately followed by the Sharks insisting, “Well, they began it!” Yes, there are three sides to every story—the Jets’, the Sharks’, and the true side.
Later, Anita anticipated that Bernardo will “walk in hot and tired” before approving “as long as he’s hot.” Here were two different meanings—overheated and sexually charged—from one little three-letter word.
“I like the island Manhattan” by itself didn’t show much inspiration, but “Smoke on your pipe and put that in” certainly did. (Given that Oscar Hammerstein II was the most profound influence on Sondheim’s professional life, he may have got this reverse syntax idea from his mentor, who had had Ado Annie in his Oklahoma! express a cliché in similar fashion: “A lot of tempest in a pot of tea.”)
The Music Man won three out of the four awards in the acting categories, too: Robert Preston’s Harold Hill, Barbara Cook’s Marian, and David Burns as the mayor whom they both fooled. Even Iggie Wolfington, who played Harold’s longtime friend Marcellus—and who had only one song—snagged a nomination. The Music Man garnered nine in all.
West Side Story, meanwhile, managed three fewer nominations. Carol Lawrence’s Maria was nominated, but Larry Kert’s Tony was not. Mickey Calin and Ken LeRoy, respectively playing rival gang leaders Riff and Bernardo, were also spurned. Even the actress portraying Anita was snubbed, too. It would be the first in a long line of Tony indignities that Chita Rivera would endure.
How could this happen in the acting categories? Virtually all the West Side Story cast members had more to do than most everyone in The Music Man. Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins had abandoned the Broadway tradition of hiring one chorus to sing and another to dance. Instead, his ten Jets, nine Sharks, and eleven assorted girlfriends performed both duties, and had plenty to act, too. One size had to fit all.
And did they dance. Robbins designed no fewer than a dozen opportunities, everything from mambo to ballet. He had more dances in his musical than his two choreographer Tony competitors, Onna White (The Music Man) and Bob Fosse (New Girl in Town), had in their shows combined.
However, Chita Rivera said in her 2005 revue, The Dancer’s Life, that Peter Gennaro, billed as co-choreographer, had staged “America” and the five sections of “Dance at the Gym.” Insisted Rivera, “Peter did every one of those dances, and has never been given the proper recognition.” The glint in her eye and knowing smile on her face said, “And you’d better believe that I’m telling you the truth.”
Still, Robbins’s choreography was palpable and was acknowledged by a Tony, as were Oliver Smith’s set designs. But Smith’s award was listed with five other productions he’d designed that same season. Because his four competitors didn’t design as many as he, we’ll never know if the Tony voters were choosing quantity over quality—or if his specific designs for West Side Story provided the major factor in their selecting Smith.
Some may be looking for Robbins’s name as Best Director, but here’s a bizarre Tony fact: the category of “Best Director of a Musical” didn’t exist until the 1959–1960 season.
One suspects that Robbins probably would have bested Morton DaCosta. But the facts remain that West Side Story is the greatest blue-chip musical theater title to win the fewest Tony Awards: a mere two. Ten years down the line, even two now forgotten musicals, The Happy Time and Hallelujah, Baby! would respectively win three and four.
Perhaps West Side Story was just too dark for Tony voters. Three young gang members died—meaning that West Side Story had as many deaths as all previous nine Best Musical Tony winners combined: South Pacific saw Lieutenant Joseph Cable die in action; The King and I had its monarch pass away at the end of the show; Kismet had its evil Wazir drowned. While the death of King Monghut was sad, he may have been older than Tony and Riff put together and had certainly lived a full life. The Wazir was evil and corrupt, so Tony voters felt that he was getting his just deserts. Cable, however, was not much older than any Jet or Shark. But he at least died defending his country in “the Good War.” The three gang members lost their lives for less lofty reasons. What’s more, the havoc that West Side Story’s inner-city juvenile delinquents were causing reminded Tony voters of what was actually happening only some blocks uptown.
No one died in The Music Man. The teens in River City, Iowa, in 1905 toed the line, aside from Tommy Djilas. He once lit a firecracker and threw it—a far cry from wielding a knife and using it.
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In every political election, the number of votes amassed by each candidate is broadcast and published for all to see. Whether the winner enjoys a landslide of millions—or the loser endures a four-digit humiliation—every result becomes common knowledge.
Luckily for the runner-ups in Tony Awards races, the number of votes is not disclosed. As a result, all losers, no matter how dark the horses they’ve been riding, can convince themselves that they may have lost by a whisker. Despite what the pundits had predicted, any nominee may think, “Hey, there have been plenty of upsets over the years. For all I know, I might have been just one or two votes away from winning and spinning my Tony.”
But the authors of the musical that’s one of the very best—Gypsy (1959–1960)—could never tell themselves that. For book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins not only saw The Sound of Music win Best Musical, but they also witnessed Fiorello! cop the same prize—in the only tie thus far in the Tonys’ Best Musical races.
At best, Gypsy finished third.
To use an unfortunate phrase, Gypsy got gypped. This is especially galling, considering that Laurents’s book is one of the best ever written for a musical.
After what is often called the greatest overture ever composed came a most modest opening number: two little girls sang six lines of “May We Entertain You?” at Uncle Jocko’s Kiddie Show, circa 1925. Jocko was hardly avuncular, and wasn’t impressed with the acts competing for a prize. “That’s what’s gonna kill vaudeville,” he said, letting us know that this art form was already endangered.
