At the 40th annual Tony Awards show last night, Broadway pulled out all the stops -- not to mention dozens of stars performing snippets of songs and bits of dialogue from its most celebrated productions of the past -- to prove that the Great White Way is alive and kicking.
But the awards themselves told another, far more lackluster story.
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood," a musical based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, was the evening's biggest winner, as expected, snaring five Tonys, including the all-important Best Musical. George Rose, who plays a congenial Victorian music hall emcee in the show, was named Best Actor in a Musical. Up to now, however, "Drood" has enjoyed only middling success at the box office, largely on the gimmick of having the audience vote every night for one of several possible endings.
Bernadette Peters, whose solo performance as a young Englishwoman trying to make it in the United States constitutes the first half of "Song & Dance," was voted Best Actress in a Musical. It was a welcome triumph for the petite performer, who lost out two years ago despite a masterful performance in "Sunday in the Park With George."
In the musical categories, the revival of "Sweet Charity" gave "Drood" a run for its money, winning the Tony for Best Reproduction (revival), plus three others.
But the only award that seemed truly to ignite the celebrity-studded audience, gathered in the Minskoff Theater, was the Tony for Best Actress in a Play: It went to Lily Tomlin, whose extraordinary one-woman show, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," is the one runaway hit in what has been a generally dismal season.
A frazzled but ebullient Tomlin bounded to the stage and proceeded to thank at least two dozen friends and coworkers -- among them, "my ad agency . . . Barbara on spot . . . Barney in the box office . . . Sadie our head usher . . . and most of all Jane Wagner, who wrote this beautiful play."
Ironically, Wagner's script was not nominated for Best Play, one of the glaring omissions this year. Instead, in the major upset of the evening, the Tony for Best Play was given to Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport," a comedy about two senior citizens battling old age and a callous social system.
"Rappaport" edged out the British drama "Benefactors," "The House of Blue Leaves" (widely thought to be the front-runner) and "The Blood Knot." A minor controversy had swirled around the latter two plays when Tony nominations were announced last month. Both had had prior productions off-Broadway and in a stronger season would have competed for Best Reproduction. At the last minute, however, eligibility rules were bent, and they were put into the more prestigious Best Play category to beef up the competition. Unnecessarily, as it turned out.
"Well, now, this is ample evidence that there is life after Frank Rich," quipped playwright Gardner to loud applause. Rich, the powerful critic of The New York Times, had not reviewed "Rappaport" favorably. The Tony Awards voters, however, seemed intent on proving that Broadway could generate a winning drama without dipping into the past.
"Rappaport" also copped Tonys for Judd Hirsch as Best Actor in a Play and Pat Collins' lighting. Hirsch insisted on bringing his costar, the unnominated Cleavon Little, to the stage to accept the award with him and then paid effusive compliments to the other nominees -- Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn and Ed Harris. It was the gooiest gesture of the night.
Although "Leaves," an off-Broadway hit in 1971, missed as Best Play, it nonetheless got four Tonys in lesser categories.
They were awarded to Jerry Zaks (Best Direction of a Play), Tony Walton (Best Scenery), John Mahoney (Best Featured Actor in a Play) and Swoosie Kurtz (Best Featured Actress in a Play). Kurtz, who plays Bananas, a demented housewife in Queens, reserved one of her thank-yous for the theater "for teaching me all about madness."
"Drood's" triumph was more in the nature of a win by default. Two of the other musical nominees -- the overblown "Singin' in the Rain" and the inept "Wind in the Willows" -- were widely panned when they opened.
Hopes ran higher for "Big Deal," the $5 million musical written and directed by Broadway veteran Bob Fosse. But it was greeted tepidly by the critics this spring and has been limping along ever since at the box office. Its single win -- a Tony to Fosse for Best Choreography -- offered paltry consolation.
"Drood's" audience plebiscite and the rowdy music hall ambiance were enough to carry the day. Wilford Leach took the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical. And author and composer Rupert Holmes pulled down two Tonys, one for Best Score, the other for Best Book. "I hope my home videotape recorder is working right now," he joked the second time he came forward. "Drood" is his maiden Broadway effort.
Two of "Sweet Charity's" cast members, Bebe Neuwirth and Michael Rupert, nudged out "Drood's" supporting players. They were named Best Featured Actress and Actor in a Musical. "Are you sure?" asked a surprised Rupert. "Sweet Charity's" costumer, Patricia Zipprodt, also won.
Although the awards seemed to promise a showdown between two Eugene O'Neill productions -- the American National Theater's "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night," starring Lemmon, both productions were left out in the cold.
If Broadway didn't have a lot to celebrate, it was hard to tell from the telecast. The stage and the audience of the Minskoff were peppered with famous faces who have helped contribute to the glory of Broadway over the decades. They ranged from the legendary George Abbott, who will be 99 in two weeks and plans to direct another Broadway show in the fall, to the ubiquitous Helen Hayes, hefting a champagne glass in courageous, albeit unwarranted, optimism. Chita Rivera, who had to drop out of "Jerry's Girls" this spring when she broke her leg in a car accident, put in a brief appearance. Ever the gallant trouper, she sang a chorus of "Put on a Happy Face" and then kicked her leg high, though it was still in a cast.
Even more ironic was a segment in which such stars as David Wayne, Bea Arthur, Hal Linden, Lee Remick, Maureen Stapleton and Jessica Tandy uttered famous lines from the Tony-winning plays of the past 39 years. "How very rich we are," Lemmon said afterward. If the highly applauded tribute was a potent reminder of better days, it was also a little like rubbing salt in a wound. Broadway's inability to originate straight plays qualifies as near-terminal paralysis. What few dramas now get a hearing are almost all imported from off-Broadway, the regional theater or London.
More disturbing was Broadway's failure to turn out a musical to lend luster and excitement to the season, not to mention spectators willing to shell out $45 a seat. Musicals used to be Broadway's exclusive province, but more and more, producers are bringing them in from London, whence came "Cats," the only show that consistently sold out all season, even though it's now in its fourth year at the Winter Garden. The home-grown stuff is in short supply. Joseph Papp, producer of "Drood," tried to sow a little hope by promising that Holmes, the winning neophyte, would be back next season with a new musical.
But that's Broadway for you. The colored lights were on, and everyone was singing in the dark.