The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1966
1966 was an interesting year in Tony Award history. Three of the four nominated Best Musicals, Man of La Mancha, Mame, and Sweet Charity, ultimately achieved iconic status and could have easily won the category, each for very different reasons. The three aforementioned nominees had some particularly good things going for them, but none of the three were the perfect musical, each falling short in one way or the other. The fourth nominee, Skyscraper, is simply in the running to round out the category, a weak choice in just about every aspect. We know that Man of La Mancha took home the prize, but did it have everything required to deserve a Best Musical win? Was there another title more deserving? Today we take a look at the 1966 Tony Awards and have that discussion.
The musical Man of La Mancha, despite being based on an early 17th Century novel by Cervantes, feels very much like a product of the mid-1960s when it first premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House, prior to its Off-Broadway, and ultimately its Broadway, berths. Man of La Mancha was unconventional musical theatre storytelling at the time, a story within a story that looked at our societal ills through the lens of the Spanish Inquisition. The knight errant Don Quixote, with an inherent altruistic code, finds only beauty and honor in a world that was bleak and unkind. Man of La Mancha felt fresh. It felt experimental. But above all, it was inspirational. It dared audiences to find the best in the world, despite living in a decade that was an experience in turmoil. The score by Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh painted in poetic strokes, with the standout hit “The Impossible Dream” becoming one of Broadway’s most beloved showtunes. Dale Wasserman did an expert job boiling down Cervantes’ epic novel, maintaining its spirit. Albert Marre directed with clever touches, sometimes majestic ones, that lifted the show from being a rote staging of a classic novel and transformed it into something uniquely its own. Richard Kiley played Don Quixote with a gravitas and sincerity that truly endeared audiences to the character.
Coming on the heels of the mammoth success of Hello, Dolly!, composer-lyricist Jerry Herman’s next project was the musical Mame, based on the popular Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play Auntie Mameand the Patrick Dennis novel from which that was adapted. There were many similarities between Hello, Dolly! and Mame, chiefly in their larger-than-life title characters who subscribed to lives of love, adventure, and embracing the human experience with an untethered zest. The Herman scores were similar, brassy and bold, occasionally quaint, with numbers that celebrated their respective title characters, building toward show-stopping climaxes. The similarities between the two might be what kept Mame from winning the Best Musical Tony, because, as delightful as it was, it may have felt formulaic, a rehash of Hello, Dolly! Regardless, Mame was winning musical comedy, the story of an eccentric, wealthy single woman who lived life by the motto “Life is a banquet and most sons of bitches are starving to death.” When she is given custody of her nephew Patrick, she struggles between raising him in the conservative fashion the boy’s father preferred and giving him an upbringing that was more in line with her free-thinking philosophies. Mame was a joyous show, a feel-good evening of melody, wit, and unforgettable characters, all performed with musical comedy brilliance by the likes of Angela Lansbury, Beatrice Arthur, and Jane Connell.
It's hard to know what to say about our third nominee, Skyscraper. It certainly is not a musical that was either an enormous hit, nor was it a calamitous flop, after all, it did hang on for several months. No one revives this show, and if you listen to the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn score, it is not disagreeable, it just fails to get under your skin. Skyscraperis based on the Elmer Rice play Dream Girl (not exactly a title that is regularly revived or well known), the book for the stage musical constructed by the usually reliable Peter Stone. It tells the story of Georgina, a Manhattan-dwelling antiques dealer who is trying to save her New York brownstone apartment from the wrecking ball as a skyscraper has been planned for her real estate. In general, Skyscraper was just a light diversion, without being anything beyond that to make it special or stand out. The musical starred Julie Harris, a revered actress who was not known for her singing, and featured Charles Nelson Reilly, a divine character actor who may have just been trying too hard to be funny in a relatively unfunny show. In the 50s and 60s, we looked at a show like Skyscraper as an “also ran”.
Finally, there is Sweet Charity which was, in many ways, the defining show for the careers of director-choreographer Bob Fosse and for triple-threat Gwen Verdon. For Sweet Charity, Fosse cemented his signature style of choreography while creating a staging of boundless energy, as if the show were riding on top of his movement, like a cowboy busting a bronco. In Charity Hope Valentine, Verdon found a character that would be the true test of her abilities, a creation that could be acted, sung, and danced with aplomb, and Verdon mined every trick in her bag to make her a three-dimensional, heartfelt, and flawed character. Sweet Charityalso boasted an infectious score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, one of their individual, and certainly their combined, best. Songs like “Big Spender”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and “I’m a Brass Band” are standouts in a score that crackles, pops, and often explodes. Sweet Charity was adapted from the Frederico Fellini film The Night of Cabiria, with Neil Simon adapting the book. Simon was one of America’s greatest playwrights and certainly had a parade of hits, but his work writing books for musicals was never his strongest vocation. Sweet Charity, for all its merits, limps along on its meandering book, only coming to life when the music and dance gave it its thrust.
