Picture it. It’s 3 June 3 1984 and you’re watching the Tony Awards. You’ve watched the performances of each of the nominated musicals:
“I Want It All” (performed by Liz Callaway, Catherine Cox, Beth Fowler) from the charming, but uneven Baby; “We Are What We Are” (a production number) followed by an extremely moving “I Am What I Am” (performed by George Hearn) from La Cage aux Folles; “Fabulous Feet” a fun number performed by Hinton Battle and the company of The Tap Dance Kid; and the thrilling, enthralling “Sunday” (performed by the entire cast, led by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters) from Sunday in the Park with George. (You’ve also seen a number from the musical that escaped a nomination: “Wallflower” from The Rink, performed by Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli.) Now it is time for the award to be presented. The nominations are read out. The envelope is opened. And the winner is….
All right, so it’s not really that unexpected to see the popular hit outshine the critical hit (which is often arguably the better show) at the Tony Awards.
Jerry Herman, in his acceptance speech, proudly proclaimed that the wins of La Cage aux Folles proved that the ‘simple, hummable tune (was) still alive on Broadway’, a statement that many interpreted as a criticism of Stephen Sondheim’s less conventional score. (Herman has since denied that this was his intent, but one can’t deny that the episode does indeed leave a bad taste in the mouth.)
What exactly was going on here? Was Sunday in the Park with George too much of a “high art” show for the Tony Awards, even if (based solely on the quality of the material) it should have won the awards for both Best Score and Best Musical? Were people in the industry were really wanting to keep the good old American musical comedy alive – particularly as audiences were beginning to flock to the spectacular British megamusicals? Either way, it’s such a pity, and ironic too when taking the latter point into consideration, because Sunday in the Park With George is a truly great American work of art.