70s Theatre

The seventies were a decade of transition in the theatre. As was the case with movies, theatrical visionaries were torn between their need to do good theatre and their need to do experimental theatre. Luckily amid all the nudity and pretentious scripts, the great Stephen Sondheim was there to strongly influence the theatre world with his clever lyrics and gloriously confusing rhythmic structure and give actors a whole new slew of standards to audition with. The seventies also gave the theatre new classics like “A Chorus Line”, “Chicago,” as well promoting big stars of the decade like Tommy Tune, Liza Minelli, Chita Rivera, and Bob Fosse.

Awards don’t give a totally thorough picture of the zeitgeist of a decade, but in the seventies the American Theatre Wing’s annual Tony awards were dead on in rewarding the shows and people that are representative of the time period. So this article is Tony based for that reason.

The decade kicked off with Betty Comden and Adolph Greene s “Applause” which starred Lauren Bacall winning Best Musical over “Coco” which starred Katherine Hepburn. Best Play that year was “Borstal Boy.”

In ’71 Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” took the top musical prize, and “Sleuth” won Best Play.

1972’s Tony voters elected “Two Gentleman of Verona” as Best Musical (you read right) in a year where “Grease” and Sondheim’s “Follies” were also nominated. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s debut effort “Jesus Christ Superstar” earn nominations for Best Score and a Featured Actor nod for Ben Vereen who would take home a Best Actor win for his work in “Pippin.”

A Sondheim effort took the prize again in ’73. “A Little Night Music,” which introduced “Send in the Clowns” into the public repertoire, won that year. It had been nominated alongside “Pippin” which was scored by Steven Schwartz and directed (and choreographed of course) by dance giant Bob Fosse. That year also gave John Lithgow his first nomination and win, for featured dramatic actor in “The Changing Room.” “The Changing Room was also nominated for Best Play as was Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” but both lost to “That Championship Season” which was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival.

1974 was a year packed a lot of talent into one season, so much so that the Theatre Wing had to create extra awards to recognize every one who had made valuable contributions. “Raisin” took home Best Musical but was in the same category with Cy Coleman’s “See Saw” which starred and gave a Featured Actor in a Musical trophy to Tommy Tune. ’74 was also a year of great revivals. Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent “Candide” came back and was given a special award. “Cyrano” brought Christopher Plummer a Best Actor award and “Uncle Vanya” gave George C. Scott a nom in the same category. That year also brought the MGM’s last big musical “Gigi” to the Broadway stage for the first time.

“The Wiz,” an all black reimagining of “The Wizard of Oz” won Best Musical ( plus featured actor and actress, costume design, direction, choreography and score) in 1975. The famously naked horse play “Equus” took Best Play that year, also nominated in that category was “Same Time, Next Year” (if you can find this obscure treat, watch it, you will loooove it!) which Ellen Burstyn took Best Actress for. Acting wise, ’75 was a good year, a lot of wonderful character actors graced New York stages. Frank Langella won his first of three career Tonys for “Seascape.” The Best Actor in a musical category was crowded with leading men. John Cullum won for “Shenandoah”, from a pool of Joel Grey for “Goodtime Charley”, Raul Julia for “Where’s Charley” and Robert Preston for “Mack and Mabel”

1976 was a year that pitted the two most famous seventies shows together: “Chicago” and “A Chorus Line.” “A Chorus Line” took Best Musical but it’s a toss up to see which has had a great impact on the modern musical with regards to choreography, style or structure.

The relentless cheerful “Annie” earned the Best Musical medallion in ’77 over “Side by Side by Sondheim.” In the world of straight plays ’77 brought the pivotal “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf” to the public eye. This was also the year the Tonys dedicated a category to revivals. New productions of “Guys and Dolls”, “Porgy and Bess” (which won the award) and “Threepenny Opera” were all recognized.

In ’78 the American Theatre wing Liza Minelli with Best Actress in a musical for “The Act.” Fosse won Best Choreography for “Dancin'” and the Best Musical trophy went to “Ain’t Misbehavin'” Morgan Freeman and Victor Garber were both nominated for Best featured dramatic actor, and Jessica Tandy won Best Actress in a Play for “The Gin Game.”

Fittingly, the last year of this decade was Sondheim dominated. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” won actor and actress (Len Cariou and Angela Lansberry) book, score, many technical awards, direction (Harold Prince) and of course, Best Musical. “The Elephant Man” won Best Play.