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The 2003 Tonys


A kiss is but a kiss -- but what if, instead of Rick and Ilsa, it's Scott and Marc. With millions looking on. Gay Pride Night at Radio City Music Hall began with a kiss -- an all-out, juicy, movie-clinch kiss between the two guys, life partners, who'd written the score of "Hairspray" -- and ended with the mop-'em-up overwhelming triumph of sexual diversity as that same frog-voiced Big Mama of an entertainment carried off its eighth and the evening's climactic Tony Award for Best Broadway Musical of 2003.

Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman accept the Best Score Tony Award for "Hairspray." Photo: Anita and Steve Shevett.

The kiss lingered, both nervously and happily, floating around in TV space, throughout the whole three-hour Tony show. It had occurred at 8:19 p.m., as Scott Wittman, the tall one, and Marc Shaiman, the short one, embraced the Tony they'd each just won for Best Original Score and then enmeshed each other.

At 8:37 p.m. the winner was Joe Mantello, for Best Director of a Play, that work being Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out," which should have won the Pulitzer and on this night did win the Tony for Best Play -- a miraculously light-hearted, deep-hearted drama about baseball and America and democracy and bigotry and life and death that begins with the casual announcement by Darren Lemming, the superstar center fielder of the New York Empires, that he is homosexual.

"I think I just saw two guys kiss on CBS. Which is cool," said Mantello as he accepted his own award. And he was but the first of several winners who also thought it was, well, cool. Mantello's special thanks were, of course, for playwright Greenberg -- "who taught me more about baseball than I ever learned in Rockford, Illinois, doing cartwheels in the outfield."

One of the entangling threads of "Take Me Out" is the love story, of a sort, that slowly builds between the ultra-self-confident ballplayer (beautifully played by Daniel Sunjata) and his unathletic, highstrung, closeted-even-from-himself investment counselor, Mason Marzac (beautifully played by Denis O'Hare). O'Hare and Sunjata were two of the five people up for the award of Best Featured Actor in a Play. Immediately on the heels of Mantello -- or after a Tony interval to give airtime to "A Year With Frog and Toad," a made-for-kids whimsy that, awardless, closed a week later -- the Best Featured Actor prize went to O'Hare, a pro of high talent who had labored for years far out of sight of this holy grail. He thanked his teammates, he thanked Richard Greenberg, "who taught me to jump up and down," he thanked "Hugo Redwood, my beautiful boyfriend," and he thanked "my parents from Virginia, who are here on their 50th anniversary -- this is for you, for being so patient with your son." Later, in the press room, O'Hare underscored the gayness of the evening with: "I mean, 'A Year With Frog and Toad,' what is that?"

The press room for these Tony Awards was, like the year before, none other than the once-famed Rainbow Room, 64 flights up in the skyscraper across the street from the Music Hall. There, from time to time, the winners would put in a brief presence to chit and chat and answer questions. When those kissing kismets, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, made it to the 64th floor, Shaiman immediately chortled that down there on the Great Stage he had also "got to kiss Sarah Jessica Parker." But, he added, all you really think about when you run up on stage to grab your Tony is "are they going to cut me off" for speaking too long. "It dominates your mind." Of himself and his lover he wanted it known: "We're both Irish-Americans." And then, for an exit line: "I hope to replace Harvey if he ever leaves the show." Harvey Fierstein, that would be, the Mrs. Edna Turnblad whose majestic joie de vivre dominated these proceedings, and the Broadway season, from first to last -- that same Harvey Fierstein whose Off-Broadway and then Broadway "Torch Song Trilogy" had done its gutsy best to legitimize the gay experience and sensibility 20 years ago.

When "Take Me Out" director Mantello reached the Rainbow Room, from somewhere among the tuxedoed horde of scribes there came the inevitable question: "How do you go to work on those nude scenes?" Mantello's patient, weary answer: "You try to make it as unselfconscious as possible. I let the actors take their time. When they're ready, they take their clothes off at the very last." Pause. "The nudity in 'Take Me Out' is actually the least interesting part of the play." Zing! And of course he's right.

"Hairspray" triumph swept right along with awards to director Jack O'Brien, to tiny tubby big-lunged actress Marisa Jane Winokur, to Marisa's mama Harvey, and to the show itself.

"Finally!" Jack O'Brien -- the George Cukor of Broadway -- exclaimed to the thousands of faces before him. "I've been waiting for this before most of you were born. I feel like the Susan Lucci of the Tonys." Harvey Fierstein's blessing to those seated thousands was: "I want to have each and every one of your children."

Gay Pride night did have some contrasting notes, of course. Woman-besieged Antonio Banderas of "Nine" was fated to lose out to Fierstein as Best Actor in a Musical, but Mrs. Antonio Banderas, a/k/a Melanie Griffith, put in a vivacious word for heterosexuality with: "Luckily he comes home with me."

There was also a good deal of less amused homophobic backlash out there in the good old USA. One creepy schmuck on Salon.com even demanded -- deadly seriously -- the firing of Joseph Lelyveld, the brand new fill-in executive editor of the New York Times, for running, on an inside page, a photo of those two chaps kissing.

Up there in the press room, Christopher Reeve, gallant as ever, talked from his wheelchair, with controlled pride, about how, in about a year, he aims to be directing a movie from a book "by an author who since 1975 has turned down about eight offers" to have it made into a film. "I keep saying I want to direct in theater," Reeve further declared. Michael Ritchie of the Williamstown, Mass., Playhouse -- "where I've been working since age 15" -- keeps the door open. "So it's nice to have a home to go to. I'll do a play, I really will. Trouble is, in this technological age they have yet to figure out some simple piece of equipment that would allow me to turn the pages" of a script. Any creative inventors listening out there?

And then there was Billy Joel. Actually, it was Billy Joel who, piped into the Music Hall, had opened the whole show, playing and singing "I'm in a New York state of mind" at a grand piano in Times Square. Shortly thereafter he'd received his very first Tony Award, for the orchestration (with Stuart Malina) of "Movin' Out," the Twyla Tharp musical based on Joel's songbook.

Now, in the Rainbow Room, cocked up on a stool, before the microphone, scratching his beardlet, Joel wondered at the whole thing. "There I am in the middle of Times Square, all these people going by, buses going by, same as every day. Very surreal. I'm still sort of resonating."

He talked of his youth on Long Island. "When I was a little kid, every Fourth of July we watched Cagney on 'Million Dollar Movie' in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy.' I thought 'Ahhh, that looks like a real good job . . . ' " He heaped praise on Ms. Tharp. "She did all the work.The whole extent of my collaboration was: 'Okay.' " He said he wants to do a book. "I need a writer to sort of sit with me." His advice to young would-be entertainers: "Get a lawyer. Get an accountant. Then get another lawyer to watch the first lawyer. I'm serious."

Some rocket scientist in the press asked what's it's like to be a celebrity. "Ah," said Billy Joel, stroking his chin. "There are some interesting stories about me. Even when I was a celebrity husband, it was interesting. I was married twice, you know. Two different people. Twenty years."

All of which goes to show that there's more than one way of having a gay old time. [Tallmer]

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