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Tonys’ Pick of the Glitter

Every June, local fans give gay regards to Broadway.

by Donalevan Maines

Neil Patrick Harris hosts the 2009 Tony Awards.

“I live for the Tonys!” admits Theatre New West director Joe Watts.

“They’re the gay Super Bowl!” exclaims New York native James Knapp, leader of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Houston.

“I do watch them,” says popular local actor Joel Sandel, “but like most theater professionals, I don’t put a lot of stock
in them.”

“Them” is the annual Tony Awards telecast, Broadway’s biggest night, which CBS broadcasts 7–10 p.m. on Sunday, June 7. Even if Tony voters choose with their eyes on the box office, the show itself is usually a humdinger. Best of all are production numbers from the best-musical nominees.

Sandel sighs, “I vividly remember Hugh Jackman performing a number from his show The Boy from Oz. It was insane. The power! He owned that character. He really made your jaw drop and made you say, ‘I would love to see that show!’”

Jackman won two television Emmy Award s for hosting the Tony Awards, but this year the honors go to gay heartthrob Neil Patrick Harris.

“I think he’ll be great,” says Sandel. “He can sing, he has great personality, and he’s done a lot of stage work.”

Houston Chronicle theater critic Everett Evans agrees, describing Harris as “a fresh choice.

“I hope he does well. I saw him in the fantastic Assassins revival [on Broadway] and he was excellent,” says Evans. “Anyone who can carry off Sondheim has the cred to host the Tonys.”

Evans explains that for many years after he started working on the arts staff at the Chronicle, its Tony coverage was in the form of articles from the New York Times and Associated Press wires. However, in the 1980s, he began writing related features.

The ’80s also kicked off some of the most memorable moments for gay Tony fans.

“My favorite gay moments, I guess, were years when excellent gay-themed shows with broad appeal for all audiences won as best play or best musical,” Evans says. “And when winning playwrights such as Harvey Fierstein, Terrence McNally, Tony Kushner, etc., made their acceptance speeches and acknowledged their partners in the process.

“And in the world of theater, no one was shocked or upset about it, which is another one of the great things about the theater!”

Watts says he still feels chills when he recalls the 1983 Tony telecast, when producer John Glines accepted a Tony for producing the year’s best play, Torch Song Trilogy, starring best-actor-in-a-play Fierstein as a Jewish drag queen. “I had seen Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway with my ex-Jewish boyfriend. John Glines had lived on my same street in Montrose. I had done a play by John Glines at Kindred Spirits. So connection, connection, connection. When John Glines thanked his lover—pass the box of Kleenex!”

On that same evening, Fort Worth’s Betty Buckley won best featured actress in a musical for Cats and performed the haunting “Memory.”

In 1984, Fierstein repeated, this time as writer of the book for the best musical, La Cage aux Folles, which won over Sunday in the Park with George. Chita Rivera won her first Tony, for The Rink, co-starring Liza Minnelli. And in the Chronicle, Evans plugged the Tony-nominated scores with reviews of the cast albums for La Cage, Sunday in the Park with George, The Rink, and Baby.

The next year, As Is, the first major drama about AIDS, was nominated for best play.

In 1986, Lily Tomlin triumphed as best actress in a play for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe . Her win—even her nomination—served to validate that the one-woman show which her partner, Jane Wagner, structured as a two-act play was, indeed, a play.

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly won best play in 1988, and its “leading lady,” B.D. Wong in his Broadway debut as Song Liling, was crowned as best featured actor in a play over Delroy Lindo in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which managed three nominations in the featured-actress category. Derek Jacobi was a best-actor nominee as Alan Turing, the famous gay British mathematician/security risk during World War II. The best musical of the year was Phantom of the Opera, which inspired a last hurrah for pageant legends Richard Guy and Rex Holt, who ended their reign as producers of the Miss Texas-USA pageant with the most elaborate evening gown competition of all time: contestants riding on gondolas, accompanied by haunting organ music and masked oarsmen.

In 1989, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles won best play.

Have I mentioned Tommy Tune? In 1990, the Lamar High School graduate won best director and best choreographer for Grand Hotel, which also won best featured actor in a musical for Michael Jeter, but lost best musical to City of Angels. Robert Morse won best actor as fey author Truman Capote in the one-man show Tru .

