| return to entry page | go to other departments |





Elaine Stritch at Liberty (Photo by Michael Daniel)

It was when Elaine Stritch was lacerating her heart out, upstairs on the 64th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, that she let out a sudden delighted whoop of " 'ray!" -- Stritch for "Hurray!" This in response to the news, just delivered by Whoopi Goldberg over the TV monitor to Ms. Stritch's right, that the 2002 Tony Award for Best Play had gone to "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" and the man who'd written it, Mr. Edward Albee.

The most controversial, indeed the most sexually shocking work to hit Broadway in many a season -- shocking enough to make a runaway hit called "Urinetown" look, by contrast, like a naughty little package of M&M's -- had won out, that Sunday night, June 2, over hot-market, critically hyped competition from Suzan-Lori Parks ("Topdog / Underdog"), Mary Zimmerman ("Metamorphoses"), and Ivan Turgenev ("Fortune's Fool").

As Tribeca and Greenwich Village's own Edward Albee, downstairs on the great stage of Radio City Music Hall, was dryly, slyly advising the Tony judges that "you should have given this to all four of us, but you didn't," and thanking his producers for "having the outrageous faith that Broadway was ready to see a play about love" (man loves goat), Ms. Stritch, up there on the 64th floor, let out all stops in informing the assembled ladies and gentlemen of the press how hurt and infuriated she was at having been cut off, on that same stage, some minutes earlier, in the midst of her thank-you's.

Her spoiled moment of gratitude had been for the Tony Award she'd just won at age 77 -- her very first -- for her autobiographical smash "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty," which had premiered at the Joseph Papp Public Theater on Lafayette Street before being grabbed by Broadway.

Taken together, these three advents -- Albee's "The Goat," the "Urinetown" phenomenon, and Stritch's anger -- stamped three downtown fingerprints deep onto the uptown matrix of an annual celebration of big tickets that would like to be a lot bigger; one such, this year's happy, harmless "Thoroughly Modern Millie," collector of Best Musical and five other 2002 Tonys, may, thanks to the Tony voters and CBS television, achieve just that.

Do the networks never learn? It is now 33 years and six months since the "Heidi" game in which NBC switched away from the final 65 seconds of a crucial New York Jets-Oakland Raiders football showdown to bring Middle America the edelweiss longings of a Swiss miss who wouldn't know a Joe Namath from a Darryl Lamonica. The Raiders scored two touchdowns and won the game in the last 9 of those 65 seconds.

In the Music Hall, Elaine Stritch, introduced by Chita Rivera (a fellow survivor), had been greeted with a giant roar. "Don't take up my time," the maiden Tony winner tartly enjoined the audience, and was just telling how she'd advised a young fan who wanted to follow in her footsteps that "she'd better wear comfortable shoes," and segueing from that into a few thanks, when the music started rising all around her.

Stritch tried to shout down the music: "I want to thank the Public Theater, which allowed me to do it [her solo show] . . . George Wolfe, who [as director] showed how to do it . . . John Lahr {script advisor], who helped me, oh boy, how he helped me to do it . . . "

But by then the music had entirely drowned her out, and the screen cut -- instantly, brutally, insanely -- to a commercial. CBS had had its Tony Award "Heidi" moment and Elaine Stritch had a belly full of bile.

So here we are, a half-hour later, up in the press room on the 64th floor, where Ms. Stritch, classifying herself, not for the first time, as a "Catholic, diabetic, alcoholic, pain in the ass," bluntly says: "Okay, let's go," and launches forth:

"It's nice of you to invite me up here, as upset as I am about the whole situation . . . I know CBS can't let people do the Gettysburg Address up there, but . . . I was just so anxious to tell the audience how I felt, and they rang the curtain down before the play was over. But I'm still here," she said -- tossing off the great, tough Sondheim line that's integral to her "At Liberty" show.

She grinned, hoisted herself and her long legs up on the stool in front of that roomful of pens, pencils, and laptops. "I'll tell you one thing that isn't working," she said. "This waterproof mascara."

As she wiped the smudges away, the fury returned:

"I was so busy trying to remember the names of the backers, and then I heard that fucking music and forgot everybody's name. The only name I could remember was CBS."

Ms. Stritch has a reputation for talking at length in giving thanks for awards or otherwise. It was nevertheless no way to treat a lady. And by the way, where was Julie Harris, recipient of a Lifetime Achievement award, anywhere on CBS or PBS that night? Nowhere, not at least when I was watching, same as Uta Hagen a year or two ago -- and Robert Whitehead, for that matter, another honoree, this year.

Stritch was not the only disgruntled winner to come before the press on the 64th floor. John Lithgow, voted Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his villainous version of Walter Winchell in "Sweet Smell of Success," proclaimed: "I don't have a vengeful bone in my body," and then veered into: "It hurts a lot when people dismiss it and ridicule it [his show] . . . Lots of critics disliked it. Lots of important critics . . . It's very hard to overcome a bad smell and a bad review in a very important paper" -- i.e., The New York Times. Lithgow, whose first Tony had come 29 years earlier in a good play called "The Changing Room," excused himself to go back down "to join my wife to see if we can win Best Musical." It didn't. "Millie" did.

Most of the rest of the visitors to the 64th floor were far more cheery, particularly those involved with "Urinetown," beginning with the Alphonse & Gaston act of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, young men whose awards for Best Book and Best Original Score of a Musical had come during the first, or PBS, hour ("the understudy hour," Stritch called it) of the three-hour Tony broadcast.

I think it was Hollmann who acknowledged, in answer to a leading question, that, yes, early on there had been an alternative title ("You're in Town") for this musical about a community where you have to pay to pee. "But that would be as if we fooled the audience, had them come into the theater, then pulled down a sheet -- 'Ha ha, the joke's on you!' We thought about it for five minutes and said no."

On larger matters, Greg Kotis affirmed that their creation, which had first flowered at a Lower East Side venue called Leftorium in the New York Fringe Festival of 1999, had been "a beneficiary of the good will of this city and this country" even as, in his belief, it continues to demonstrate that "below 14th Street and below Houston Street there's a spirit" that's also perhaps alive throughout the country.

Almost at that very instant on the TV monitor, producer/director Harold Prince, a main force both of Broadway and of daring innovation ("Cabaret," "Kiss of the Spider Woman"), was telling the thousands of ticket-holders in the Music Hall: "It's been 47 years since I attended my first Tony ceremony. None of those years were quite so traumatizing or so strengthening as this one . . .

"Don't sell audiences short," Hal Prince urged all within earshot. "We will be judged by how bravely we bring [good theater] to those audiences."

He might have been speaking (who knows? maybe he hated it) of Albee's "The Goat."

At the big buzzing blooming happy-making outdoor/indoor party in Rockefeller Plaza after the broadcast wrapped at 11 p.m. -- the best Tony Awards party in many memories -- one room swarmed with "Urinetown" backers hard by a large table full of people (Bill Pullman, Mercedes Ruehl, Edward Albee, et al.) from "The Goat."

"What other worlds to conquer, Edward?" someone asked.

"I don't consider this a pinnacle," the playwright shot back.

What then? The Nobel?

Why not, even a goat might ask. [Tallmer]

This article was previously published in The Villager.

Click here for a full listing of the 2002 Tony Award winners.

| home | reviews | cue-to-cue | welcome |
| museums | recordings | coupons | publications | classified |