The Tony Awards on TV (Learning about Musicals, Part 2)

After Shady Grove closed down, the world of theater was generally as far away from my pre-college life as an archetypal Timbuktu. But there were lifelines.  Occasionally, there’d be an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show or some other TV program that recreated a pivotal moment from a contemporary musical. And once a year the Tony Awards telecast opened a window onto the magic of Broadway.

Even though I was pretty small when the Tonys first hit CBS in 1967, I watched. I know this because I still remember seeing Mary Martin and Robert Preston perform “Nobody’s Perfect” from I Do! I Do! (my sister and I loved the part where Preston goes after Martin: “This is a piece of paper…”).

I think I missed the 1968 show, but I know I have seen every one since. From the early ’90s on, because I was actually seeing just about all of the nominated shows live on Broadway, the TV experience lost some of its luster.

But before that, as a theater lover who lived relatively far from NYC and (in the ’70s and early ’80s) saw practically no theater at all, the Tonys were a high point of the year. As Nita Congress (mother of my nieces Julie and Sarah) wrote in her blog, “Live theater is so fleeting, so ephemeral; and to be able to get a glimpse of it—particularly when that might be your only chance to see the shows and their creators—was a privilege and a thrill.”

Except for 1971 and 1975, the Tony telecasts always featured scenes from at least some of the nominated best musicals. Through ’77, the excerpts were lengthy, unrushed and utterly loving: you get a true feel for what each of the shows were like in almost every case. Thanks to a YouTube user known as PoochSmooch, all of the shows are available online, and they are all worth watching. I’ve had a blast re-living musical theater history, watching remarkable performances like Joel Grey and company in Cabaret (1967), Bonnie Franklin and company in Applause! (1970), the opening number of A Chorus Line (1976), and the musical number montage from Annie (1977) featuring Andrea McArdle, Reid Shelton, Dorothy Loudon, Robert Fitch, Barbara Erwin, and a host of adorable orphans. (This, to my mind, is the best Tony show number, ever.)

So how did the Tony telecasts prepare me for my eventual vocation? First, they made me want to GO and SEE theater, to be part of it. Original cast albums are terrific, but they don’t have the dynamism and immediacy of a live performance, even on stage. After I saw Angela Lansbury sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” on the Tonys, I HAD to see her in Gypsy. (Couldn’t though: the run at the Kennedy Center was sold out already.) And I really really really wanted to see Annie (but didn’t; bummer).

So the Tonys pushed me toward the theater more powerfully than other forces. And revisiting the classic stars and shows preserved on these videos reminds me of the sheer joy and delight–the irreplaceability–of great talents doing what they love and do best for an audience.

A final note: the 1971 telecast was the 25th anniversary celebration of the Tonys and features moments from Tony winning musicals from 1947-1970. It is spectacular. Imagine Zero Mostel, Carol Channing, Alfred Drake, David Wayne, Yul Brynner, Gwen Verdon, Richard Kiley, John Raitt, Robert Preston, Robert Morse, and Vivian Blaine all recreating their classic musical numbers on a single TV show. Actually you don’t have to imagine it: just check it out:

 

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