The Best Musical Actresses That the Tonys Missed
Peter Filichia —
Hats off! Here they come, those beautiful girls who did very well by their musicals.
But they nevertheless didn’t receive Best Actress in a Musical Tony nominations.
This list is the third of a five-part series. I’ve been acknowledging the stars or should-have-been-stars that might not have caught the eye of the Tony nominating committee.
Actually, would you entertain a more likely scenario? Each of these ladies was widely discussed and even fought over by the nominators. Some nominators dueled to the death for one or two of them. Alas, the majority ruled, and all of our worthies on this list stayed home on Tony night (or perhaps went out drowning their sorrows).
Coming to these conclusions isn’t always the result of seeing the performers live, on tape, DVD or YouTube. Often, our most convincing evidence is what we hear on the cast albums.
Among the snub-ees, in alphabetical order:
Pearl Bailey (House of Flowers: 1954-1955). This may well have been the first original cast album of a flop that made the show sound like a hit. It was a much-prized and popular recording during the ‘50s and still holds up well today. And as much as we laud Harold Arlen’s music and even Truman Capote’s lyrics, let’s not forget the star who drove home four of the numbers. All right, Bailey breaks character – changing from Mme. Fleur to Pearlie Mae – during “Has I Let You Down?” But it’s such a delicious song that I’m always glad to hear it. As good as she is on “Don’t Like Goodbyes,” imagine what this must have sounded like at the closing.
Lucille Ball (Wildcat: 1960-1961). For one thing, without Lucille Ball, there would have been no Wildcat. She put up every dime and gave the new-to-Broadway team of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh a chance to show us what they could do (which was considerable). Ball was hardly in a ball gown, but dressed down as rough and tumble Wildcat Jackson. She must have surprised the generation that knew her only from TV. Hey, the former Lucy Ricardo did belong in show business – and was worth looking over.
Laura Benanti (The Wedding Singer: 2005-2006). The other waitresses in the restaurant are jealous of the bride whose wedding they’re working. Not Julia. She revels in how beautiful the newlywed is and celebrates her in “Someday” while envisioning her own future wedding day. How helpful she is, too, when encouraging Robbie to “Come Out of the Dumpster.” It was a subtle musical theater performance, and Benanti’s not going overboard with it may have cost her the nomination.
Tammy Grimes (42nd Street: 1980-1981). That Grimes was even in this landmark production might have slipped your mind. Producer David Merrick preferred to promote the show – and himself – over any star. Grimes, however, showed why Dorothy Brock was a blue-chip star when singing in oh-so-grand style “Shadow Waltz.” Then she showed what a classy lady Brock was when confronting the ingénue who injured her – not by telling her off, but by telling her the glories of what a true theater person feels “About a Quarter to Nine” when the show goes into gear.
Florence Henderson (The Girl Who Came to Supper: 1963-1964). First, Barbara Bel Geddes did the play The Sleeping Prince; then Marilyn Monroe starred in the film The Prince and the Showgirl; finally Henderson landed this musical version. Mary Morgan was indeed a showgirl who caught the eye of the Prince of Carpathia, who hoped to catch more of Mary than just her eye. Henderson’s highlight was reenacting her role and many others in the (fictitious) musical The Coconut Girl, culminating with the show’s big dance number, “The Walla Walla Boola.” Her songs, all courtesy of Noel Coward, otherwise verged on operetta – especially “I’ve Been Invited to a Party” – but you’ll be glad you accepted the invitation, too.
Shirley Jones (Maggie Flynn: 1968-1969). Really, has there ever been any human being on this planet (or any other) who doesn’t adore Shirley Jones? We’ve all enjoyed her beauty, charm and sweetness that doesn’t have a grain of saccharine in it. That’s what made her so right to play an anti-Miss Hannigan orphanage governess in this short-lived show. Leave it to Jones to convince the orphans that even though “It’s a Nice Cold Mornin’” that the weather’s to be appreciated. Even if you haven’t thought about Jones for a while, you’ll fall in love with her all over again when you hear her sing “I Wouldn’t Have You Any Other Way.” And we wouldn’t have you, Miss Jones, any other way.
Mary Martin (Jennie: 1963-1964). Martin had already won Tonys for each of the three musicals she’d done in the Tony era – South Pacific, Peter Pan and The Sound of Music – and three years hence she’d at least get a nomination for I Do! I Do! But in this thinly-veiled musical biography of Laurette (The Glass Menagerie) Taylor, Martin came up empty. And yet, she shows her trademark insouciance in “Born Again” and her equally trademark tenderness in the truly lovely ballad, “Before I Kiss the World Goodbye.” We’re lucky that she did this in her penultimate Broadway musical before she kissed the musical stage goodbye.
