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Great Material Wins Tony Awards for Actors

Filichia wonders who has written the most Tony-winning roles, and the answer is not terribly surprising. logo

"Could be ... Who knows?"
Has Stephen Sondheim written the most Tony-winning roles?
Or could it be Leonard Bernstein?
So while I was watching Linda Escalera Baggs's Silent Heroes at FutureFest in Dayton, I thought, "Hmm...this playwright has not only written six fat parts for women but also at least two parts that could very well win Tony awards for the actresses playing them." And that started me thinking: Which writer has created the most Tony-winning roles?

You know me; ideas just pop into my head! Once I got the notion, I besieged Dayton Playhouse managing director David Seyer for a copy of a Tony Awards book. As he always manages to do with any of my requests, he obliged by lending me his. I spent late Saturday night flipping through pages, making notes -- and getting surprised.

Here were my criteria: If one of the writer's plays was later revived and someone won a Tony that time around, I counted it. In the case of musicals, credit went to every party cited as an author. For example, Jerry Herman got a nod for Angela Lansbury, Bea Arthur, and Frankie Michaels in Mame and Lansbury in Dear World -- and so did book writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. After all, performers in musicals don't just win for singing and dancing, but for acting the book as well.

By the way, Lawrence and Lee did better than you might think. In fact, they out-grossed Herman, who did provide Tonys for Carol Channing in Dolly and George Hearn in La Cage aux Folles -- which, added to the above-mentioned, resulted in a total of six awards. Lawrence and Lee scored seven times, what with Paul Muni and Ed Begley winning for Inherit the Wind and Peggy Cass for Auntie Mame, the straight-play predecessor of Mame.

It's tempting to assume that our greatest serious playwrights -- Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams -- would have scored high, but they didn't. To be fair, O'Neill's career was virtually over by the time the Tonys began in 1946-47 and, even with revivals, he's only got three Tony-winning roles to his credit: Frederic March in Long Day's Journey into Night, and Colleen Dewhurst and Ed Flanders in A Moon for the Misbegotten. But the other two giants were just coming into their own when the Tonys started, so it's a little disappointing and disconcerting to find that Williams "only" has seven (Charles Durning, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Margaret Leighton, The Night of the Iguana; Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach, The Rose Tattoo; Zoe Caldwell, Slapstick Tragedy; Jessica Tandy, A Streetcar Named Desire; Irene Worth, Sweet Bird of Youth) while Miller has "only" six (Barbara Loden, After the Fall; Beatrice Straight, The Crucible; Brian Dennehy, Elizabeth Franz and Arthur Kennedy, Death of a Salesman; Anthony LaPaglia, A View from the Bridge).

All this is by way of reminding us that Edward Albee must be placed among their ranks, given that he's provided six statuette-securing roles: George Grizzard and Marian Seldes, A Delicate Balance; Frank Langella, Seascape; Irene Worth, Tiny Alice; Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Tom Stoppard and August Wilson have six, too. The former provided Christine Baranski, Glenn Close, Stephen Dillane, Jennifer Ehle, and Jeremy Irons with The Real Thing, and gave Travesties to John Wood; the latter's half-dozen include Mary Alice and James Earl Jones, Fences; L. Scott Caldwell, Joe Turner's Come and Gone; Viola Davis, King Hedley II; Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Seven Guitars; and Laurence Fishburne, Two Trains Running.

Terrence McNally accepts his very own
Tony Award for Master Class
(Photo: CBS)
And yet, beating them all is Terrence McNally, partly because he's written both plays and musicals. For plays, he's had John Glover, Love! Valour! Compassion!; Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald, Master Class; and Rita Moreno, The Ritz; for musicals, Brent Carver, Anthony Crivello, and Chita Rivera, Kiss of the Spider Woman; Audra McDonald, Ragtime; and Chita Rivera, The Rink.

As for Sondheim, he scores pretty high with 12 wins thus far: Alexis Smith, Follies; Larry Blyden, David Burns, Nathan Lane, Zero Mostel, and Phil Silvers, A Funny Thing; Tyne Daly and Angela Lansbury, Gypsy; Joanna Gleason, Into the Woods; Patricia Elliott and Glynis Johns, A Little Night Music; Donna Murphy, Passion; Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, Sweeney Todd. But Sondheim's one-time collaborator, Richard Rodgers did better. With Oscar Hammerstein alone, he had 12 wins: Audra McDonald, Carousel; Yul Brynner, Gertrude Lawrence, and Donna Murphy, The King and I; Shuler Hensley, Oklahoma!; Mary Martin and Patricia Neway, The Sound of Music; Juanita Hall, Mary Martin, Myron McCormick, and Ezio Pinza, South Pacific. But Rodgers winds up with 15 when you factor in his wins for Helen Gallagher in Pal Joey, Diahann Carroll in No Strings, and Natalia Makarova in On Your Toes. (Hammerstein, by the way, finished at 13 thanks to Greta Boston's win for the most recent Show Boat revival.)

Rodgers still isn't the champ of the musical writers, though. And Andrew Lloyd Webber bashers will be pleased to see that he's nowhere in the running, for he can only boast of eight prizes: Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin, Evita; Betty Buckley, Cats; Bernadette Peters, Song and Dance; Michael Crawford and Judy Kaye, The Phantom of the Opera; Glenn Close and George Hearn, Sunset Boulevard. Lo and behold, no one working exclusively in musicals can beat John Kander and Fred Ebb, who have had the satisfaction of providing 16 Tony-winning parts: Liza Minnelli, The Act; Alan Cumming, Joel Grey, Peg Murray, Natasha Richardson, and Ron Rifkin, Cabaret; James Naughton and Bebe Neuwirth, Chicago; Liza Minnelli, Flora, the Red Menace; Robert Goulet, The Happy Time; Brent Carver, Anthony Crivello, and Chita Rivera, Kiss of the Spider Woman; Chita Rivera, The Rink; Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Cooper, Woman of the Year. How fitting that K&E wrote a song called "I Can't Do It Alone" for, indeed, none of these Tony-winners could have done it without them.

Neil Simon, author of 19
Tony-winning roles
But who, finally, is the leader of the club? No less than Neil Simon. Granted, he hasn't had much Tony luck himself, grabbing a mere three trophies in 17 tries: one in 1965 for The Odd Couple, when his script didn't win Best Play but he himself won in the long-discarded category of Best Playwright (suggesting that the top award in those years really should have been called Best Play/Production), then Best Play trophies for Biloxi Blues and Lost in Yonkers. Nevertheless, Simon's characters and words have yielded 19 Tony Awards for actors. Interestingly, only six of them were for leads: Linda Lavin, Broadway Bound; Maureen Stapleton, The Gingerbread Lady; Martin Short, Little Me; Mercedes Ruehl, Lost in Yonkers; Walter Matthau, The Odd Couple; and Jerry Orbach, Promises, Promises. The other 13 were for supporting roles: Matthew Broderick, Brighton Beach Memoirs; Barry Miller, Biloxi Blues; John Randolph, Broadway Bound; Ann Wedgeworth, Chapter Two; Frances Sternhagen, The Good Doctor; Dinah Manhoff, I Ought to Be in Pictures; Kevin Spacey and Irene Worth, Lost in Yonkers; Vincent Gardenia, The Prisoner of Second Avenue; Marian Mercer, Promises, Promises; Christine Baranski, Rumors; Bebe Neuwirth and Michael Rupert, Sweet Charity. This list is yet another argument for adding Neil Simon's name to the list of our greatest playwrights.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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