One person didn’t believe that: Rose Hovick, mother to blond June and brunette Louise. Suddenly came the unmistakable sound of Ethel Merman’s voice: “Sing out, Louise!” Once Rose said “Save your strength, June,” and “Stop sucking your thumb, Louise,” she informed us which girl was her favorite.
Rose had probably spent little time in classrooms, but she certainly knew the old-school-tie ploy. She tried to get around Uncle Jocko by seeing if he were an Odd Fellow, Knight of Pythias, or an Elk. She had to, because she’d learned the contest was rigged. (Even at this level, show business is corrupt.)
June and Louise came away with ten dollars. “That rotten little Uncle Jocko,” said Rose, as she entered her father’s house. “He’s as cheap as your grandpa.” Even before he made his entrance, Tony voters knew that he wasn’t on Rose’s side.
Say what you will about Rose, she was literally willing to eat dog food to save money that could be applied to the act. She’d had a dream about a new one: Baby June and Her Newsboys. “Louise can be a boy,” she decided, unaware of how that might affect the girl’s esteem. Ditto her allowing June to sleep with her, but not Louise.
The irony was that Louise would become a star playing anything but a boy. That, however, was far in the future. Neither Rose nor her father could have seen that success. When he accused Rose of “foolin’ your kids with those dreams,” she cried out “They’re real dreams!” which made for a splendid oxymoron.
“Running around the country like a gypsy,” he muttered, allowing audiences to assume that this was the genesis of the name Gypsy Rose Lee. Not at all; it was a clever red herring from Laurents.
That Rose would find work for “Baby June and Her Newsboys” seemed unlikely until she found a man: Herbie, once an agent but now a candy salesman. “I was always giving my clients their commission and telling them they got a raise,” he said, words that would later be significant. But his attraction to Rose would return Herbie to agenting.
In the act, June said “Everybody has someone to thank for their success. Usually it’s their mother.” Yes, Rose would include that to remind June (and, oh, Louise) of her importance. As Rose said later while stealing silverware from a restaurant, “Charity begins at home.”
Time to applaud director-choreographer Jerome Robbins for his innovative way of transforming the young June, Louise, and the boys into older versions of themselves: by setting up a strobe light that fooled our eyes as the young performers shuffled off and the older ones shuffled on. Four years of time evaporated in forty seconds.
Soon everyone celebrated Louise’s birthday—although June got the present of a new act. (Audiences would soon see how “new” it was.) The celebration rankled the hotel manager, and Rose played the rape card to get rid of him. Herbie’s response when he heard about it: “Again?”
A nod to Sondheim here: after everyone celebrated, Louise sang to one of her birthday presents—a “Little Lamb.” Until now, audiences had only heard her sing in the act; now they’d finally hear what was on her mind: “I wonder how old I am.” Kids are always obsessed with their ages and want to be older—Louise and certainly June did—so our learning that Louise didn’t know this taken-for-granted fact was powerful.
Laurents didn’t make Rose one-dimensional. Although she had a nightly ritual for getting the girls ready for bed, she did tell Herbie, “They can skip the cold cream for one night,” so that she could be with him. Did she feel she’d better throw him a bone? Did she love him? Both? Laurents left the answers for the audiences.
And yet, soon Rose was angry with Herbie when he told her that the girls were “almost young women.” Rose’s ability to deny reached its apotheosis here: “They’re not and they never will be,” she said—and meant it.
Herbie tried to have her face another reality: “Don’t you know there’s a Depression?” Rose’s response was pure Rose: “Of course I know. I read Variety,” she said, reminding us of one of journalism’s most famous headlines: WALL ST. LAYS AN EGG. (Actually, Rose probably only saw that headline, and did no additional reading. If she did, it was undoubtedly in a store where she’d picked up Variety and perused before the proprietor could yell out, “Hey, this ain’t a library!”)
Herbie stayed disgruntled. “If I ever let loose,” he said, “it’ll end up with me picking up and walking.” Audiences wondered if this was foreshadowing or if Rose was right when she said, “Only around the block.”
Audition day came. Herbie said, “It’s a privilege to audition for you, Mr. Grantziger.” Said Rose, “This is gonna make ya!”
The “new” act, Dainty June and Her Farmboys, had the same six-line introduction as the Newsboys had. June then recited that she was leaving the farm to perform on Broadway—before she decided to stay put, because she couldn’t bear to leave her beloved cow Caroline. Interesting, isn’t it, that Rose should conjure up an act with this message? It’s hardly what she believed.
Mr. Grantziger was impressed enough with June to pay for her acting lessons if Rose didn’t interfere. A good mother would have seized the opportunity for her child, but Rose needed June as a meal ticket. (“How are Louise and I supposed to live?”) Of course, she loved her, too: “He’s trying to take my baby away from me!” she moaned—unaware that soon her “baby” would take herself away from her.
June was furious that Rose wouldn’t take the offer. She erupted to Louise, condemning the act—including “wearing those same awful costumes.” Then June remembered that Louise made them: “I didn’t mean it about the costumes,” she said. A lesser writer would have had Louise explode: “Hey, I made those and put a lot of work in them!” Laurents much more wisely had Louise state, “No, you just mean you’re too big for them.” Now audiences liked Louise even more for not taking the remark personally.
Thus, they were rooting for her when she came upon Tulsa, a Farmboy, who was rehearsing his song-and-dance act. Louise predicted great things for him after reading his palm. (Is that where “gypsy” came from? Another red herring.)
Tulsa returned to practicing, and Louise joined in the joyous “All I Need Is the Girl.” He seemed happy to have this impromptu partner, and audiences hoped that this might be Louise’s first love.
