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More Than Just a Statue

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It doesn’t get gayer than the Tony Awards…

by Donalevan Maines

Everybody say “Yeah Yeah!” That’s also the chant from the musical Fela!, which tied the revival of La Cage aux Folles for the most nominations this year, at 11. As of this writing, many details of the show aren’t known—not even who is hosting the 64th Annual Tony Awards ceremony. (This year’s host has a hard act to follow after last year’s flawless performance by Neil Patrick Harris.)

In any event, the TV audience should prepare to be treated to production numbers from the African-themed Fela! and the other Best Musical nominees American Idiot, Memphis, and Million Dollar Quartet, as well as showstoppers from La Cage and A Little Night Music, and maybe Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat in Sondheim on Sondheim. Also say a little prayer for a sampling of Promises, Promises with gay faves Sean Hayes and Kristen Chenoweth.

Paul Hope

Perhaps the only time the Tonys didn’t feature numbers from the nominated musicals was in 1971, which was the first show that Tonys fan Paul Hope saw live.

“The Tony Awards are like a religious experience for me,” laughs the Houston actor/director/producer/lecturer, etc. Hope has taped every Tonys telecast since he purchased his first VCR while dancing in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in Las Vegas. His collection was complete when someone gave him tapes of the eight previously broadcast Tonys that he hadn’t taped.

“They came in a package in the mail, and I stayed up all night watching them,” says Hope. “The one that undid me was the third year, with Hair, 1776, Zorba, and Promises, Promises, with the Turkey Lerkey dance and Donna McKechnie.”

McKechnie played Miss Della Hoya from the petty cash department of Consolidated Life Insurance Co. in the Burt › Bacharach/Hal David musical, with book by Neil Simon, based on Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning film The Apartment. Its best-known song was “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” which Dionne Warwick made famous.

Hope explains that McKechnie would go on to win a Tony Award for creating the role of Cassie in A Chorus Line, but it was Marian Mercer, as boozy bar pickup Marge MacDougall, who won Best Featured Actress in a Musical that year for Promises, Promises.

For that same role in the revival, Kate Finneran is the favorite to win the award this year, says Hope—but she must top Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt, who sings “Liaisons” in A Little Night Music, and Sondheim on Sondheim star Barbara Cook.

Favored to win Best Featured Actor in a Musical is out actor Levi Kreis as rockabilly Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet. However, he faces stiff competition from Kevin Chamberlain as Uncle Fester in the popular but critically reviled The Addams Family, Robin de Jesús as the maid in La Cage, and Christopher Fitzgerald, who was “something sort of grandish” as leprechaun Og in the revival of Finian’s Rainbow that starred gay heartthrob Cheyenne Jackson and gorgeous redhead Kate Baldwin, who is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical.

She faces Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree in A Little Night Music, dark-horse Montego Glover in Memphis, Christiane Noll in the short-lived revival of Ragtime, and Sherie Rene Scott, who also co-wrote her show, Everyday Rapture, about a “half-Mennonite” actress (like Scott) who discovers that theater is not a place where gays and lesbians need to hide their sexual orientation.

Indeed, Broadway theater is a place where you can say, “Hey world, I am what I am,” and the annual Tonys telecast is often the most public example of gay artists putting their private lives on display before a national audience. When they win, men kiss their boyfriends, women buss their partners, and their love dares to speak its name in acceptance speeches.

It’s also an opportunity to show the world where so much great art originates, explains Hope.

“You see the very, very best there is, unless there is some undiscovered fabulousness out there we don’t know about,” he says. For example, in terms of choreography, “You don’t have, pardon me, Debbie Allen. You have Michael Bennett, Ron Field, Bob Fosse, Rob Marshall, and now Susan Stroman.”

As a youngster growing up in Houston, Hope had a year to anticipate his first Tonys telecast. In the spring of 1970, he stayed up late to watch The Tonight Show and saw Elaine Stritch sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the new Stephen Sondheim/Hal Prince musical Company.

“I didn’t understand the song, I had never seen anything like it, and I thought, ‘Company? What a strange name for a musical,’” he recalls. Throughout the year, Hope kept tabs on how Company was playing to “capacity” crowds by reading a weekly roundup of Broadway shows in the Houston Post’s Sunday magazine.

Then on television, he saw a documentary on the making of Company’s original Broadway cast album. (Today, the documentary is on DVD, and includes Dean Jones as Bobby, musical director Michael Bennett, and actresses Donna McKechnie, Barbara Barrie, and Beth Howland, among others.)

“I asked for the album for Christmas,” says Hope, “and then I wore it out!

“I was with Elaine,” he laughs, referring to Stritch’s admission that she thought “Mahler” in her signature song was a pastry. It was a cultural education just listening to the lyrics,” says Hope. “It had the vocabulary of a [Harold] Pinter play.”

On Sunday, March 28, 1971, Hope watched his first Tonys telecast on Channel 13 with his parents in their living room. But because it was the 25th year of the Tonys, instead of showcasing the season’s nominees, there was a retrospective of highlights from a quarter-century of Tony-winning musicals—everything from Finian’s Rainbow to Guys and Dolls and from Hello, Dolly! to Applause.

Hope remembers Gwen Verdon’s steamy performance of “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” from Damn Yankees, Zero Mostel’s joyful “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof, Yul Brynner in The King and I,and Robert Preston in The Music Man.

Also, “I loved Carol Channing from the moment I laid eyes on her!” he laughs. “I guess that tells you gay is genetic!”

To Hope’s delight, Company won Best Musical.

Then hosts Lauren Bacall, Angela Lansbury, Anthony Quayle, and Anthony Quinn, presenters Dick Cavett and Ruby Keeler (it was also the year the Tonys said “Yeah Yeah!” to the revival of No, No, Nanette), and the entire company—luminaries such as Alfred Drake, Nanette Fabray, Paul Lynde, John Raitt, and Leslie Uggams—joined in the finale, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

This year’s fun begins even before audience members take their seats at Radio City Music Hall. Beginning on June 13 at TonyAwards.com, fans can read articles from the actual souvenir Playbill to be distributed at the ceremony. Early arrivals on the Red Carpet shown via webcast begin at 5 p.m. Then at 6 p.m., technical awards are presented live on the webcast.

The complete list of nominees may also be found at TonyAwards.com, a treasure trove celebrating each feather and spangle of the annual awards.

Among this year’s nominees of particular interest to the LGBT community, Douglas Hodge is expected to win Best Actor in a Musical as Albin (fellow finalist Kelsey Grammer’s other half), who stars as ZaZa in La Cage; Next Fall, about a gay couple—one a Christian, the other an atheist—is nominated for Best Play; and Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead in Looped competes for Best Actress in a Play.

Out actor David Hyde Pierce, who won Best Actor in a Musical for Curtains in 2007, receives the Isabelle Stevenson Award, an honor named after the last president of the American Theatre Wing, for his “substantial contribution of volunteer time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service, or charitable organizations.”

Meanwhile in Tinseltown, nine-time Tonys champ Tommy Tune hosts a Tonys viewing party that caps off with actress Annette Bening presenting the Julie Harris Lifetime Achievement Award to Brian Stokes Mitchell, a four-time nominee who won Best Actor in a Musical in 2000 for a revival of Kiss Me, Kate.

The 64th Annual Tony Awards ceremony, celebrating the best of Broadway, airs 7–10 p.m. Sunday, June 13, on CBS-TV.

Donalevan Maines also writes about the play Bug and the blogger Buzz Bellmont in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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