Last week, we discussed Cyril Ritchard, who won the 1954-55 Donaldson Award for both Best Actor in a Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
(Don’t ask. Who can explain it? Who can tell you why?)
That said, I did more research on the Donaldsons, which were administered by Billboard. Quite a few Masterworks Broadway artists got the prize. They included:
John Raitt (CAROUSEL). Is he even in better voice on the 1965 revival cast album?
Ethel Merman (ANNIE GET YOUR GUN). Let’s ask the same question, but change the year to 1966 and the pronoun to “she.”
Nanette Fabray (HIGH BUTTON SHOES). Just to clear up what could be a misconception: Fabray’s asking “Papa, Won’t You Dance with Me?” doesn’t mean that she expects her daddy to join her in the spirited Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn polka.
No, this show is set in 1913 when wives routinely called their husbands “Papa” and husbands matter-of-factly referred to their spouses as “Mama.”
(Maybe they were afraid the kids would be confused if they used their real first names.)
David Wayne (FINIAN’S RAINBOW). Cyril Ritchard’s double-win wasn’t unprecedented; Wayne’s Og the Leprechaun got him both Best Actor in a Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
You’d think that after it happened here that the Donaldsons would take pains not to have it happen again.
When Wayne accepted either the first or the second honor, did he say in his speech “This is ‘Something Sort of Grandish!’” in honor of one his best songs in the show?
Lyricist E.Y. Harburg, who never met a word he didn’t like to customize, didn’t stop at “grandish.” He added the suffix “ish” to eleven adjectives (“glamorish,” “swellish”), eight nouns (“proposish,” “candish”), six verbs (“dareish,” “adorish”) and one preposition: “inish” – as in “so please be give-inish or it’s the beginnish of the finish of me.”
Isn’t it kinda fun that the last “ish” is a real word? And for those who think this is very precious, well, who knows how a leprechaun talks? I’ll take Harburg’s word for it.
Alfred Drake (KISS ME, KATE). He always played the no-nonsense alpha male extraordinarily. And yet, in the middle of “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” his comic delivery of “Where are you, Alice?” is so unexpected you’d think someone else came in and dubbed the line.
Mary Martin (SOUTH PACIFIC). Although this Weatherford Texas native grew up a solid 355 miles from the Kansas border and 463 miles from Little Rock, her iconic performance made audiences (and the Donaldsons) believe that she knew about corn in The Sunflower State and that she hailed from Arkansas. That the state’s official nickname is “The Land of Opportunity” is apt, for Martin certainly seized the opportunity to be in the fourth Rodgers and Hammerstein musical six years after having turned down the first.
(Yup, Mary Martin was offered Laurey in AWAY WE GO! as well as Mary Hastings in DANCING IN THE STREETS. She claimed that she flipped a coin to decide which one she’d take.
It was a bad penny. DANCING limped in Boston, where it closed at the same time AWAY WE GO! was down the street doing well, especially after its rebranding as OKLAHOMA!
Ezio Pinza (SOUTH PACIFIC). Was Pinza, a titanic Metropolitan Opera star, discouraged when most of the reviews centered on Martin? From “exceedingly expert and charming” (Watts, Post) to “achieves a new heaven for herself with an authoritative versatility nobody in the theater can equal” (Hawkins, World-Telegram), how could Pinza compete with those?
Indeed he could, for Brooks Atkinson of the Times – the most influential critic of all – said that “Pinza’s bass voice is the most beautiful that has been heard on a Broadway stage for an eon or two.” He also mentioned that Pinza was “also a fine actor; his first on the one and only legitimate stage is an occasion worth celebrating.”
Here’s betting no music critic ever said as much or as lovingly about Pinza’s acting chops when they caught his act at the Met; voice is pretty much all that matters there.
One question, though: Pinza originally had a song called “Will You Marry Me?” which does sound on-the-nose, doesn’t it? Rodgers and Hammerstein obviously agreed, for they replaced it with “This Nearly Was Mine.” Did Pinza react in astonishment when they told him he’d have to learn a new song? Donizetti, Mozart and Verdi never asked as much.
Shirley Booth (A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN). According to my records, I have endorsed “He Had Refinement” as Broadway’s best-ever comedy song several times in this column, so I’ll now segue to “Look Who’s Dancing,” which fits Booth’s baby-voice to perfection.
Tony Bavaar (PAINT YOUR WAGON). Bavaar got one of the blue-chip songs of the day in this show: “I Talk to the Trees,” the lament of a lonely man who’s met a young woman who’s willing to listen.
Vivienne Segal (PAL JOEY). Well, she did have an advantage over the other nominees, for she’d played the role in the 1940 original production. Being a dozen years older had to add to the last-chance-at-love desperation that made her get involved with a rat such as Joey.
Ronny Graham (NEW FACES OF 1952). In the third of three parodies, Graham sang “Waltzing in Venice with you isn’t so easy to do” and gave j-u-s-t enough of a pause for you to figure out why dancing in that city did have its hazards.
Jack Whiting (HAZEL FLAGG). Before there were musicals about real-life mayors Fiorello La Guardia, Jimmy J. Walker and Ed Koch, we had a fictitious one in this Jule Styne-Bob Hilliard musical. Whiting’s character didn’t have a name – he was simply “Mayor of New York” – but oh, did he have a song: “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York.” It’s a sweet soft-shoe about a city whose streets just happen to be hard on shoes.
Alfred Drake (KISMET). History repeats itself: Drake again played the no-nonsense alpha male, this time a poet who prides himself on his rhyming. He challenges his daughter to stump him and he effortlessly deftly rhymes nine straight times.
Then, when she offers “Dromedary!” he proudly exclaims “Very hairy!”
That doesn’t impress her. “‘Very hairy’?” she rebuts. He mews with all authority gone in a tone that we wouldn’t even think the butch guy has in his vocal cords: “Very sorry,” he meekly apologizes.
(Very funny, in fact.)
Carol Haney (THE PAJAMA GAME). Could Shirley MacLaine have possibly done it better?
Mary Martin (PETER PAN). She didn’t solely fly in the sky, but she rolled with the punches, too. Reviews during the West Coast tryout were dismal, and Martin could have flown in a much different way: leaving on a jet plane and putting this show behind her. She’d closed out of town before (twice, in fact; ever hear of NICE GOIN’?). So she could have done it again all the while knowing that another vehicle would come along.
(THE SOUND OF MUSIC would.)
But Jerome Robbins thought Jule Styne, his HIGH BUTTON SHOES composer, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who’d written lyrics for his ON THE TOWN and WONDERFUL TOWN, could help.
Martin agreed to give them a chance, which resulted in her learning five new songs. They did the trick, and after that, Mary Martin was high flying adored.
That was it for the Donaldsons, which ceased operations after the 1954-55 season.
Oh, but wait! There’s another worth mentioning: Thomas Mitchell won the 1952-53 Donaldson Best Actor in a Musical for HAZEL FLAGG a few weeks after he’d won the same prize at the Tony Awards.
What’s remarkable about his twice snagging top honors is that for the entire show, he never sang a note. Not one. So while there are many pleasures to be had on the original cast album of HAZEL FLAGG, you won’t find Mitchell there as Dr. Downer. What a downer!
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.