Yesterday, I had a video from the 1970 Tony Awards with a young Bonnie Franklin, who was nominated as best featured actress, singing the big, showstopping title song from the musical Applause. If you're wondering why she didn't win -- here's why.
This is an even younger Melba Moore blowing the roof off the theater with low-key charm and sweetness that builds to a level often referred to as "Oh, my God." It's a moment of watching a total unknown become a star. Moore had had a small role just before in the original production of Hair, but it was Purlie (and this song, in particular) that turned her career around. And she sealed it with two other numbers, the title song and "He Can Do It." But it's "I Got Love" that did it -- which you can tell by the audience's applause when she begins, and by their cheers that go on so long at the end that host Shirley Maclaine has to hold off, and even joins in.
Purlie is based on the stage play and then movie, Purlie Victorious, written by and starring Ossie Davis. He co-wrote the book of the musical along with Peter Udell and Philip Rose who directed. And Udell wrote the lyrics for the score that had music by Gary Geld. (Udell and Geld only wrote two musicals, which is a bit surprising because both were big hits. Purlie ran for 688 performances. And the other, Shenandoah, based on the movie with Jimmy Stewart, was even more successful, running for 1,050 performances. It starred John Cullum, who is probably best known to audiences from TV's Northern Exposure as the bar owner, 'Holling Vancoeur.')
In addition to Melba Moore singing "I Got Love" here, the video also includes the roof-raising opening number "Walk Him Up the Stairs," that, as you'll see, blows the audience away, as the black congregation celebrates the funeral of the plantation owner, 'Old Captain.' Featured in the number is the great Gospel singer Linda Hopkins, and you'll also be able to make out one of the show's supporting actors, Sherman Hensley, who not long after would become a star on TV as 'George Jefferson.' (Minutiae Side Note: You'll see one white man in the scene, the character of Old Captain's son. It the movie, the role was played by Alan Alda.)
In between the two songs is a totally stunned Melba Moore winning the Tony. Making her even more stunned, no doubt, is that the presenter Jack Cassidy not only gets her name wrong, the the first name he says is that of another of the actresses nominated.
Making this all odd is that the Tony broadcast not only presents two numbers from Purlie – but in neither of them is the wonderful star of the show, Cleavon Little. (Who'll you'll know as the Sheriff, 'Bar,' in Blazing Saddles.) No idea why. He has some big, fun numbers in the show. The best I can figure is that the producers wanted to show Melba Moore's breakout performance and also the rousing opening number, and Cleavon Little simply isn't in those. But that doesn't really answer the question. No matter, you still get to see him at least -- when he wins the Tony for best actor in a musical.
The video quality is not great -- and there's better footage of Melba Moore singing her song in a TV production of the musical -- but this is the one that introduced her, is performed best, and made her a star.
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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