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Howard Kissel

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The War Between Dream Girls and Nine

Posted: 06/ 8/11 10:16 AM ET

In his most recent theater column in the New York Post, the estimable Michael Riedel declares that the Tonys are already over, that most of the big prizes will go to War Horse and The Book of Mormon. I have no complaints about War Horse, which is one of the most powerful evenings I have ever spent in the theater. As for Mormon, I came expecting it to be adolescent, but my expectations were wildly exceeded.

Since there is little gossip about the current season, Michael harks back to the 1981-1982 season, when there was a deadly rivalry between Michael Bennett's Dream Girls, produced by the Shubert Organization, and Tommy Tune's Nine, produced by the Nederlanders. Dream Girls had opened the previous December and was widely expected to sweep the Tonys. Nine squeaked in at the very last second and suddenly posed a formidable threat. Ultimately Nine won.

With his customary savvy, Michael provides many amusing details about the awards that year. Because he is such a youngster, he omits one of the key elements in this intrigue -- the huge animosity toward the Shuberts -- that underlay a lot of the support for the Nederlanders. (The Shuberts, by the way, were two men, Bernard Jacobs and Gerald Schonfeld, for whom theaters on 45th Street are now named. They were referred to as the Shuberts the way the rulers of Venice were called the Doges.)

The subtext for the feud between Dream Girls and Nine was the fact that in the spring of 1982, two venerable theaters, the Morosco and the Helen Hayes, were demolished in order to make room for what was then called the Portman Hotel (now the Marriott Marquis) on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets.

Portman, an Atlanta developer, brought an out-of-towner's perspective to the design of the hotel. The reason the "lobby" is on the 8th floor is because Times Square was then pretty rough. The patrons were thought to be safer eight stories high than at street level.

In order to make room for the hotel, which was portrayed as an essential step in the cleanup of Times Square, the two theaters had to be razed. I have never forgotten the sight of the red proscenium curtain of the Morosco hanging vulnerably, forlornly as the wrecker's ball was savaging the side wall. The destruction of the theaters aroused tremendous hatred for the Shuberts, who had thrown their considerable weight behind the plan.

At a party a few weeks after the Tony ceremony, I ran into Michael Bennett, who was deeply embittered by the fact Nine had beaten his innovative work. (He was also annoyed that his then-friend, Tommy Tune, had asked him for help when Nine was still in rough shape. His contributions were never acknowledged.)

Equally bitter was Bernie Jacobs, whom -- quite by chance -- I ran into in a theatrical hangout called Sam's, which used to be on 45th Street, Sam's was a knockoff of the immortal Joe Allen's but without the posters of flops that adorn Joe Allen's walls. (I am always surprised that Joe does not seem to have a poster in my modest theatrical collection, Maurice Sendak's for the 1978 Stages, an unbearably pretentious one-night stand.)

I was having lunch by myself at Sam's in the fall of 1982 when Bernie and the jovial general manager Albert Poland came in and joined me. Bernie was annoyed that I, the theater critic of the chic Women's Wear Daily, had not liked Cats, which had just opened. Albert had asked him what I thought of it and Bernie replied, disdainfully, "He wrote about his own." Indeed I had, celebrating my divine Persian, Celeste.

Somehow the conversation came around to the Tonys. Bernie was, needless to say, still angry about the loss of Dream Girls to Nine. A few nights before, he told us -- it was the sort of gossip he would have told Albert but not necessarily me -- he had attended a meeting of the governing council of Actors' Equity as a representative of the Broadway producers. As the Tony voters were then constituted, Equity Council controlled a major bloc of votes.

Even though he was not the producer of Nine, some of the council members began to upbraid him about the fact that there were no African-Americans in the cast of Nine. He lit into them. "You had a chance to vote for a show in which 95 percent of the cast was African-American, but instead, as a group, you voted for Nine. I don't want to hear another word about this."

He considered their subsequent silence a confirmation of his charge that they had voted en masse for Nine to show their anger at his support for the destruction of the two theaters, neither of which was part of the Shubert chain.

I offer this little tidbit because it illuminates the complexity of any voting procedure. In those days, the Tony voters were mainly New York theater people. Now there are many out-of-town theater owners. They have far greater influence because out of town -- where theaters tend to be much larger than here, especially two intimate houses like the Morosco and the Helen Hayes -- is where far more money can be made.

I'm not sure if War Horse, which works so perfectly in the Vivian Beaumont, can be successfully reproduced out of town. As for Book of Mormon, I suspect presenters in flyover country are well aware that its coarse humor may not be as appealing as it is here in the cultural capital, where apparently the idea of an African village in which everyone has AIDS about to be conquered by a warlord who will force all the women to have clitorectomies, is considered har-dee-har-har-har.