Tony's Legendary Ladies
Patricia Neal, Uta Hagen, Nanette Fabray, Chita Rivera, and Bernadette Peters reminisce.
A true Broadway treasure, Patricia Neal was the very first recipient of a Best Featured Actress Tony in 1947 for her performance as Regina in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. "It was thrilling to win it," Neal remembers. "In those days, you got a silver compact with your initials on it. I had come to New York the year before, and [went to work] cutting cake and scooping ice cream at a restaurant in the Village. I was lucky enough to get an understudy job in The Voice of the Turtle. But Another Part of the Forest was my first important role, and Lillian Hellman's first directorial job. She wasn't the best director in the world. She had never directed before and thought it would be a cinch. I would have liked a better director--I think everyone else would have also--but I liked Lillian. In fact, I met my ex-husband, Roald Dahl, at a party at Lillian's."
The cast of Forest became like a family for Neal. "I was cast, and then--all of a sudden--Jean Hagen was cast too," the actress recalls. "She went to Northwestern like I did; we became roommates. Mildred Dunnock played my mother and became a beautiful friend. She had a house on Martha's Vineyard, and so did Lillian. I loved Scott McKay, Leo Genn, and Percy Waram, who played my father. As you know, The Little Foxes was written first, and Forest goes back in time. We all thought, along with Lillian, that we were going to be better then The Little Foxes. We got good reviews, but they were not raves like Foxes received. I played Regina at the age of about 20; she was a woman without feelings, very cold. I loved the part. I was just right for it. I understood her. Years later, after I returned from Hollywood, I read in the paper that they were doing Lillian's The Children's Hour. I read for it and was cast immediately. So I had the privilege of working with her twice."
Uta Hagen is one of theater's finest actresses and most respected acting teachers. She received Best Actress Tony Awards for Clifford Odets' The Country Girl (1951) and for her thrilling portrayal of Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1963), and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Tony last year.
"I read the first act [of Virginia Woolf] and said, 'I want to do this,' " Hagen recalls. "Within the first five pages, I was so struck by the clarity and the precision and the sharpness of the dialogue and the humanity of it. There was no question in my mind. To my knowledge, the play was much longer when we opened in previews, and then we made cuts." Asked if she found the show shocking for the time, Hagen said, "Not at all. I think the audiences did. There was no F- word in it, by the way, which is now common to the point of madness."
Of the Tonys, Hagen has said, "The first time I won was one of the earliest Tony Awards, and it's just a big blur. I can remember what I wore and the look of the room, but that's about it. In 1963, the entire production [of Virginia Woolf] was nominated, and I hoped we'd win so we could run longer--which we did."
Nanette Fabray has charmed audiences with her special brand of musical comedy, from Broadway to M-G-M to television. She won her Tony Award for Best Actress in 1949 for the musical Love Life. Billed as vaudeville, the show included sketches set in time periods from 1791 to 1948. "Mary Martin was offered my role first, and turned it down," Fabray recalls. "It was a beautiful score by Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill. It's amazing that Weill, who was German, understood the music of America. He wrote songs about the 1880s and totally understood our music and the meaning of the time."
Fabray has only the fondest memories of working with choreographer Michael Kidd, who had won one of the first Tonys in 1947 for Finian's Rainbow. "He was a genius," she says. "He could make a star look wonderful. I have a balance problem--I cannot turn to the right, only to the left. He used whatever dancing talents I had and surrounded me with dancers who made me look terrific. I am so in awe of his talent and so grateful to him-not just for me, but for what he did for the show." Love Life proved to "a very physically difficult show to do," Fabray says now, "extremely so for me, because I was practically never off the stage. The director, Elia Kazan, was wonderful, but he had a heavy hand. He did a beautiful job with me on my character and book scenes, but he did not understand how to direct a musical. Ray Middleton was my leading man. He had just finished working with Ethel Merman [on Annie Get Your Gun]. He would lean against me very hard to get his high notes out and blow the wind out of me! I finally had to go to Kazan and say, 'Please don't let him do that,' because I wasn't able to sing. I had a beautiful number in the show called 'I Remember It Well.' We didn't record the show because there was a musician's strike, so the song later went into the M-G-M musical Gigi, with the same lyric but new music written by Frederick Loewe. I have never been able to tell people that it was my song."
Reflecting on how the requirements of Broadway musicals have changed, Fabray says, "In those days, if you could sing, dance, and act, you could be a star. I could do all three of those things, and I had leads in all kinds of shows. I'm not putting myself up to say that I was wonderful; it was just that I was unusual in those days. Today, you cannot get into a chorus without being able to sing, dance, and act."
Fabray laughs as she remembers Tony night 51 years ago. "I knew that I wasn't going to win," she says. "I had actually prepared nothing, and I got up and made a totally incoherent, stupid acceptance speech. I learned a very valuable lesson from that: Never go unprepared for anything where you might have to speak. I received a medallion Tony, which I have framed on the wall. One of these days, I am going to have to take it back and have it put on a stand."
The electrifying Chita Rivera brings her magic touch to every show she tackles. She has won two Best Actress Tonys for musicals by her dear friends John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally: The Rink in 1984, and Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1993. "My first Tony win was glorious and sad at the same time," Rivera has said, "because my wonderful mother, Katherine, had just passed away and was not there in body to see it. But she was there through me. It was an elegant, graceful, and proud moment for mother and daughter--until I was rushed through my speech thanking the world and forgetting my wonderful co-star and friend, Liza Minnelli."
Spider Woman meant a great deal to Rivera. "It touched everyone's imagination and their conscience," she notes. "The story is powerful. It's about the forgotten people and man's inhumanity to man; about people silenced because they believe in what they are and what they want to give to the world. It's about true friendship, which turns to love, and how to survive in this [prison] environment. You survive it in your own mind, which is what Molina taught Valentin. When Molina begins to fantasize, he conjures my character up in his mind--and it was a lot to live up to. We don't know what death is. I wanted the image of death, the spirit of death, to be loving. I wanted her to be caring. So finally, when we meet her, we meet her with open arms."
Rivera treasures her relationship with Kander and Ebb. "They care for me, they know me, and they love me," she says fondly. "No one knows me better then Freddy."
Bernadette Peters, Broadway's reigning queen of musical theater, was awarded Best Actress Tonys for her portrayal of Emma in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song & Dance in 1986 and for the hit revival of Annie Get Your Gun last season. "When I did Song & Dance," Peters recalls, "I used to get to the theater at five o'clock and just go over the music and think about how I felt about the songs I had to sing. I asked myself, 'Where can I go today to make them new and alive and fresh?'
"I accepted the role because it was a real challenge." Peters continues. "When they explained that the whole first act was sung by just one character, I kept thinking they were getting it wrong. I said, 'Now, wait a minute. There's nobody else on stage?' No. 'Well, I have to do this!' It was quite a challenge, and as the year went on, it grew and grew and kept getting deeper and deeper. I was learning things about myself. I really learned to sing that year of Song & Dance; every day, I would go to my singing teacher, Adrienne Angel, and she would realign my voice. She gave me a great gift: She really taught me how to sing."