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WOMAN OF THE YEAR – 1981 AND 2017 by Peter Filichia

In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became first female justice on the Supreme Court. As a result, many news organizations named her “Woman of the Year.”

With apologies to Justice O’Connor, those of us who follow Broadway will always insist that 1981’s Woman of the Year was Lauren Bacall – especially after she’d won a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical – her second Tony Award in that category.

That’s pretty amazing, considering that Bacall did only two Broadway musicals in her life. No one else in the entire history of the Tony Awards has ever gone two-for-two in that category.

In Woman of the Year, Bacall played Tess Harding, a TV anchorwoman. When Katharine Hepburn played Tess in the 1942 film on which the Kander and Ebb musical would be based, she was a newspaper columnist because American homes didn’t yet have TV. If Woman of the Year were written today, Tess would still be a TV anchorwoman, because now American homes don’t have newspapers.

Bacall in a musical spurred me to paraphrase a lyric from another Kander and Ebb musical: “I know what you’re thinking: you wonder why they chose her.” With that voice? In a musical? Bacall often sounded as if she’d gargled every morning with razor blades. How could she win even that first Tony?

That’s where Katharine Hepburn comes in again. She was Bacall’s main competition, playing Coco Chanel in Coco to Bacall’s Margo Channing in Applause.

And if you think Bacall couldn’t sing, you should have heard Hepburn. In fact, in the days of records, phonographs could play records at different speeds: thirty-three and a third revolutions a minute for twelve-inch albums and at forty-five spins around the turntable each sixty seconds for seven-inch single records. But many of us played coco at 45. That made Hepburn sound like less of a bass (and less base) and best of all, playing it at forty-five got us through the record a lot quicker.

Whatever she and Bacall lacked in bel canto was much compensated by their star quality. (Or, as Tim Rice wrote it for Evita, “star quali-TEE.”)

Bookwriter Peter Stone, Kander and Ebb specifically wrote Woman of the Year for Bacall. That’s apparent from the very first song, which contains not one, not two, but three profanities. Bacall was known for having a mouth dirtier than the handgrips on a Citibike.

But at least they knew she’d show up every night. Bacall had never missed a single performance of Applause  — unlike the leading lady of Kander and Ebb’s previous musical – The Act – which had starred Liza Minnelli. She started out doing eight performances a week, then cut back to seven and then to six. And some weeks she did none at all. Minnelli wound up missing more than 10% of the run.

In Woman of the Year once again, Bacall never missed a performance. Eight times a week she sang what would be the second of Kander and Ebb’s three Best Score Tony-winners.

The first, of course, was for Cabaret; the final one was for Kiss of the Spider Woman, although, to be fair, they didn’t win outright but tied.

And who, you may ask, was the co-winner?

Yes.

No, you’re saying, and who was the co-winner.

I agree.

Okay, we’re getting a little Abbott and Costello Who’s-on-First here – for The Who’s Pete Townshend.

(Back in the ‘60s, when all three songwriters were starting out, did anyone ever think that thirty or so years later these three from two completely different musical worlds would be standing on the same stage on the same night getting the same award?)

Also winning a Woman of the Year Tony was Marilyn Cooper, who had been in the original casts of West Side Story as a Jet Girl and Gypsy as Agnes, one of Madame Rose’s Toreadorables.

Both of them had books by Arthur Laurents, so after Laurents was signed to direct I Can Get It for You Wholesale, he cast Cooper as the long-suffering secretary to Mr. Pulvermacher: Miss Marmelstein.

And then one Barbra Streisand showed up to audition.

Laurents saw Streisand in the part even more than Cooper. But given that he’d had a history with her, he didn’t want to fire her from a role before she had a single chance to do it.

Then he thought of what he believed was an ideal solution: Cooper could play the romantic lead instead of that little part. It would be a good growing experience, playing Ruthie Rivkin, desperately in love with Harry Bogen, who has much more casual feelings for her.

But Streisand stole all the notices (and even Harry Bogen, for she married the man who played him: Elliott Gould). Cooper’s career didn’t take off in the same way, and by 1979, Michael Bennett cast her as a mere ensemble member of Ballroom.

Cooper wasn’t back on Broadway for almost two years – but Woman of the Year marked a triumphant return. She and Bacall shared one of musical theater’s best eleven o’clock numbers: “The Grass Is Always Greener” where The Anchorwoman and The Housewife trade notes on their lives and feeling a little envy as a result.

As Cooper said in her Tony acceptance speech, “I’m a poker player, and I say if you stay at the table long enough, you’re bound to come up with a winner.”

Both I Can Get It for You Wholesale and Woman of the Year tried out at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. It’s been dormant for the last few years, but is coming back to life next year with the tryout of Moulin Rouge. DuringWoman of the Year’s  tryout, Peter Stone marveled at how beautiful the theater was and suggested to Kander and Ebb that they all write a show set in that very theater. And that’s how Curtains, their final collaboration, was born.

Last week, Woman of the Year was reborn at Feinstein’s/54 Below. The presentation of the entire score but with very little book revealed why Kander and Ebb got that Tony. No, it’s not one of their “important” shows that addressed Nazism or torture in prison, but it’s quite entertaining. Here’s betting that even Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would make that judgment, too.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.