The First (and only) Tony I’ve Ever Held…
…didn’t belong to me. But, I bet you knew that.
I made my Broadway debut in the 2013-2014 season. In a play. A pretty big play. Really. There were twenty of us on stage. That’s normal for a musical but not a new American play. It was a great group of actors. Maybe you’ve heard of some of the guys (and, yes, it was predominately guys) I was working with. There was John McMartin (how I loved that man), Michael McKean (I never, EVER got used to being with him, on stage or off), the perfect Ethan Phillips (go ahead—look him up), and this one other guy who was also making his Broadway debut: Bryan Cranston.
He was ok.
That play, All The Way, by Robert Schenkkan, got a lot of love during its limited run here at the Neil Simon (I’m writing this from my dressing room in the same theater. Slightly different show…) and we all enjoyed that love in our various ways.
I’m was old enough (forty-seven, to be precise) to know that my first outing on Broadway wasn’t representative of a life on Broadway, should I be fortunate enough to have one of those. I mean, we knew we had a hit before we opened. We knew we had a killer draw in Bryan, we knew that our limited run meant we were already practically sold out, and we all knew (at least I think we all knew) that it was a damn fine telling of a damn fine story. There was a level of certainty about it all that I knew wasn’t what Broadway felt like most of the time.
But my first time—this time—that’s how it felt.
For us the wind-up to the Tonys wasn’t about “will we run or not?” but “how amazing will this run be? How many cherries do we get on this sundae?” So… that’s different. Not at all the usual pre-Tony existential angst that so many productions labor under while the nominating committee then the Tony voters at large weight in. The time before the nominations was smooth sailing. Then our play and our lead got nominated. I don’t think we thought those nominations were a lock, but we also weren’t terribly surprised. The month between the nominations and the night of the awards was only (!) a brightening of the already bright lights we had gotten used to. I know! I know. Spoiled rotten.
Here’s how to enjoy the Tonys: don’t need them.
It’s exactly like auditioning when you don’t need the job. And we all know how that’s likely to go. When you don’t need it, you often book it. Why is that? Success breeds success? When you’re relaxed, you perform (in all the meanings of that word) at your very best? Or is it that, while desperation or—really—even a whiff of wanting can put folks off, not wanting…? Well, that’s just hot. We were hot.
For a bunch of mostly middle-aged guys, being hot is fun.
Not being a musical we did not perform at the Tony’s. We could relax that Sunday. We had our matinee at two instead of three so that Bryan, Robert, and the higher-ups could get to the ceremonies in time for the broadcast. The rest of the company was going to assemble at the Redeye Grill, over near Radio City, to watch the awards then to celebrate… whatever we had to celebrate come the end of the evening. We were a little slowed down by some fans backstage. Marc Mezvinsky, his wife and her folks just happened to be there and if you’ve ever spent time with Bill, Hilary, and Chelsea you know they really like to talk. Particularly Bill. And so does Bryan. And the play was about politics and the Democratic party, so…. That took some time. But, eventually Hillary had Chelsea drag Bill from the building (that’s how I’m telling it), we all changed, and, in small groups, we made the five-block trip to our party. It was a lovely evening. My friends and I walked it.
I have pictures but I won’t bore you.
Our lead producers were also represented at the Tonys by Audra McDonald, nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play, so the two productions had a combined gathering. At first, those of us not at the ceremonies huddled upstairs at the Redeye in front of a couple of giant flat screen TVs to watch the awards. We drank, we kibitzed, we enjoyed each other’s company and, in what seemed like a blink, there was our man, Bryan, winning his Tony. The room lit UP! I mean, sure, he’s our guy in our play, but here’s the thing: we really liked him. A lot. We were happy for us but also genuinely happy for our colleague. Then Audra won and the room exploded again. (Jeffrey and Jerry were having a really good night.) Then another quick blur of time and Best Play goes to… All The Way.
And our already too-generous sundae was smothered in an avalanche of cherries.
We migrated downstairs to a huge spread (including sundaes!) as folks from Radio City poured in the front door. Eventually, I could see Bryan and his chunk of hardware making his way through the crowd, then Robert, looking like the cat who ate the canary. My little gang got to them, hugged and patted them, and passed them on to the rest of the admiring throng for more love and lauding. The crush was getting to be too much so we headed out to the sidewalk seating on 56th street. The weather was perfect. Outside it was quieter. We were buzzed. We were happy. We plopped down into the comfy outdoor furniture. So relaxed. In a moment—and I honestly don’t remember who handed it to me—I was holding a Tony. A real Tony.
It was Bill Rauch's. And that is perfect.
Bill Rauch, our director and the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare festival. Bill Rauch who commissioned this play in the first place. Bill Rauch who cast me without even knowing that my personal ties to his company out in Ashland were many and deeply meaningful to me. As Robert Schenkkan said in his acceptance speech,
“Bill Rauch, Bill Rauch, Bill Rauch.”
Bill would take exception to my starting this story by saying that the Tony I held did not belong to me. Bill would say, “Christopher! No! That Tony is yours! It’s ours! All of us!” Bill Rauch, more than anyone, knows that theatre is nothing if not a communal experience and a community effort. That’s probably why, of the many actual Tony awards in that room that night, it was Bill’s that was making its way—seemingly of its own accord—from one pair of hands to another. At my table alone it passed from an understudy to a dresser to an assistant director to a company manager to the 20th ensemble member. Me.
That Tony. Our Tony.
The only Tony I’ve ever held knew how it got there and how many people helped it on its way.
I believe it really did.
Neil Simon Theater
May 8, 2017
originally written for and published The Ensemblist blog