As is always the case, we will now take a look at the number of performances each show played on Broadway. It is always foolish to judge a show’s quality by the length of a run. Indeed, often some of the most-challenging and game-changing pieces of theatre had shorter lives than mediocre crowd-pleasers. Examining performance numbers, does, however, serve as meter by which we can gauge popularity, a factor that we know does influence how Tony Awards are allotted. “Best “and “most” do not always, however, walk hand-in-hand.
Man of La Mancha - 2,328 performances
Mame - 1,508 performances
Skyscraper - 248 performances
Sweet Charity - 608 performances
TakingSkyscraper out of the running upfront (it just didn’t prove to be groundbreaking, popular, or to have a shelf-life), that leaves us with the three other titles to compare and contrast. Each one is flawed in its own way, but each one holds a special place in musical theatre history. Was Man of La Mancha the best of three flawed but iconic musicals?
“How was Man of La Mancha flawed?” might be a good question for us to start with. Though it was enormously popular in its day, the show is short on character development. The score is often poetic, dreamlike perhaps, but does very little to reveal depth of character and seldom moves the plot forward. It plays like an impressionist painting, conjuring mood and evoking light and color, stirring emotion, but never giving us a clear understanding of Don Quixote and his story. In the 1960s, this kind of show was revolutionary, daring, demonstrative of a new way of thinking about theatre. These kinds of show haven’t necessarily aged well, though I would argue that Man of La Mancha is as poignant and relevant as ever. I repeatedly, however, hear Man of La Mancha disparaged by modern audiences for the reason that it is “dated”. I’ve never exactly understood how a story set during the Spanish Inquisition could be “dated”. It should be considered a historical or period piece, since it doesn’t employ lingo or clichés of its time. I’ve always assumed that people who assert this are trying to articulate (poorly) that the show is a creation of a certain time, possessing a flavor that somehow takes them back to the hippie world of the 60s that they feel is no longer accessible. Whatever their reasoning, Man of La Mancha’s shelf life has suffered from this opinion. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that it a musical that took a leap outside of that proverbial “box” everyone is always talking about.
Mame, on the other hand, is practically begging for a revival, but seems to be relegated to living in the limelight of Hello, Dolly! The parallels will always persist. Where Mame suffers by comparison is that its story is more episodic, jumping through time, and doesn’t have the pat structure that Hello, Dolly! enjoys. The character of Mame, more so than Dolly, relies on an actress of big personality, exuberance, a diva of sorts, for the show to work. Finding that right actress can be a challenge. Indeed, look at any chat board where a discussion of casting a Broadway revival of Mame is underway, and there is such vehement debate over who could and should play the role. I, myself, can only come up with a few names that I think could pull off the character, and there is only one name that would absolutely thrill me. In the end, though, Mame is a feel-good musical, arguably short on substance, but wonderful is almost every other aspect. A revival in the early 1980s, starring Lansbury (who played Mame in the original), failed to ignite. Comparing the show to Man of La Manchais a bit like comparing apples to oranges, since they are entirely different beasts in almost every way. In the end, though, Mame doesn’t have the serious themes of Man of La Mancha, and comedy seldom seems to be able to compete with that comparison.
Sweet Charity is an example of a show that has almost all the right ingredients, but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Watching Fosse’s choreography for the show is a mind-blowing experience, a testament to why he is so revered in the annals of theatre. The score is so catchy and the lyrics so sharp and witty that it never fails to ignite. But when the singing and dancing stop, Sweet Charity stops as well. Yes, the story of a dance hall hostess who is unlucky in love, who goes about searching for it regardless of her parade of failures, is a compelling premise. It just never goes anywhere. There is an air of futility about Charity’s endeavors that make us feel like we are going in circles.
So what deserved to win? Of all the Tony debates I have written about thus far, this one is the hardest to make a sound conclusion over. As you can tell, I feel there is much I love about each show and a handful of things that I do not. If personal feelings only played into it, I’d choose Mame. History, however, probably got it right and Man of La Mancha was the most solid of the four nominees, as well as a breath of fresh air.