No. As if being in June’s shadow all life long wasn’t enough, Louise would now see June, albeit inadvertently, take Tulsa away from her, too. As Rose learned while waiting to take the act on a train, the two had been married three weeks earlier and were now gone to forge their own act.
Audiences’ hearts broke for the couple, too. Vaudeville wasn’t just dead for Rose; June and Tulsa too would now suffer plenty. So would the other Farmboys who then deserted the act—although Herbie had been paying them on the side, just as he’d done in his previous life as an agent.
With June gone, Herbie told Rose he’d return to sales and would provide a home for “you and me and our daughter.” (Nice, wasn’t it, that he chose that last word?) Louise said, “Yes! Momma, say yes!” (Italics: Laurents.)
Rose was fixated on what June had written in her good-bye note. “She says I can’t make her an actress,” she muttered. Rose took that as a challenge, and suddenly believed that “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” for a new act starring Louise.
So after an intermission in which theatergoers discussed the wonders they’d just seen (which had to be too short an intermission under these circumstances), Rose unveiled her new act. Laurents’s stage directions said, “What they lack in talent—everything—they make up for in enthusiasm.” Actually, they didn’t, and Rose knew it.
She was part of the problem, because it was the same ole act, only set to a Spanish orchestration. “Madame Rose’s Toreadorables” was a cute name, but notice for whom it was named. Louise couldn’t have been happy that Rose put her in a blond wig that made her look more like June.
Moments later, when Louise was out of earshot, Rose confided in Herbie that “If I was doing it for June, I’d have it all set.” Usually when someone walks in at the wrong time in musicals, plays, and movies, audiences roll their eyes at the all-too-convenient device. Laurents did it so quickly here that no one had time to notice, because Louise didn’t come in prematurely and watch the scene for some moments while displaying her reaction. She just strolled on and said, “But you’re not, and I’m not June.” Having no fit, no fight, no feud, and no ego from Louise made the moment more powerful.
Louise came up with a good idea: make the Toreadorables blond. But after she suggested that they be billed “Louise and Her Hollywood Blondes” (show that backbone, Louise!), Rose still wanted top billing: they’d be “Rose Louise and Her Hollywood Blondes.”
Yes, it was all too convenient of Laurents to have them enter the rear of Wichita’s one and only burlesque theater. Had they entered from the more logical front, they would have seen the marquee and immediately known what it was. But they found out soon enough, and Rose rebelled—only to see Louise take control here. The young woman had been around show business long enough now to be first and foremost pragmatic. Pointing out that they had no money, Louise said, “Even if we wanted to quit and go home, we’d have to take it.”
And just when audiences expected to see Rose at her worst—when Herbie arrived and said he hadn’t known that this was a burlesque theater—she was understanding. But she was hurting: “They say when a vaudeville act plays in burlesque, it’s all washed up.”
They made the best of a bad situation. Louise enjoyed chatting with the strippers. “My grandpa says we’ve covered the country like gypsies,” she said, leading a stripper to say, “Well, you may be a gypsy, Rose Louise—say, that ain’t a bad name if you ever take up strippin’,” in another excellent foreshadowing.
A defeated Rose agreed to marry Herbie, but “not while we’re in burlesque … the day we close.” It arrived quicker than she’d thought. Starting that night, she’d be living life in a living room.
Then came a variation on one of show business’s greatest clichés: the understudy to the rescue bit. The star stripper was arrested for prostitution and a replacement was needed. Rose volunteered Louise. While management was wary, it had to concede that Louise did have one asset: “She’s young.”
“It’s the star spot!” Rose excitedly told Louise. “I promised my daughter we’d be a star.” (Note the use of “we’d.”)
“No rouge. No beauty marks … you’re a lady.” For the first time, Rose rose to the occasion and quickly came up with a unique persona—“You’re a lady”—for the newly named Gypsy Rose’s Louise. (See how Laurents kept us guessing about that name?)
Herbie was disgusted and made good on his earlier claim of “If I ever let loose it’ll end up with me picking up and walking.” He did just that, and Rose mourned for a few moments—enough time for Louise to be alone and look in the mirror. She just didn’t notice “I’m a pretty girl,” but said, “I’m a pretty girl, Momma.” She was still filtering her feelings through her mother.
Rose pushed her daughter on stage, where she was mistakenly announced as “Miss Gypsy Rose Lee.” You can bet that if the “Rose” had been mangled, Momma would have immediately corrected it. But the metaphor of Louise being replaced by someone else was fitting, too.
A montage took Tony voters from “the lovely newcomer” in Detroit to “the lovely new star” in Philadelphia to “The Queen of the Striptease” in Minsky’s, New York. At the last-named venue, a sign said “The mother of Miss Gypsy Rose Lee is not allowed backstage.” Easier posted than accomplished. Rose came in, still believing that her daughter desperately needed her. Their showdown resulted in Rose’s demanding to know “All the working and pushing and finagling … the scheming and scrimping and lying awake nights. How do I make an act out of nothing? What did I do it for?”
To which Gypsy simply said, “I thought you did it for me, Momma.”
Checkmate. Yes. Parents are supposed to sacrifice for their kids. That’s their role. Rose fulfilled it. What else could she want?
“You want to know what I did it for?” Rose asked herself. “Because I was born too soon and started too late,” she stated, before launching into one of musical theater’s greatest eleven o’clock numbers: “Rose’s Turn.”
