The gowns! The tears! The epic, occasional what-the-fuckery! The Tony Awards are a pretty interesting social experiment in what happens when theater kids are allowed several hours of annual TV time. Here are some of our favorite moments from Tony history that qualify as distinctly… odd.
We’re sure you haven’t forgotten this, but… remember that time Brooke Shields was supposed to help Neil Patrick Harris out and sing a line or two in his opening number at the 2011 Tonys? And she lost her whole damn mind and fucked up repeatedly? And needed a cue card to finish on her third attempt? We do! All we can say is thank god the Tony writers were making a super timely joke about crotch Twitpics, because otherwise there never would have been any payoff.
The Entire Year of 2009
When thinking about truly craptacular, ‘what the fuck even just happened?’ moments, we kept coming back to the year 2009—a black hole for WTF. First, Sir Elton John’s mic was out. Then there was an unintelligible medley of songs with the word ‘tonight’ in them from West Side Story and Guys and Dolls. Then there was Poison, and Bret Michaels ‘missed his mark’ and took a set-piece straight to the dome. And then, there was a bad-sounding medley of Pal Joey’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and Next to Normal’s “I’m Alive” that seems to have occurred just because the word ‘I’m’ is repeated a lot in both songs. Even Aaron Tveit’s handsomeness in a tight purple t-shirt couldn’t save it. And that was just the opening number, folks! The WTF just keeps on coming! Chief among those was Alice Ripley’s acceptance speech, wherein the Best Lead Actress in a Musical just shouted at us about art while trying not to cry. It. Was. Epic. You stay cray, La Ripley, you stay cray.
The (Really) Civil War
In this 1999 clip from The Civil War, the Frank Wildhorn/Jack Murphy musical about… um… The Civil War, has never failed to send us into spasms of purely craptacular joy. Like, we pull this one out at parties sometimes. Fault cannot really be placed on the cast — do you guys remember the amazing Keith Byron Kirk? — but what the hell is this song? It’s a gently grooving soft-rock pean to freedom and ideological loyalty, that’s what. Throw in some slow-mo fighting, some business with flag-waving, and Matt Bogart looking wicked effing determined, and you basically have my favorite musical, Les Civil War, and its sequel, The Wildly Oversimplified War. Without any wins, this show closed a week after the Tonys. As another revolutionary once said, “Can’t think-a why.”
The Life, Which Is Still About Hookers
Context is everything. And removing a musical number from all of its meaning-making context is what the Tony Awards do best, you guys! Take this number from The Life, which is a musical about hookers. It might be a good show. It might be a terrible show. But watching this from your living room in Montana in the spring of 1997, your chief takeaway may very well be that Lilias White is amazing and you’re sure you first heard this song in a tampon commercial.
Donna Murphy Wins… at Everything
Remember 1996 when Julie Andrews pulled that totally bullshit move where she like… renounced her Tony nomination? Like she was renouncing the crown of Genovia or something? Yeah, well the Tony voting committee symbolically told her to shove it when they chose Donna Murphy as Best Actress in a Musical. So many bonus points for the amazing (amazing!) look on Donna’s face when her name is called, and for Bernadette Peters, who pronounces Daphne Rubin-Vega’s name so it sounds kind of like Daphne Rutabega.
Madonna Talks… and Talks…
You think the endless whoring of Hollywood on Broadway is something new, maybe? Yeah, no. Bear witness to this Tony moment from 1988 wherein Madonna fumbles through her presentation of the regional theater award. She starred in the original cast of Speed the Plough that year and received disastrous critical notices, but that didn’t stop the Tony Awards geniuses from giving her eons of airtime. Still, we find this clip kind of endearing. Right around the same time, Madonna’s day job was lying on church alters in bustiers, so it’s kind of sweet to see her, swathed to the chin in black with a bunch of weirdly symmetrical pink flowers, trying super hard not to make fun of everyone.
Starlight Express, Starring Angela Lansbury
Roller skates! Codpieces! Faux-gospel! Andrew Lloyd Webber! Roller skates! We kind of love how Angela Lansbury’s aggressively vertical, shawl-collar dress makes it seem like she could be in the show. Now that ticket, we’d buy.
This Is What Cats Looked Like in the 80s
This 1983 performance starts with a song about “Jellicle Cats.” And 600 years later we’re still not entirely sure what Jellicle means. (It sounds kind of like popsicle?) But we do know what these ‘cats’ can do, because for 3:30 on the Tonys we heard a whole long list of those things. Examples? Walking on wires. And walking up walls. And prancing around a stage in a way that looks vaguely feline, while wearing a whole lot of spandex and looking like the mange set in a century ago. Then we have “Memory” wherein badass Betty Buckley teaches us that cats can be heartbroken, too. Homegirl emotes with the best of them, even when she’s wearing REALLY pointy press-on nails, but let’s be real here. What this Tony number really taught us is that Cats doesn’t get any better up close.
Liz Taylor is Unintentionally Hilarious
Liz Taylor can do a lot of things. Like act. And make perfume. And marry lots of men. Something she can’t do? Read, apparently. This video, from the 1981 Tony Awards, is truly the gift that keeps on giving. First Liz can’t keep a straight face, then she calls the Great American Book Musical a cultural ‘import’ instead of an ‘export’ and you think you’ve seen it all. But hold on, y’all, hold on. Because there are plenty of golden moments of WTF left. Like the time she mispronounces Nederlander as ‘Needleheimer’ and the audience almost dies of laughter. Wouldn’t you?
Jesus Doesn’t Even Go Here
Welcome to the 1972 Tony Awards Israel in 4 BC. Where there is no mass communication. But there are like, a lot of diapers for adults to walk around in. And enough hairspray to create beehives the size of Texas (?). And the biggest toothpick full of olives you’ve ever seen, for which the matching martini never quite arrives. Probs because Jesus throws a temper tantrum and ruins the whole party so he can sing some depressing shit about how his father is going to make him die in a really messy way. Mary Magdalene tries to save the day, sharing that vaguely flower shaped microphone with Jesus, but really, what can a hooker do? Especially when her show isn’t even nominated for Best Musical.
Hair Occupies The Tonys
We’re obsessed with this clip from 1969 for one reason: Harry Belafonte’s epic intro speech about theater taking responsibility for the peaceful unification of civilization in divided times. Whether he wrote it, or it was written for him, it’s clear that someone felt that Harry could credibly pull it off, and he does. I mean, can you imagine if Scarlett Johannson got up this year and did that before presenting the Tony for Best Lighting Design? Huzzah for more earnest times — and longer attention spans.