The Best Musical Actors That the Tonys Missed
By Peter Filichia —
“Bring on the men,” Lucy sang in Jekyll & Hyde – at least until the song was cut out of town. Here we’ll instead bring in the men in Broadway musicals – the ones who didn’t make the cut as Best Actor in a Musical in the Tony nominators’ eyes and ears.
It’s the fourth of our five-part series on those who were snubbed. You might have even assumed that some of them even won the prize. Indeed, they might have in kinder, gentler seasons. Who knows, too, what might have happened with different nominating committees?
Coming to these conclusions isn’t always the result of seeing the performers live, on tape, DVD or YouTube. Often, our most convincing evidence is what we hear on the cast albums.
In alphabetical order:
Eddie Bracken (Shinbone Alley: 1956-1957). While there was no official original cast album made of this George Kleinsinger-Joe Darion score (set to a Mel Brooks book!), there is the concept album that launched the Broadway musical. It was called archy and mehitabel, and there was a reason that the title was totally in lower-case letters. Archy was a cockroach who told his story by jumping from one typewriter key to the next; thus, he could never press the shift key at the same time as a letter and couldn’t capitalize. Bracken, however, very much capitalized on the role. In telling the story of an alley cat named Mehitabel, we heard on the album the genuine love he felt for her. Alas, a romance between a cat and a roach could never be. (And Chava and Fyedka thought they had problems!) But this is one roach that you’ll be glad to see in your home.
William Daniels (1776: 1968-1969). Yes, yes, of course Daniels was nominated for his John Adams – but in the Best Featured Actor category; in those days being billed above the title was the be-all and end-all in determining what slot a performer would have. Daniels was incensed that the committee saw his all-dominating performance (the best I’ve ever encountered in decades of seeing musicals) in this lesser capacity. He withdrew his name, and Ron Holgate had to be happy that he did. This cleared the way for this genuinely Featured Actor, who appeared in only two scenes as Richard Henry Lee, to get the prize.
Dean Jones (Company: 1970-1971). True, Jones left the production as soon as he could. But let’s have some sympathy for a man who was then enduring his own marital difficulties, en route to a divorce six months after the opening of a musical that questioned marriage. Under these circumstances, would you want to sing about wedlock (with the emphasis on “lock”), lack of affection, fights and divorce eight times a week? If we simply judge Jones on his performance alone, we’d have to be impressed with the man we’d mostly known from Disney movies. He showed a singing voice that was surprisingly on-the-money and resonated with longing and regret. The nominators instead went for Larry Kert, his quickly-pressed-into-service successor. In its own way, that was laudable. But no matter who got the nomination, we’d always be sorry/grateful.
Keith Michell (Irma La Douce: 1960-1961). It’s always thought of as Irma’s show, partly because she’s the only woman among the cast of seventeen. And yet, Tony-winner Elizabeth Seal, playing the prostitute who fell in love with Nestor, had three solos and three reprises; Michell, portraying Nestor, had his charming and distinctive baritone enliven eight songs and two reprises. Maybe the show should have been called Irma and Nestor; maybe Michell should have been nominated.
Anthony Newley (The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd: 1964-1965). Newley co-wrote the book, music and lyrics, so we got the precise interpretation of “Who Can I Turn To?” and “The Joker” that he obviously wanted. How interesting that Newley’s co-star Cyril Ritchard got a nod for playing a big bully, but Newley, portraying his victim, went unrewarded. (Hmmm: “bully” and “victim” are words very much in today’s news; maybe it’s time for a revival.)
Jerry Orbach (42nd Street: 1980-1981). Just a theory, mind you, and I can be talked out of it very easily. But the Tony voters weren’t good to Orbach after he’d won in 1968-1969 for Promises, Promises – when he landed the trophy that should have gone to the aforementioned William Daniels. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t win for his Billy Flynn in Chicago (“You already got one, Jerry”). Why else would the Tony go to what was certainly a featured performance: George Rose’s Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady). And perhaps that’s why his Julian Marsh was completely overlooked. Snubs such as these might be enough to make a guy look for a career on TV …
Anthony Quinn (Zorba: 1983-1984). All right, in the dialogue section of “The First Time” Quinn gets very much ahead of the music and doesn’t show an innate musicality. But aside from that misstep, Quinn – Oscar-nominated for creating the character on film – has what is most important about Zorba: the gusto, the love of life and the passion that touches everything he touches. I’d almost say – well, almost almost – that Quinn deserved a nomination just from the joyous picture we see on the cover of the cast album.
James Rado (Hair: 1968-1969). As was the case with Anthony Newley, here was a chance to have the lovely experience of seeing a writer perform his own work. As Claude, Rado exuded happiness when deciding “I Got Life” or pretending that he was from “Manchester, England” in those days when every American interested in rock firmly admired a British pedigree. Best of all was the power Rado expressed in Hair’s title song – although at the time he was starting to go bald.
Cyril Ritchard (The Happiest Girl in the World: 1960-1961). Who’s the wittiest wit in the world? Cyril R! Cyril R! Well, at least he was when E.Y. Harburg was providing his lyrics. As Pluto, the ruler of the underworld, Ritchard took us to Greece where “we give you sex that’s ambi-dex.” When checking out planet Earth, he sang, “Thanks to the genius who first thought of sin, this here is a dear little sphere to be in.” When the subject turned to virginity, Pluto observed, “Every man (I must alert you) when seeking a lady fair always gravitates to virtue — while hoping it won’t be there.” Now really – can’t you hear all these in Ritchard’s distinctive – nay, unique — voice?
Menasha Skulnik (The Zulu and the Zayda: 1965-1966). He didn’t have a voice that would get him a recording contract. Recording companies didn’t rush to put out Skulnik Goes Latin or Menasha Wishes You a Merry Christmas (the latter of which, we presume, Skulnik would have had very little interest in waxing, anyway). But the zest he showed as the Zayda and the brio he gave the fine Harold Rome songs should have made him a contender.
Robert Weede (Milk and Honey: 1961-1962). As he reminded us in his opening song, “Shalom” could mean “hello” or “goodbye.” Would that in Weede’s case, the Tony committee had taken it to mean the former rather than the latter. Weede was middle-aged and portly, but he shed the years and the pounds and became a most happy fella when he sang “Like a Young Man.” By the time you hear him sing “There’s No Reason in the World,” you’ll be wondering by what reasoning in this world that the nominators ignored him.
Chip Zien (Into the Woods: 1987-1988). He made a nice shift from The Man of the House to the man who realized that in any marriage “It Takes Two.” Into the Woods may well have been a fairy tale, but it made its participants face reality squarely in the eye. Zien’s Baker faced his with both resignation and resolve in “No More.” And let’s also add the least significant reason of all: Zien looked fairy-tale perfect in the cute little Chico Marx hat that costume designer Ann Hould-Ward gave him.
Finally, I’m really not going to go to bat for Danny Kaye in Two by Two (1970-1971), for he disgraced himself as the run continued: ad-libbing, completely deviating from the script (about Noah and the ark) and making a mockery of the Stone-Rodgers-Charnin show. However, all those indignities happened long after the original cast album was made. Kaye on disc, when he still believed in the musical, performs with charm, style and dignity. If he’d stayed true to the show, he would have undoubtedly had a nomination — and perhaps even the Tony itself.
Next Tuesday: The Best Scores and Best Musical non-nominees that should have had a shot at the prize.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at