“I had a dream,” she once again insisted. “It wasn’t for me, Herbie,” meaning “I didn’t do it for my benefit”—but when she sang the same phrase to Miss Gypsy Rose Lee, “If it wasn’t for me,” she meant “If I hadn’t been there to help you along, you wouldn’t have become a success.”
Indeed. In the previous scene, Louise had admitted that she “loves” Gypsy Rose Lee. Already she wasn’t above referring to herself in the third person. And where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee, if a quick-thinking Rose hadn’t seized the opportunity in Wichita as a strange kind of consolation prize for herself—and, yes, you?
Gypsy would now have an exciting and glamorous life because of her mother. If Rose had agreed to “Yes! Momma, say yes!” Louise would have wound up in a house with three ducks, five canaries, a mouse, two monkeys, one father, and six turtles. Shouldn’t she have been grateful that Rose gave her a different life?
Indeed she was. Mother and daughter reconciled, although Gypsy was glad that her mother could finally admit, “I guess I did do it for me.”
And Rose found time to relate one final dream: a magazine spread. It would feature, she said, tracing a name high in the air, “Madame Rose”—before pausing and moving that arm up substantially higher for “and her daughter Gypsy.” There was Rose’s ultimate compliment: top billing.
There were those who said the final scene was unnecessary, but the reconciliation was important. Many came to this conclusion because “Rose’s Turn” was so galvanic. And if we compare it to the eleven o’clock numbers in the two Best Musical Tony winners, we have “Edelweiss,” which is appropriately poignant, and “The Very Next Man,” which does contain a lovely irony in that Fiorello’s secretary says that she’ll give up on him and marry anyone who’ll ask her. It turns out to be Fiorello.
Both are very nice, but “Rose’s Turn” …
Jule Styne had more than a dozen musicals reach Broadway, but he’d never compose music as fine as this. He often credited Stephen Sondheim for getting his best work out of him. In “Some People,” in which Rose complained of those who “got the dream, yeah, but not the guts,” the pulsating melody as much as the lyric told us how no-nonsense Rose was before she slammed the door on the song’s last word. (“Rose,” of course.)
After she’d met Herbie, she turned on the charm as easily as Styne could turn out a lovely melody. “We have so much in common, it’s a phenomen-on” isn’t just a terrific rhyme; it also allowed Merman the chance to do her famous scoop on that last “on.”
Later, after June had eloped with Tulsa and a Farmboy said, “The act’s washed up,” certainly Merman’s wasn’t. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” added extra brass to an orchestra that was already sporting plenty. Theatergoers had to clap twice as hard to acknowledge the two emotions they had surging through them: admiration and hatred for Rose.
So this is a great book, and certainly superior to The Sound of Music and Fiorello! But Laurents is guilty of one lapse in logic. After Rose had an offstage fight with Mr. Grantziger, Herbie returned to June and Louise, still in Grantziger’s waiting room. He told them that Rose wasn’t feeling well, and that he was bringing her back to the hotel. Why did he leave them there? They literally had no business there.
The reason, of course, was to give the girls a private moment to do “If Momma Was Married”—as good an argument as you can get for the end’s justifying the means. These two sisters weren’t just complaining about their lot, but they were also truly bonding, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
Would that every musical be as accomplished as Gypsy, the most revived of any Tony-losing musical. So why didn’t it win?
It opened too early, some said. And true, when the 1959–1960 Tonys were dispensed on April 24, 1960, Gypsy had already been running for eleven months. But South Pacific won the 1949–1950 Best Musical Tony literally on its first anniversary, and The King and I got the 1951–1952 prize a year and a day after opening. The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees saw nearly eleven months pass from their opening to their Best Musical victories, and My Fair Lady was remembered as Best Musical a full thirteen months after it opened. However, all these winners were smash hits that were still selling out when the Tony voters submitted their ballots. Gypsy had shown itself to be a moderate seller. The Sound of Music and Fiorello! had been on Broadway for only five months and were still going clean.
Time to say the sentence that includes the words “nothing,” “succeeds,” “like,” and “success.”
What’s harder to believe is that in the six-year history of the Tony’s announcing nominees, Gypsy set the record for the most nominations (eight) without a single win: Merman, Robbins (director), Jack Klugman (Herbie), Sandra Church (Louise), Milton Rosenstock (conductor), sets (Jo Mielziner), and Raoul Pène Du Bois (costumes).
Robbins didn’t even get a nod for his choreography; the prize went to Michael Kidd for Destry Rides Again. The dancing in Gypsy wasn’t as extensive or as extraordinary as it was for his previous show—West Side Story—for which he had won the Tony. Perhaps the nominators felt that, despite an exciting dance that Robbins devised for “All I Need Is the Girl,” his choreography for Baby June and Her Newsboys, Dainty June and Her Farmboys, and Madame Rose’s Toreadorables was, after all, the same set of steps simply done on three different occasions. That was the point of the number, however. Rose Hovick wasn’t much of a choreographer and certainly not an adventurous one. But we can’t blame Robbins for that.
One 1959–1960 nominee for Best Choreographer was Lee Scott for the five performance flop Happy Town, which Walter Kerr said offered “the same dance in three different places. Clap hands horizontally, clap hands vertically, girls swish skirts to right and left, everyone do the gallop that began with ‘Rodeo,’ then do it backward on one foot.” So the one-trick pony got the Tony nomination, while the choreographer whose show demanded repetitions of the same number was denied.
Another irony was that Happy Town had actually officially closed in Boston until more money was suddenly raised (and wasted) to brave Broadway. Had it stayed shuttered in the Hub, Robbins would have had his nomination.
And that would have meant that Gypsy would have lost all nine nominations.
