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CLOSE BUT NO TONY By Peter Filichia

Which races were the closest in Tony history?

We could ask this question of all two-dozen plus categories that have come, gone or stayed during the awards’ august seventy-four-year history. But for today, let’s limit it to musical performers in their four slots.

This list isn’t intended to imply that those who wound up winning and spinning a Tony didn’t deserve the prize. Instead, this is a look at actors and actresses who may well have been only a few votes away from bounding onto a stage during a spring night and accepting their trophies.

Alan Cumming, the 1997-98 Best Actor in a Musical winner for his Emcee in CABARET, may well have had some sleepless nights because of Brian Stokes Mitchell and his Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in RAGTIME. He had such a difficult assignment, playing a victim who refused to leave it at that and became a terrorist. And yet, Mitchell never came across as insane or, miraculously enough, vindictive. He simply wanted the justice due him. And, oh, did he do justice to Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ score. As a result, Mitchell had to be only a few spokes shy of the wheels of a dream.

Note that Cumming won the Best Actor in a Musical prize for the same role that had garnered Joel Grey a Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony. This was in 1967, when billing was still ruling the Tonys; if your name was under the title, you could forget about being nominated in the leading categories.

This practice didn’t sit well with William Daniels, who was so dynamic in 1776 and was rarely offstage. Daniels famously turned down the nomination, saying that he was a leading actor.

That decision may well have cost Jerry Orbach the 1975-76 Best Actor in a Musical prize for his Billy Flynn in CHICAGO.

For had Daniels been nominated as Best Actor in a Musical, he would have gone head-to-head with Orbach in PROMISES, PROMISES. Considering that 1776, which had opened the day before the Tony-nominations cutoff date, wound up winning most of the awards, Daniels almost certainly would have emerged victorious.

So Orbach won instead.

Don’t misunderstand; Orbach sold the Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs wonderfully well and was indeed beautifully sensitive and tender as Chuck Baxter. (Yes: Lennie Briscoe could be sensitive and tender.)

But Daniels was better in a more difficult assignment.

So Orbach might have lost for his Billy Flynn because voters felt that he’d already won a Tony because of a flaw in the nominating process. James Naughton would win for his Billy in the still-celebrated longest-running-ever revival that Broadway has ever seen, so why didn’t Orbach? He was superb as Billy; I can still remember the 100%-serious expression on his face when he said to Roxie – not trying to crack a joke at all, mind you – “Believe me, if Jesus Christ had lived in Chicago today – and if he had five thousand dollars and had come to me – things would have turned out differently.”

Here’s betting that events would have turned out differently for Orbach in 1976 had Daniels been eligible. That’s especially likely, considering that his loss was to George Rose in Broadway’s first revival of MY FAIR LADY.

For Rose wasn’t Henry Higgins in that revival but Alfred P. Doolittle.

Yes, he was marvelous, as the revival cast album displays. But Doolittle is a featured role, as the Tonys acknowledged in 1957 when Stanley Holloway was correctly placed in that category.

In fact, Holloway lost the 1956-57 Best Featured Actor in a Musical race because he didn’t have a little bit of luck. The winner was Sydney Chaplin for BELLS ARE RINGING, who was actually the show’s leading man but – here we go again – billed under the title.

BELLS’ leading lady, Judy Holliday won Best Actress in a Musical, but wouldn’t you love to know how many more votes she received than FAIR LADY’s Julie Andrews? Well, obviously the Tonys made it up to Andrews when she did CAMELOT, right? Nope – Elizabeth Seal in (and as) IRMA LA DOUCE won the prize. That Seal was the only woman in her musical – how could you not notice her? – may be one reason that Andrews was egregiously overlooked. But she couldn’t have been too far behind – any more than Ethel Merman was for her Rose in GYPSY when Mary Martin in THE SOUND OF MUSIC won. Wouldn’t you love for some still-alive venerable vote counter of that 1959-60 campaign to come forward and tell us how many votes caused Merman to lose?

There’s a metaphor in Mandy Patinkin’s having two distinct roles in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE while George Hearn had three in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES: Albin, Zaza and, when you think of it, Jean-Michael’s “Mother.” Hearn won, but Patinkin had to be right up there in the vote count. In each act, he gave a forthright performance without any of the (way) over-the-top, look-at-me histrionic singing for which he’d already become infamous. That’s all the more remarkable considering that he was playing two very passionate characters.

On Tony night in 1974, Debbie Reynolds of IRENE stayed put in her seat as Glynis Johns of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC walked to the stage. Make no mistake: Johns was marvelous. But in a way, she belonged in the Featured Actress category; NIGHT MUSIC is almost – almost – an ensemble show.

Johns has one solo (need I tell you what it is?), appears briefly in two other numbers as well as the finale and that’s all you’ll hear of her on the cast album; she, along with Hermione Gingold, are the only principals you won’t hear in “A Weekend in the Country.”

(However, if you get the LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC soundtrack, you’ll find that Gingold does appear in the number. Sondheim wrote a new section for her that turned out to be, of course, very witty.)

In contrast, in IRENE’s first act alone, Reynolds had four solos and half of one duet, as you’ll hear on the most entertaining cast album. She had to do quite a bit of dancing, too, while Johns had virtually none. IRENE was definitely a vehicle that Reynolds drove to success, so many voters must have been driven to vote for her.

For Featured Actor in a Musical, Walter Willison in TWO BY TWO must have been in a close race with winner Keene Curtis of THE ROTHSCHILDS. Willison got the show’s biggest hand after singing the driving Rodgers-Charnin song “Something, Somewhere” and got the show’s second-biggest burst of applause after warbling the much-admired ballad “I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You.”

And yet, Willison’s greatest contribution to TWO BY TWO may have been his staying in character and not succumbing (as all his other castmates did) to Danny Kaye’s shameless antics after his accident put him in a wheelchair and on crutches.

Losing to a castmate whom you then have to see eight times a week must be hard. That’s what A CHORUS LINE’s Priscilla Lopez experienced after Kelly Bishop won as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Lopez had to kiss that prize goodbye and point herself towards 1,513 tomorrows, when she won in this same category for A DAY IN HOLLYWOOD – A NIGHT IN THE UKRAINE.

What’s so wonderful is that these two have been able to do what Franklin Shepard and Charley Kringas could not: they’re still good friends. More than once, I’ve seen them attend shows together.

There are others. Jane Krakowski in GRAND HOTEL, showing style, grace, attitude, and charm that belied her twenty-one years, must have been neck-and-neck with Randy Graff for CITY OF ANGELS. Kathleen Freeman in THE FULL MONTY might have won had she – and her musical – not suffered at the juggernaut unleashed by THE PRODUCERS, which helped Cady Huffman ascend to the stage.

In every political race, we’re told how many votes everyone received. Why can’t it be the same with the Tonys?

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on