From New York, Evans reported on Miss Saigon in the buildup to the 1991 Tony Awards. But back in Houston, Chronicle gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger crowed, “How about our hometown boy, Tommy Tune? His Will Rogers Follies garnered six Tony awards, two of them for Tommy’s direction and choreography. The Tony for best musical surprised a lot of people, including, I’m sure, New York Times critic Frank Rich, who panned the show. Most thought Miss Saigon would get the best-musical Tony.”

The Chronicle ‘s TV columnist, Ann Hodges, informed readers, “Many performers on the Tony telecast Sunday wore red ribbons on their costumes as a tribute to AIDS victims in the industry. Joseph Cates, the producer of the CBS telecast, had explained this to the audience in the Minskoff Theater before the broadcast began, but it never was clarified to viewers at home.”

Evans revealed to readers that Falsettos, 1992’s winner of best book of a musical and best score, was about “a husband who leaves his wife and son for a male lover.”

Then came 1993, a watershed season for what Evans termed the “second generation of AIDS plays.” Evans predicted all of the winners in his “pick of the glitter” report from New York on how gay talent and themes were “playing a more prominent role in the American theater than ever before.”

In the must-read essay published in Zest magazine on June 6, 1993, Evans added, “The best new musical on Broadway (Kiss of the Spider Woman), the best new play on Broadway (Angels in America: Millenium Approaches) and the best new play off-Broadway (Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey) all deal sympathetically with gay protagonists and issues. More important, each work discovers the universal appeal in its subject. While tackling difficult themes, each offers exciting and entertaining theater for playgoers of all persuasions.”

Evans also advised readers who couldn’t see Angels in America on Broadway that the script was available in paperback at Lobo, a gay boutique and adult bookstore in Montrose.

In 1995, Terrence McNally, who grew up gay in Corpus Christi, won best play for Love! Valour! Compassion!  as a prelude to taking the best-play Tony for Master Class in 1996, when Rent won best musical, and the Alley Theatre picked up the special regional theater award. Host Nathan Lane appeared dressed in a glamorous gown from the musical Victor, Victoria, starring Julie Andrews as a woman playing a man playing a woman.

For several years around the turn of the century, the first 10 Tony Awards were shunted to an hour-long special on PBS, which nevertheless treated theater buffs to terrific backstage features on some nominees. In 2001, the year that The Producers set a record with 12 Tony wins, local PBS affiliate Channel 8 ticked off Houston-area theater fans by pre-empting the pre-show with a travelogue!

A few years later, however, Evans helped put a quietus on what surely would have enraged viewers. He discovered that Channel 8 was not planning to air a “Live from Lincoln Center” program of the musical The Light in the Piazza, a tale of young love in Old Europe, that won six Tony awards in 2005.

“I wrote an e-mail to one of the Channel 8 programming people noting how disturbing it was that they would bypass the opportunity to air such a magnificent production,” says Evans. “And they changed their minds and aired it. So there are times one can have an influence for good!”

Channel 8 also obliged by airing the acclaimed production of Company, which won best revival of a musical in 2007. That same night, Grey Gardens won best actress in a musical for Christine Ebersole and best featured actress in a musical for Mary-Louise Wilson in roles being played by Nancy Johnston and Susan O. Koozin, respectively, in the show’s current production at Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston.

Last year’s show, featuring the theme “There’s a Little Bit of Broadway in Everybody,” was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. Major prizes went to August: Osage County, In the Heights, Boeing-Boeing, and South Pacific.

This year, Evans plans to watch the Tony telecast from his desk at the Chronicle, as he did last year, when Houston’s theater scene was also a higher priority than Broadway. That meant, among other things, he was busy interviewing Judy Kaye, who won best featured actress in a musical as tempestuous diva Carlotta in Phantom of the Opera in 1988. Kaye was appearing as Mrs. Lovett in a tour of Sweeney Todd at Hobby Center, in a performance that Evans found to be “smashing—a magnificent performance.”

Donalevan Maines also writes about theater critic Everett Evans and James Knapp, 2009 male grand marshal, in this issue of OutSmart magazine. Maines is master of ceremonies for this month’s Reader’s Theater at George Memorial Library in Richmond. The performance at 7 p.m. on June 7 will feature readings of excerpts from Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, a nominee for this year’s best play Tony Award, and last year’s winner, August: Osage County.


Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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