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Longtime Broadway observers have alleged that since the Tonys debuted on national television in 1967, voters have made a concerted effort to choose a Best Musical that will appeal to at-home viewers. Promoting feel-good shows with happy endings is good for business. West Side Story and Gypsy’s losses suggested that that policy might have been in place years earlier when smaller ceremonies were held in hotel ballrooms and broadcast only on local television. So when these future legendary shows lost, a comparatively small number either mouthed or shrieked, “What?”
However, on April 23, 1972, The Tonys were in Broadway’s biggest theater—the one called the Broadway. In addition to nearly two thousand in attendance there, tens of millions more were watching the national broadcast. (Hard as it may be to believe these days, the Tonys were then getting healthy ratings.)
So when Ingrid Bergman announced that the winner of the 1971–1972 Best Musical was Two Gentlemen of Verona and not Follies, the mouthings and shrieks of “What?” had to be the most pronounced of any that had ever followed a Tony envelope opening. And considering how the ratings have plummeted, the decibel level heard ’round the world will never be eclipsed.
By this point, even Broadway musical aficionados who lived far from New York had had nearly a year to listen to the Follies original cast album. Truncated as it was (so that it would fit on one LP record), it showed that Sondheim’s fourth Broadway score was his finest. In the twenty-six years of the Tonys, it could boast the best opening number (“Beautiful Girls”) and the best song written out-of-town (“I’m Still Here”). Those who’d seen the show knew it also had the best production number (“Who’s That Woman?”).
(By the way, it also had the best logo ever, with that sculptured haughty face of a Follies girl enduring a large divisive crack.)
Eight months later, when the album of Two Gentlemen of Verona was released, it didn’t have nearly the same impact. And wouldn’t you know, it got the two-record set?
Follies was the greater achievement. Like Laurents, John Guare and Mel Shapiro had used a Shakespeare play as their template. And while they took a (then) contemporary and freewheeling approach to the material, they even retained a good portion of the Bard’s dialogue word for word.
Like Willson, James Goldman was writing an original. He gave life to two showgirl roommates: Phyllis Rogers (Alexis Smith) and Sally Durant. They’d met and worked together in 1941 in The Weismann Follies, then respectively married Benjamin Stone and Buddy Plummer, two college chums who’d been their Stage Door Johnnies. How much everyone had grown apart would be shown this night when they reconvened for a Weismann Follies reunion in New York. Other showgirls from the past would be there, too.
Needless to say, Sondheim’s meticulous lyrics were far superior to Guare’s often misaccented ones. (“That’s the way he set them,” Guare has since explained, citing composer Galt MacDermot.) And while no song from either musical ever showed up on the Billboard charts—in the last third of the twentieth century few songs from Broadway did—there have since been many recordings and cabaret performances of “Broadway Baby,” “Losing My Mind,” and “I’m Still Here.” No song of the three dozen from Two Gentlemen remotely approached any similar success.
Since their original runs, Follies has had two Broadway revivals, while Two Gentlemen has had to settle for one summer run in Central Park. Both shows received original and London cast albums, but Follies has since enjoyed three subsequent (and sumptuous) recordings, while Two Gentlemen has never had any.
So why didn’t Follies win?
One of the first stage directions that Goldman wrote in his libretto was “At first, we’re not sure what we see.” In fact, many Tony voters weren’t ever sure of what they saw during the long intermissionless show.
Some had trouble catching on to one of the show’s most dazzling concepts: that most of the characters who were attending the reunion were followed by younger versions of themselves.
Theodore S. Chapin called his making of Follies book Everything Was Possible, in honor of the first three words of a Sondheim lyric in the song “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs.” Many instead judged the show by the last three words of that lyric: “Nothing made sense.”
Who were these ghosts at “a party on the stage of the Weismann Theatre. Tonight,” as the Playbill informed? Did former impresario Dimitri Weismann really invite his former cast members to his theater the night before it was to be razed in favor of a parking lot? Was there even a reunion to begin with, or was this just someone’s dream or someone else’s fantasy?
Goldman, Sondheim, and codirectors Harold Prince and Michael Bennett thought that Follies offered a metaphor for the decline of America. Everyone else could be pardoned for taking the story at face value and assuming that they were simply mired in a story about two terrible marriages.
Follies actually made too much sense for some Tony voters. For almost its entire length, Goldman was truthful when dangerously peeling off layer after layer of those awful marriages.
Phyllis admitted that “I wanted something when I came here thirty years ago, but I forgot to write it down.” But Ben, like so many husbands, wasn’t interested in attending his wife’s reunion. If saying to Phyllis “I’m glad you’re glad to be here” wasn’t direct enough, he added “That makes one of us” to make perfectly clear how displeased he was.
When some long-suffering wives get such an insensitive remark from their husbands, they don’t even react or respond; it’s just another in the long list of insults they’ve learned to endure after decades of such nastiness. Others cope by simply pretending that they didn’t hear the verbal slam. Already some Tony voters were being reminded of their own marriages, or ones they knew too well.
Phyllis, however, was a tougher-than-average wife: “I love the way you hate it when I’m happy and you’re not.” And while some appreciated her response, they weren’t happy to be in this couple’s company.
Of the four, Sally was the most enthusiastic about the reunion. What fervor she showed when given a sash that said “1941.” Her plea of “Can I keep it?” showed how she valued her past.
What was startling to learn was that Sally had flown from Phoenix without informing her husband of her plans. Once Buddy had discovered what she’d done, he quickly followed her. His goal was to stress one “fact”: “You’re my girl, honey. Just remember that.”