Marlyn Mason (How Now, Dow Jones: 1967-1968). Okay, maybe I’m really not serious about this nomination. Or maybe I am. Mason showed the frustration of being a workaholic’s girlfriend in “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore” before deciding in one of the best almost-jazz waltzes to “Walk Away” from the one-afternoon stand she’d just had. Later she worried that she’d get herself in “Big Trouble” for pulling a stock-market stunt, but she did what she had to do in “One of Those Moments.” Mason didn’t get the chance to sing that “Rich Is Better,” but considering how Clive Barnes, then of the Times, disliked both her and the show (which he called How to Try at Business Without Really Succeeding), I suspect that from 1980 to 1993 when Mason read reviews in the Times she often muttered, “Rich is better.”
Barbara Nichols (Let it Ride! 1961-1962). Okay, now I’m really not serious. But I’ll take this opportunity to say that every musical theater enthusiast should at least once in his life hear “I Wouldn’t Have Had To.” ‘Nuff said.
Bernadette Peters (Into the Woods: 1987-1988). The Witch isn’t q-u-i-t-e the lead in the show; The Baker’s Wife is, and Joanna Gleason not only got the nomination, but the prize itself. Still, isn’t it the Witch who most commands your attention when she’s on stage with anyone else? Certainly that was true of Peters, who had the dubious distinction of delivering Broadway’s first rap song (in part of the Prologue). After that, she became a mother who loved and protected her child much too much. She knew that she should let go, but she feared for her child and (let’s face it) herself in “Stay with Me.” Not only “Children Will Listen,” but the rest of us should too whenever Bernadette Peters sings.
Lee Remick (Anyone Can Whistle: 1963-1964). Who’d expect the star of such films as Experiment in Terror and Days and Wine and Roses (for which she was nominated for an Oscar) to headline a musical? Some say that Remick’s voice was thin, but let’s not forget that Fay Apple is a fragile character in many respects. That was shown beautifully in the title song. But good thing she could put on a good show (in both senses of the word) when warbling “Come Play Wiz Me.”
Chita Rivera (Bajour: 1964-1965). Nancy Dussault got nominated for the show (probably just for maneuvering her way through “Where Is the Tribe for Me?” — which no first-time listener can hear without finding his jaw down on his chest). Rivera, however, had the showier part: Anyanka, a gypsy princess who’s out to bilk Dussault’s school-wise but street-dumb gajo (non-gypsy). Rivera alternated between being convincingly “Mean,” tender (“Love-Line”) and pseudo-naïve (“I Can”). Yes, indeed, she could.
Elena Roger (Evita: 2011-2012). What happened here? When word from London filtered down that Roger was sensational as the rags-to-bitch Eva, everyone expected that she’d be high flying and adored when she reached the Big Apple. Not by the Tonys. When the album comes out on June 26, we’ll see if she’s surprisingly good for us.
Elaine Stritch (Goldilocks: 1958-1959). Stritch has become known for her rock-em, sock-em performances, and deservedly so. Here, you’ll “Give the Little Lady” the great big hand her opener deserves, as you will when she roars through “The Beast in You,” in which she complains about (what else?) a man. But Leroy Anderson and his three lyricists (Joan Ford, Walter and Jean Kerr) also took time to make her charming (“Who’s Been Sitting in My Chair?”). Most surprising is hearing Stritch be plaintive and tender in one of the most quiet and yet most beautiful eleven o’clock numbers of all time: “I Never Know When (to Say When).” Listen to how her voice breaks in heartbreak when she starts the B-section: “But now I’ve learned my lesson.” It’s a lesson every budding musical theater actress should hear.
Pat Suzuki (Flower Drum Song: 1958-1959). Castmate Miyoshi Umeki was nominated. So was Gwen Verdon (winner for Redhead) – No one else. Wasn’t Suzuki worthy of a nod for her pungent delivery of “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” the show’s best-known song? Suzuki had such a wonderful twang in her voice, which you can hear when she stresses the title word of “Sunday” (as well as the words “funny face” in that same song). Listen: anyone who can make the lyric “Dong-dong, you’re in Hong Kong” sound reasonable deserves a Tony nomination for that alone.
And finally, would it have spoiled some vast eternal plan if Ethel Merman had received a 1966-1967 nomination? Granted, she’d first played Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun twenty years earlier, but the Tonys weren’t yet then in place. For a production that was semi-affectionately known as Granny Get Your Gun, The Merm should have been grandmother-claused in. As magnificent as Barbara Harris was in The Apple Tree, Annie Oakley just might have shot her down.
Next Tuesday: The Best Actor in a Musical non-nominees that should have had a shot at the prize.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.