Have the Tony Awards gotten worse? A look back at a great Tony show over 20 years ago.
By Shoshana Greenberg (bookwriter-lyricist)
If you read my Oscar post, then you know how I feel about award shows. The Tonys are no different, except perhaps I'm more hurt by its failings because theater is my field. And also like the Oscars, the Tonys were a big event in my childhood. We watched them over and over because my parents recorded it every year, beginning in 1991, which quickly became my favorite Tonys.
What made 1991 such a special year? Just look at the great Best Musical nominees: Once On This Island, Miss Saigon, The Secret Garden, and, the ultimate winner, The Will Rogers Follies. The show ran like gangbusters, opening with two numbers from The Will Rogers Follies, followed by Hinton Battle's beautiful and prescient acceptance speech about colorblind casting:
"[The producers] took a chance and were daring with their casting, and I know it works because every night I go out there and I sing the 'Bui Doi' song, and I look in the audience and I see tears in the people's eyes, and I know that they're colorblind as well. And I hope this sort of casting can continue."
And then little Daisy Eagan's emotional win for The Secret Garden, which I've already expressed my feelings about here. Robert Morse sang "I Believe in You" from How to Succeed... as part of that year's Special Salute: The Year of the Musical Actor. The cast of Once on This Island performed, and Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green actually sang their Best Score acceptance speech.
(Once on This Island performs at the 1991 Tonys.)
(Co-host Julie Andrews sings from My Fair Lady and Camelot at the 1991 Tonys.)
Even the smaller moments felt momentous. When I'm in the theater, I often think about the story Irene Worth told as she won for Lost In Yonkers about a little boy seeing Peter Pan for the first time. When the show was ending, she said that he pleaded, "Oh, curtain, curtain. Please don't come down." To this day, my family quotes Carol Channing's speech as she presented the award for Best Choreography. Her wide, almost crazy eyes gazed up past the balcony as she said that they must have asked her to present this category because of the dream dance sequence in Hello, Dolly!, but then, without missing a beat, continued, "There was no dream dance sequence in Hello, Dolly!" Well, like anything Carol Channing says, you have to hear her say it.
It could be because I was eight years old (or because the Tonys were still presented in an actual Broadway theater), but the Tonys seemed better back in 1991, less about selling the shows and more about celebrating them. Nowadays, the only way I can get through the broadcast is to compose snarky Facebook posts and tweets (look for them tonight-- hashtag #ctowntonys). Every year I think, perhaps this will be the year they broadcast both Best Original Score AND Best Book again, or the year they don't try to have us "exit through the gift shop" by ending the night with a performance from the winning musical.
Yes, many eyes will be watching Broadway tonight, and it's a great opportunity to sell tickets, which in turn helps shows stay open. However, one can't expect those watching to love or even become excited about Broadway if the Tonys don't show respect for those being honored. If the Tonys are not broadcasting all the awards, no matter how many there are, then they're not truly honoring anyone. I wish those who put together the ceremony would ask themselves, "What would I do differently if this show weren't televised?" I wonder what the resulting Tony show would be.
The 1991 Tonys are gone. Literally. My dad accidentally taped over them a couple years later. I can still watch clips on YouTube or head to the Paley Center or Performing Arts Library Theater at Lincoln Center to watch them, but the complete 1991 Tonys will never again be at my fingertips, and after seeing what they have become in recent years, I really wish they still were.
 The categories of Best Original Score and Best Book (along with the choreography, orchestration, and design awards) often are relegated to the Creative Arts Tony Awards, which are not broadcast. From 1997-2002 many of these awards were on PBS prior to the main ceremony, but now there is no way to watch them on television.