Buddy had reason to worry. Sally, like so many reunion attendees, was there in hopes of rekindling a long-out romantic fire. That was her folly.
Through the young alter egos, audiences learned that the last time that Sally had seen Ben, she’d been furious with him. She’d believed that they were a serious couple, and now he was telling her that he would marry Phyllis. So Sally married Buddy on the rebound, and for nearly thirty years has wished that she’d played her cards differently. Now, on this night, she reasoned, she might have a second chance if Ben attended. And while Tony voters could certainly relate to that, they didn’t necessarily want to.
They learned, too, that the once-strong relationship between Buddy and Ben wasn’t what it was. At college, Buddy was more economically secure than the less fortunate Ben. Eventually, however, Ben leapfrogged high over Buddy in both financial success and prestige. Buddy was now a salesman, while Ben had just left an influential political post to head a foundation. That he wrote a bestseller had added to his mystique.
Goldman was reminding Tony voters of their estranged old friends. Some had been in the position where they had endured their colleagues’ greater successes. Others were victimized when old friends felt that they’d “outgrown” them.
And yet, after Ben leapfrogged, where did he land? Money can indeed buy happiness, but only to a point. His being married to a woman he no longer loved made his happiness drain quicker than an hourglass with a shattered bottom. Hadn’t some Tony voters already reached this conclusion on their own and weren’t up to relearning it?
In between our introduction to these two miserable marriages, however, came that great opening number, “Beautiful Girls,” the song that had once begun The Weismann Follies eight times a week. Back then, the showgirls would descend a staircase while Roscoe, the major domo, sang about their glory: “This is what beauty should be; beauty celestial, the best, you’ll agree.… This is how Samson was shorn; each in her style a Delilah reborn.” (The longest that anyone has ever served as the nation’s Secretary of the Interior was thirteen years, during the 1933–1946 reign of Harold L. Ickes. Compare this to Stephen Sondheim’s half-century reign as Secretary of the Interior Rhyme.)
“Beautiful Girls” had a glorious melody, too, but it was its pathos that made it extraordinary. The past collided with the present, for the “showgirls” descending the staircase were now middle-aged women in dowdy dresses and orthopedic shoes. Beauty had faded for some and had totally disappeared in others. As Goldman wrote in his stage direction, “We watch the differences great and small that thirty years have made.”
This is how Follies went all performance long. Sondheim provided thrilling numbers that beautifully evoked the songwriters of yore from Sigmund Romberg (“One More Kiss”) to Jerome Kern (“Loveland”). In between these glories, however, Tony voters always had to return to the headache-inducing troubles between Phyllis and Ben and Buddy and Sally.
Phyllis realized the wrong turn she’d taken with Ben, who’d later muse on “The Road You Didn’t Take” to Sally. For Sally, that meant the man she didn’t get. So now, she’d first try to come across as happily married when she described how well loved she was “In Buddy’s Eyes.” Later, however, after Ben and Phyllis had had yet another fight—and he was at his most vulnerable—Sally began her quest to get her man. She tried a gingerly approach by speaking about Ben in the third person: “I even think I loved him once.” Later, she talked marriage, which was not what Ben had in mind.
Buddy informed Phyllis that Sally still loved Ben. Phyllis muttered “It might have mattered once.” Her attitude was the one Irving Berlin had his two spurned women say in Miss Liberty in 1949–1950: “You can have him. I don’t want him. He’s not worth fighting for.”
Or so Phyllis believed. Later she realized that even if she didn’t want Ben, she didn’t want Sally to have him, either. This was raw, real, and human, and Tony voters may well have remembered the times when they were just as petty and irrational over spouses they both wanted and didn’t want, too.
Phyllis confronted her rival point-blank: “Buddy thinks you’re still in love with him.” Sally soft-pedaled with “That man. He gets so jealous some times.” And while that statement would have provided Phyllis with an easy out, she instead blatantly and bitterly said, “What of?”
We could have been in for musical theater’s biggest catfight, but it was interrupted by that aforementioned greatest production number of the Tony era.
It had to happen. Someone suggested that the ex-showgirls replicate their signature number—the ultimate exercise in nostalgia. Stella Deems was willing, but, as she said, “I’m not making an ass out of myself alone.” (Well, if she’d been paying attention, she’d have noticed that Phyllis, Ben, Buddy, and Sally had made asses of themselves in a much different context.)
Soon Stella, Phyllis, Sally, and four others were performing “Who’s That Woman?” In it, Stella wondered about the identity of a scorned woman who was having a hard time believing that her “Lothario let her down.” But when she looked in the mirror, it didn’t lie: “That woman,” she had to admit, “is me.”
The theme of a mirror was brilliantly upheld by Bennett’s choreography, for each ex-showgirl was mirrored by her younger self. By the time Stella concluded the number with “That woman is me,” audiences, after cheering wildly, responded, “Well, yes and no”—for Stella and the others no longer resembled the women they once were. As Goldman wrote in his stage direction, “The number ends, the memories disappear, and we are left with seven breathless middle-aged ladies.”
We were also left once again with the travails of the Plummers and the Stones. First, however, we got to see another side of Phyllis—one that Goldman might have been well advised not to show. We could understand her fights with Ben and even her criticism of Sally. But then Phyllis had a fierce encounter with former colleague Christine Donovan.
Christine asked Phyllis, “Don’t you remember me at all?” to which Phyllis flat-out said, “You never liked me.” Give Christine credit: she handled the insult in a classier fashion by remarking with a surprised, “What a thing to say.”
