Musicals have been making their way to the infamous street called Broadway in New York long before the Tony Awards were an idea. Since the beginning of time, when cavemen began to beat animal hides for rhythms sake, humans have been attaching musical to rituals, religious gatherings, and stories.
It wasn’t until 1947, when the Tony Awards were first given at a black tie dinner for around one thousand people, did performers, productions, and directors receive the accolades they deserved for the spectacular shows frequenting theaters.
Of course, musicals are not the only types performances one can find on Broadway. Still, musicals are one of our favorite genres, and yours, so fine tuning our focus for today’s piece on this harmonious category makes everyone happy.
So, because we love the Tony Awards and musicals we thought it would be interesting to take a look back at past Tony Award winners in that field.
Here we go with a little information on the first six actors to win a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
1. Paul Hartman – 1948 – Angel in the Wings
Our first winner of the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical was born in 1904 in San Francisco. His first performances were dancing with his sister. Hartman met his wife Grace Barrett when they teamed up for a vaudeville act.
The couple made some headway on Broadway before deciding to make the plunge in Hollywood. In California they had little success and decided to move back to New York. It was then they decided to become the masters of their own destiny and write their own piece to produce.
This piece was the musical Angel in the Wings, with performances for which they both won a Tony.
Not much can be found as far as synopsis or summary of this primary Tony Award winning production except for the fact that it was a musical review.
Hartman and his wife were proposed to do a sitcom for NBC called The Hartmans. Yet, it didn’t do very well because producers didn’t highlight the couple’s substantial musical talents.
Paul Hartman died of a heart attack on October 2, 1973 at the age of sixty-nine. His wife, Grace, died before him in 1955 from cancer.
2. Ray Bolger – 1949 – Where’s Charley?
That’s right. None other than the Scarecrow from one of our favorite childhood musicals The Wizard of OZ won the second ever Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
Where’s Charlie is a playful musical where the main character disguises himself as his aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez. He does this to fool the two women, Kitty and Amy, he and his roommate, Jack, intend to marry. Their uncle, Mr. Spettigue, is constantly aware of their whereabouts and will not allow them to be in the company of boys without a chaperone.
You see, while playing his aunt, Charlie is a suitable chaperone. Of course, as with any musical wool one might try to pull over someone else’s eyes, the truth comes out after a bit a mayhem.
The actor who first made this role memorable enough to win a newly coveted Tony Award is none other than Ray Bolger, who was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1904. Besides the Wizard of Oz, Bolger appeared in films The Great Ziegfeld and Sweethearts.
Ray Bolger died on January 15, 1987 in Los Angeles, California.
3. Ezio Pinza – 1950 – South Pacific
Before it became a movie in 1958, South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theater on Broadway April 7, 1949. Italian opera singer Ezio Pinza was already under contract to perform in a show that would never be written. It is said that Pinza was growing weary of his typical show types and was looking to expand his career.
Rogers, of Rogers and Hammerstein, felt Pinza was exactly the type of performer he needed to play the lead character, Emile. It was Pinza’s vocal abilities that inspired Rogers and Hammerstein to forget the original plan to have the musical revolve around a younger couple. They would go with an older male as a romantic lead in a musical, which was unusual to do at the time.
Pinza was born in Rome in 1892 and made his operatic debut in 1914. He has sung in some of the most famous lead roles opera has to offer including Don Giovanni and Mozart’s Figaro. Pinza’s vocals have given voice to the music of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.
Still, he retired from opera in 1948 and the very next year won the third ever Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. A few years later he had his own television show on NBC only to return to Broadway opposite Florence Henderson in Fanny.
After a stroke Ezio Pinza died at the age of sixty-four on May 9, 1957 in Connecticut and he is buried in the Greenwich cemetery.
4. Robert Alda – 1951 – Guys and Dolls
The father of our favorite MASH doctor, Hawkeye Pierce, Robert Alda, is the fourth actor to win a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
Born in New York City in 1914 Alda started his performing career as a vaudeville singer and dancer. He left vaudeville for burlesque and wound up having a rather successful Broadway career. In the 1960’s he relocated to Italy and began a career in European film.
In this first production of Guys and Dolls Robert Alda took on the role of Sky Masterson. Sky is challenged to a bet by his friend Nathan Detroit whether or not he can get Sarah Brown, a local missionary, to travel to Cuba for dinner with Sky for the evening. Of course, Sky and Sarah fall in love while Nathan pulls a fast one on them back in New York.
Other roles the elder Alda was known for were his portrayal of George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue, talent agent Douglas Sirk in Imitation of Life. He also appeared on Broadway in 1964 in the musical What Makes Sammy Run. From May through June of 1953 Robert Alda hosted a game show titled What’s Your Bid?
Robert Alda also appeared twice on his son’s hit television show Mash, once in 1975 and another in 1980. He died in 1986.
5. Phil Silvers – 1952 – Top Banana
Some of our readers may remember Phil Silvers as Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko on popular CBS television program The Phil Silvers Show, which started in 1955. It was three years earlier that Silvers became the next on our list of early Tony Award Winners for Best Actor in a Musical.
Silvers took on the role of Jerry Biffle, a television star who falls for a new girl in his ensemble he uses on his show. Reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac, Biffle uses another singer to woo his girl. His television show Blendo Soap Program is also in danger of losing its sponsor.
Silvers returned to Broadway and was nominated for another Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 1961 for Do Re Mi and won again in 1972 for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. For the 1972 win Silvers made history being the first Best Actor Tony winner for a lead role in a revival.
Besides taking on his own projects Silvers found time to appear as a guest on The Dean Martin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, and The Beverly Hillbillies.
While performing in the production that would bring him is final Tony Award Silvers suffered a stroke. He never fully recovered but would still find time for performing. Silvers continued to appear as a guest on shows like Happy Days, until his final performance in 1983 on the popular cop drama CHiPs.
Silvers died on November 1, 1985 while sleeping in his home in Century City, California.
6. Thomas Mitchell – 1953 – Hazel Flagg
The sixth Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical went to an actor many of us know as Scarlett O’Hara’s father. Others know him as the loveable and quirky Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Well after these two immortalized roles Mitchell joined Helen Gallagher and John Howard on Broadway in Hazel Flag, the story of a magazine writer who pushes his editor to cover a story involving a girl from small town America. She was reported to be dying from radium exposure but once she is in New York the girl realizes the diagnosis was a mistake. She is overwhelmed by the publicity she receives and doesn’t tell anyone of her health.
Mitchell won a Tony for his performance in this short run musical production. It is well worth mentioning too that Thomas Mitchell is the first actor to every win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony. This is what they call the “triple crown” in the business and very few actors can claim the same.
On December 17, 1962 Thomas Mitchell died from peritoneal mesothelioma at the age of seventy.
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