Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Resurrection Tonys

It's hard not to see an extraordinary theme in this year's Tony Awards, and it's one of the favorite themes of show biz bios: after the rise and the fall there's the resurrection.

It's not really that dramatic in these three instances, but there is something interesting in figures whose names were much more prominent decades ago, suddenly reemerging with arguably the highest honors of their careers.

I'm talking about the 1980's pop star Cyndi Lauper, whose legacy was "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and several other hits, at least one of the iconic videos of MTV's first years, and some less celebrated but pretty solid songs on several LPs, as we called them then.  Then she pretty much disappeared for decades, media-wise.  But somebody didn't forget her, because she got the call to write the lyrics and music for Kinky Boots, the current Broadway hit the NY Times describes as being "about a drag queen who helps save a struggling shoe factory."  Not only did this show win the Best Musical Tony, but Cyndi Lauper won for her songwriting--moreover she's the first woman to win for both music and lyrics who didn't have a male composing partner.

Christopher Durang became about as big a star as a young playwright could be with his Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You in 1979 and 1980.  Other comedies of the 80s, such as Beyond Therapy and The Marriage of Bette and Boo (which was staged a couple of years ago at HSU) entered the contemporary canon and are still produced across the country.  But though he's continued to write plays that got produced at various places (he had a work commissioned in Pittsburgh a few years ago, I seem to recall), his public profile seemed to be more as a teacher and mentor to younger playwrights.

But on Sunday, it was Christopher Durang standing up on the stage accepting the Tony for Best Play for his comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike--his first Tony Award ever.

The most amazing win however belonged to Cicely Tyson, who burst onto the scene with her Academy Award nominated performance in Sounder in 1972, and Emmy Award-winning performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1974.  Her career had actually begun earlier, in the 1950s. She was in Jean Genet's The Blacks in 1961, the longest running non-musical on Broadway in the 60s, with a cast that included James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou.  I used to watch her every week in my favorite (and short-lived) TV series, East Side/West Side, which starred George C. Scott and also featured another now-veteran Broadway actress, Elizabeth Wilson.  That was 1963-64.

Cicely Tyson never entirely disappeared from television, theatre and the movies, but the fact is that she is 88 years old--and at this age, she won the Tony for Best Actress in a play, portraying Lady Bountiful in a revival of  The Trip to Bountiful.  She'd already won the Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Award for the same role. (And yes, that's her in the photo at the top from last Sunday.)

So what does this all mean?  The 2013 success of  Lauper and Durang aren't unprecedented--Broadway often calls the controversial young artists of a previous generation while ignoring the current controversial young artists. That Cicely Tyson is not even better known, given her long career of notable work, may be partly due to her consistent portrayal of somewhat controversial black characters.

Actually none of them truly "disappeared."  Cyndi Lauper kept making music, won awards, became an LGBT activist, wrote a best-selling book, and bam, she's suddenly "resurrected."  But the return to the biggest stage is fairly rare.

Still, there are stereotypes here to be broken.  These awards also reveal a little to us about the enduring mystery of what happens to people who have been very successful, especially those identified with a particular character or show, and then seem to disappear.  The short answer is that if they are persistent, they simply keep working, wherever and whenever they get good opportunities, and make themselves available.

Actors know (and writers learn) that there are rhythms without rhyme or reason in the level of opportunities available over time.  Actors keep on acting, even if it is playing a role in the reading of a new script in somebody's living room.  Writers do what they must to keep creative, and to get through periods of rest and gestation. And of course they all must make a living, cope with relationships and family responsibilities, etc.  Perhaps the crucial move is to stay in touch with the power centers of Hollywood and New York, while pursuing those other opportunities elsewhere.

Still, there are so many pitfalls along the way, and so much depends on chance and being ready for it, that resurrections such as these three really must be celebrated, even as we view them with awe.

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