Not that that softened Phyllis, who then added, “I never liked you either.” Later, when Phyllis angrily described New York as “hostility and filth and rotten manners,” she herself had already dispensed the first and third elements. This, for many audiences and Tony voters, was when they officially stopped caring about Phyllis. No wonder that in many subsequent productions this exchange has been dropped. (The first excision happened during the famous 1985 all-star concert at Avery Fisher Hall. One reason, of course, was that the concert greatly pared the book. However, let’s not forget that Elaine Stritch, in addition to playing Hattie, was given Christine’s lines. One can only shudder when imagining how Stritch would have reacted to such a verbal slap in the face. Lee Remick’s Phyllis might soon have been eating through a tube.)
Buddy described his life with Sally: “the mess, the moods, the spells … in bed for days without a word … (and) the tears.” His conclusion was “We’re finished.” Tony voters couldn’t have possibly told him not to despair.
Every bad relationship threatens to reach a point of no return; Sally and Buddy would fly past theirs on this night. Seeing Sally blatantly lie to Buddy—“Ben wants to marry me … he’s home now packing and we’re leaving in the morning”—was particularly pathetic.
Not that Ben wanted to stay with Phyllis. “The only thing I want from you is a divorce,” he proclaimed. It’s not that many Tony voters couldn’t identify with these four; they just preferred not to.
Goldman and Sondheim weren’t remotely through. Their next coup de theatre allowed Phyllis, Ben, Buddy, and Sally to have a confrontation with, of all people, their four younger selves. Ben roared, “You unfeeling bastard!” Phyllis said, “You threw my life away,” while Buddy was less elegant with “You pissed my life away.” Sally actually told her younger self, “I could kill you.” No one was taking the advice that had just been dispensed by Heidi Schiller that we should “Never look back.”
And just as Prince had shown that life was a cabaret five years earlier, now he and his collaborators would stress that we all suffer from our own follies. First up were the youthful ones of Buddy, Sally, Ben, and Phyllis. Young Ben insisted to Young Phyllis that “You’re gonna love tomorrow—as long as your tomorrow is spent with me.” That reminded many attendees how naïvely if not stupidly they had themselves handled love as twenty-somethings. Whatever was necessary to make love last had turned out to be well beyond their ken.
Young Buddy and Young Sally were at least slightly more realistic. He wanted to “warn you” while she had a “cornucopia of imperfections.” (Catch that interior rhyme?) And yet, when she feared that she’d “burn the toast” and he confessed that he would “clutter up the place,” each smiled indulgently and forgivingly—because these infractions hadn’t yet happened. Neither he nor she was remotely aware of how much frustration and fury that many years’ worth of burned toast, cluttered rooms, and other day-by-day so-called trivialities would bring. As murderess Liz in Chicago would say a few years later, “You pop that gum one more time…”
Tony voters were painfully reminded of the time decades earlier when they too thought that nothing mattered but love. Many had since come to a much different conclusion.
The adult versions of the four principals then came on and performed numbers in the manner of Follies entertainers. That Buddy went first might well have flummoxed some Tony voters, for he—and Ben, for that matter—had no connection to the actual Follies beyond waiting around for the girls upstairs. Why were they performing?
And yet, when Buddy made the observation about “the ‘thank-you-for-the-present’ ‘But-what’s-wrong-with-it’ stuff?” only the rarest of couples wouldn’t have been able to identify. Many husbands and wives could recall words to that effect being said in their households on many birthdays and holidays.
Sally then sang a torch song that showed her regret from the time “the sun comes up” to the “sleepless nights.” After a night of alternating between acting brave, smart, irritable, irrational, cute, and coy, Tony voters finally saw her in her most honest and mature guise. How sad, however, that she had to wonder if she were “Losing My Mind.”
Phyllis then performed “The Story of Lucy and Jesse” while cautioning that “these are not their real names.” No, those would have been Phyllis Rogers, the young woman who once thought herself a parvenu and Phyllis Rogers Stone, who became quite the sophisticate and came to appreciate her younger self. While Ben had earlier wondered about the road he hadn’t taken, Phyllis pondered on the persona that she hadn’t adopted.
Finally, Ben acknowledged that men have different interests, from collecting stamps to following politics, but as for him, “Me, I like to live. Me, I like to love. Me, I like to laugh.” This hadn’t remotely been the mantra of the Ben Tony voters had been seeing all night, but soon he revealed what was under the façade when he made an elision: “Me, I like to love me.”
Actually, Ben eventually decided that he didn’t love himself, en route to a nervous breakdown. Although that wasn’t what most Tony voters expected from a song, Sondheim then gave them the final nail to slam into Follies’ Tony-losing coffin: Ben became so rattled that he forgot his lines and had to be cued by the conductor. Yes, it was all part of the act, but many average theatergoers and even seasoned Tony voters came to the understandable conclusion that John McMartin had simply forgotten his lines.
And that, paradoxically, took everyone off the hook in being forced to approve Follies. Those ready to spread word of mouth or cast their ballots could snarl, “The guy didn’t even know his lines!” All could point to the show’s “incompetence” and—speaking of metaphors—use it as Exhibit A that Goldman, Sondheim, Prince, Bennett, and McMartin “just didn’t know what they were doing.”
And what of that metaphor on how America was breaking down and it all started in the home? As Sondheim would write a decade later in Merrily We Roll Along, “Nothing’s the way that it was.” But average theatergoers and Tony voters were too overwhelmed to think of Follies—a word that used to mean happy-go-lucky entertainment—in the word’s other context: the illusions we all have about ourselves.
