In all my years of watching the Tony Awards, I've only seen them do something like this one or two other times, and even with those others I'm stretching my memory and can't swear to it, though I'm fairly sure.
This is a tribute that the 1987 Tonys gave to Robert Preston who had just passed away during the year. What's so special about it is how elaborate the production is, and how wonderful the people they got to participate -- but also (and perhaps most of all)...that they did this at all.
This is what I mean --
The other tributes that I have vague memories of were for Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. Maybe. But if so (and assuming so), they were both about as big legends as Broadway has ever produced. Robert Preston did a bunch of plays on Broadway, Maybe eight to 10, though most were supporting cast, and none of his starring roles in plays were particular hits. (He starred in the original production of The Lion in Winter -- though it only ran for 92 performances. It's the movie version that brought the work its acclaim.)
He also made musicals, but only four of them, and two were big flops. One was a solid success (a two-person show, I Do! I Do!, opposite Mary Martin), though not something that would be called a great smash, it ran for a bit more than a year. Indeed, In all his Broadway career, he really only had one show that could be considered huge -- but -- ahh, that "but." But The Music Man was so massive, so iconic, so beloved that it seems to have trumped everything. His career was perfectly good on Broadway, but there were lots of performers who had perfectly good careers on Broadway -- in fact, many even better -- yet none got tributes, let alone major productions like this. And this is a major production, 11 minutes! And it has to be all because The Music Man was so powerfully ingrained in people's hearts. (Watch the audience at the 6-minute mark.) And consider if they would have even considered doing this massive tribute without The Music Man. It was that meaningful. In the end, he wasn't just the wonderful Robert Preston -- whose career in Hollywood probably was longer with more successful productions. He was Prof. Harold Hill.
To be clear, I'm not saying that Robert Preston wasn't great. He was great. But there have been lots of great performers on Broadway. And none ever got a tribute on the Tony Awards, let alone a major production as vibrant as this: an 11-minute tribute on national television. Eleven minutes!! But then -- well, none of them played Harold Hill.
And that, on top of everything else that was so good in his career, is deserving of a tribute.
This a wonderful production, with even some terrific surprises.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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