IF GENDER-NEUTRAL TONYS HAD ALWAYS BEEN IN PLACE… By Peter Filichia
Maybe it should have happened years ago, when newspapers made the change.
For there was a time when those looking for jobs saw classified ads that said “Help Wanted – Men” and “Help Wanted – Women.”
Decades ago, newspapers stopped running gender-segregated ads. The words “Help Wanted” would suffice.
What would have happened if the Tony Awards had long ago made the decision to eliminate the “Actor” and “Actress” categories and just give trophies to “Performers”?
This came to mind last week when Justin David Sullivan, a nonbinary performer who stars in & JULIET, optedout of eligibility for a Tony nomination rather than be assigned to a male or female category. That’s put some pressure on the powers-that-be to consider going gender-neutral. It may yet happen now, soon or later.
“Now,” “Soon” and “Later” bring to mind A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, the 1973 musical that saw Glynis Johns win as Best Actress in a Musical. Would she have emerged triumphant if she’d been in competition with Ben Vereen from PIPPIN? Probably not, despite her introducing that standard-to-be about sending in the you-know-whats.
However, when Patina Miller won a 2012-13 Tony for portraying Leading Player – the role that Vereen had originated in PIPPIN – she might not have enjoyed the same happy fate had she been pitted against Billy Porter in KINKY BOOTS.
William Goldman, in his landmark 1969 book The Season, quoted a “millionaire manager” who said, “Even today, you can make it here” – meaning Broadway – “faster than anywhere.” As the decades flew by, recordings and films were doing it faster. Porter, now a household name, showed Broadway could still make it happen while he was playing one of musical theater’s most beloved drag queens.
(Her name was Lola; she was a showgirl.)
Even if some cisgender men and women had competed in the same category, there would have been some no-doubt-about-it, pow-bam-zonk slam dunks:
Nathan Lane in THE PRODUCERS would have still been the King of Broadway and have defeated Christine Ebersole in 42ND STREET.
Chita Rivera had lost five Tony races before winning for THE RINK in 1983-84. Alas, she would have found herself with a half-dozen losses if she had gone head-to-head with George Hearn in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES.
In 2001-02, John Lithgow was named Best Actor in a Musical for SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, one of the most underrated musicals of the last half-century. (Listen to the Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia score, and see if you can begin to understand why SUCCESS didn’t succeed.)
However, that season, no one would have denied Sutton Foster, coming out of nowhere from understudy-land to dominate THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. Her eleven o’clock number “Gimme, Gimme” made certain that voters would give her, give her the prize.
In 2002-03, HAIRSPRAY would have pitted mother vs. daughter: Marissa Jaret Winokur’s Tracy Turnblad to Harvey Fierstein’s Edna. Both were terrific, but by “You Can’t Stop the Beat” (one of the greatest eleven o’clock numbers), Fierstein could not have been beaten, either.
The results of some other races would be much harder to predict. Take 1987-88: Joanna Gleason won for her performance as The Baker’s Wife in INTO THE WOODS. Moreover, Rocco Landesman, then head of Jujamcyn Theatres (and a future Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts), stated that she delivered the finest performance he had ever seen a woman give in any musical.
Fine – but that was the season when THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA came to the Majestic for its majestic run. Michael Crawford won for playing the title role that, aside from the make-up, demanded merely 30 minutes of his time – approximately one-fifth of the running time.
Granted, Gleason’s character is bumped off midway through WOODS’ second act, giving a new meaning to not having a run-of-the-play contract. But she was a major presence until then and may have cut the coattails that PHANTOM might have otherwise extended to Crawford.
(Maybe there would have been a tie. That would have been fitting in a season where INTO THE WOODS reminded us that “It Takes Two.”)
Patti LuPone for EVITA or Jim Dale for BARNUM in 1979-80? LuPone by and large received raves for portraying Argentina’s former First Lady, but Dale, large and large received stronger raves for playing the greatest showman. Frank Rich of the Times began his review with “Is there anything Jim Dale can’t do?” and followed that with almost 200 words of praise before commenting on the show itself.
That Times endorsement might well have put Dale over the top. A wild rave from the Times seems to influence many voters. Ben Brantley’s centering his YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN review on Kristin Chenoweth and his AIDA panegyric on Heather Headley may well have got them their prizes.
The 1997-98 Tonys had Alan Cumming vs. Natasha Richardson, each for CABARET. Cumming redefined the role of The Emcee, spurring Ben Brantley of the New York Times to minimize Joel Grey’s original interpretation as a “marionette.” As Rhode Island director Bert Silverberg has since noted, “Everybody always used to do it exactly like Grey; now everybody does it exactly like Cumming.”
So would Cumming have had the edge over Richardson? That may seem to be an easy question to answer, but for me, a veteran of 14 different productions of CABARET in London and in six states (starting with its third-ever performance in its pre-Broadway Boston tryout), I say Richardson was the best Sally Bowles of all. So … ?
However, many have suggested that if the Tonys do go gender-neutral, two awards should be in each of the Best Performance categories. In that case, Cumming and Richardson could have both won … or would Brian Stokes Mitchell, a strong contender that same year for his Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in RAGTIME, have eclipsed Richardson?
(As Billy Bigelow sings in CAROUSEL, “That’d be all right, too.”)
In 1966-67, Alan Alda was marvelous in THE APPLE TREE; Stephen Sondheim named him as one of the two greatest male performances he’d ever seen in a musical – and you know that he saw plenty of shows in his 91 years.
So perhaps Alda and Robert Preston (of I DO! I DO!) would have wound up winning and spinning their respective Tonys.
But wait! Barbara Harris did indeed win for THE APPLE TREE, even besting Mary Martin’s excellent performance in I DO! I DO! Harris had to play four distinctly different characters: Adam’s Eve, a barbarian princess, a chimneysweep and a beautiful, glamorous, radiant, ravishing movie star. Martin “only” played a single character, but had to age 50 years from blushing bride to senior citizen. Did they receive more votes than Preston and Alda?
That would not have been the only time when two members born of the same sex would have won. In 1963-64, the leading categories saw Bert Lahr get a Tony for FOXY, a 72-performance also-ran, while Carol Channing took the prize for HELLO, DOLLY! If two winners had been chosen, the great likelihood is that Barbra Streisand, in her sellout hit FUNNY GIRL, would have bounded up to the stage along with Channing while Lahr sat at his banquet table spooning his fruit cup.
We’ll never know if Streisand actually got more votes than Lahr or if Martin received more votes than Preston. Unlike political races that tell us precisely how many votes every candidate has received, entertainment awards keep that information from us. Wouldn’t you like to see it released?
(True, some nominees would think this is a very bad idea …)
What we do know is that The Lucille Lortel Awards, which solely honor off-Broadway shows, went gender-neutral last year. This season, the Outer Critics Circle – representing reviewers from New Jersey, Connecticut and points beyond – said it would as well. Will the Tonys?
Here’s what’s interesting: Tonys were was not named for some Tony or Anthony, but for Antoinette Perry, who’d had a theatrical career that lasted nearly four decades. When she died in 1946, her direction of the smash hit HARVEY was still playing on Broadway. That she was co-founder of the American Theatre Wing, which created the awards soon after her death, was one sentimental reason why they were named for her.
So the Tony Awards should really be the Toni Awards. In a way, they’re nonbinary, too.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon. See him do his one-man show PETE’s THEATRICAL ADVENTURES for free on Feb. 19 and 26 at 4 p.m. at Theatre 555 at 555 West 42nd Street; make a reservation at [email protected]