After Ben finished his number, Goldman’s stage direction said that “We’re back on stage of the Weismann Theatre. Not literally, however. We’re inside Ben’s mind.” It’s not where Tony voters expected to be, which is why many never knew they were there. Even if they did understand that they were visiting Ben’s brain, they couldn’t have been comfortable there because, said Goldman, “we see a kind of madness.”
Prince, who had had already won two Tonys for directing, would win for Follies too (with codirector Bennett), and would nab five more in the next couple of decades. But even he couldn’t be expected to make Tony voters realize where Goldman wanted them to be. And what could anyone do with this stage direction: “as if the night’s experiences were being vomited”?
Yes, Follies was a work of genius, but such a piece often has trouble reaching nongeniuses—and that would include 1971–1972 Tony voters. One could describe Follies as a bitter pill to swallow, but to many it would have been more accurately termed a chugalug of strong medicine that tasted worse than castor oil.
Thank the Lord for the spoonsful of musical sugar from the ole Weismann Follies’ gang: The Whitmans (“Rain on the Roof”), Solange LaFitte (“Ah, Paree!”), Hattie Walker (“Broadway Baby”), Vincent and Vanessa (“Bolero D’Amour”)—and, of course, Stella Deems’s “Who’s That Woman?” Their numbers were so magnificent that we wished Sondheim had written another musical in which the former showgirls who’d decided not to attend the reunion would have been shown in their various living rooms, singing their songs from The Weismann Follies. Any excuse for more Sondheim pastiche would have been welcome.
Instead, Goldman’s stage direction that “the cacophony is terrible” occurred just around the time many in attendance had decided that the show was, too. But what Goldman then wrote may have been, in a strange way, even worse.
It was a new dawn, a new day, and we were asked to believe that it represented a new beginning for both Buddy and Sally’s marriage and Phyllis and Ben’s. “I’m here, Ben. I’m right here,” soothed Phyllis. “I’ll help you,” Buddy told Sally, who did take time to mention her suicide attempts.
Could we really believe there was any hope for these four after this Walpurgisnacht? Many Tony voters and theatergoers must have felt that Goldman didn’t merely cut much too close to the bone, but that he also crushed it and scooped out everything that had been inside. How could they possibly believe now in even one couple’s reconciliation, let alone both?
Theater critic Clive Barnes in The New York Times would say of the next Sondheim-Prince show, A Little Night Music (1972–1973), “Good God! An adult musical!” No argument, but, really, what was Follies?
Unless there had been, as Charles Foster Kane proclaimed in Citizen Kane, a “fraud at polls,” we can at least see why Follies could lose when the Tony voters filled out their ballots.
Some may point out that Two Gentlemen also had a man cheating on a woman, and, to make matters worse, he was trying to steal the lover of his best friend. But Two Gents’ characters from Verona were literally foreign to Tony voters. They had such names as Valentine and Proteus and lived in a far-away land and in a time long removed from 1971–1972. Besides, all the cheating was quickly forgiven and everyone was happy at the final curtain. Ben’s advice at the end of Follies—“Live! Laugh! Love!”—could have served as Two Gents’ advertising campaign.
At ballot-casting time for Follies, Tony voters may also have been thinking about Company, the previous Sondheim-Prince-Bennett collaboration that had won Best Musical in 1970–1971. That show at least had had its hero somewhat optimistic about becoming a husband (probably because he’d never been one). The foursome in Follies had endured wedlock for decades and had convinced us (if not themselves) that they could no longer feel hopeful staying together and fixing their relationships.
Company, at 705 performances, had had a decent run, but it had never been a big audience favorite or a hot ticket. It had been closed for three months when the 1971–1972 ballots were delivered, so many Tony voters might have felt that if crowds didn’t care all that much for Company, they would respond even less to Follies. The show had already been playing for more than a year and had been steadily waning at the box office. What was the point of giving such an unpopular show a Best Musical Tony and encouraging ticket buyers to see something they wouldn’t like?
However, the voters were generous with Follies’ staff. Sondheim won for Best Score, Smith was named Best Actress in a Musical, Prince and Bennett scored for directing, and Bennett won another for choreographing. Add to these the prizes for sets (Boris Aronson), lights (Tharon Musser), and costumes (Florence Klotz), and Follies landed seven Tonys to Two Gentlemen’s two: Best Musical and Best Book. The latter may have been the voters’ revenge on Goldman for putting them through this harrowing evening.
Follies didn’t get the expected box office upswing that most every musical gets when it performs on the Tonys—because it didn’t perform. For reasons that may forever remain unclear and certainly will always be unjustified, the nominated Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and the non-nominated Jesus Christ Superstar were instead featured on the telecast. And why songs from No, No, Nanette—the previous season’s show?
So both Follies and Two Gentlemen didn’t get a platform. How many viewers might have placed ticket orders if they’d seen the glory that was Follies on their TV screens? Such Tony night exposure might have extended the show’s run, but after the loss and the broadcast snub, Follies had only ten more weeks to live.
At least in that original production. But it’s still here by virtue of reputation and revivals. When Goldman chose to have the Plummers come from Phoenix, he probably didn’t know the irony of that word: his show would rise like one for decades to come.
* * *
Notice, by the way, that all three losers have Stephen Sondheim’s name attached. Sondheim would eventually win more Tonys than he lost: six wins out of ten nominations. Two of those losses came from shows that were deserving enough to win. But there was good reason why they lost …
Copyright © 2013 by Peter Filichia