1983 Tony Awards flashback: When ‘Torch Song Trilogy’ made history

The 76th annual Tony Awards have already made history. For the first time, two of the acting nominees identify as non-binary: Harrison Ghee who is contending for lead actor in musical for “Some Like It Hot” and Alex Newell, vying for featured actor in a musical for “Shucked.” Their nominations have been warmly embraced. But 40 years ago, a history-making acceptance led to death threats.

At the 37th annual Tony Awards on June 5, 1983, producer John Glines thanked his lover when he accepted the best play honor for Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” a three-act drama set in New York in the 1970s and early 80s starring Fierstein as a gay, drag queen and torch singer. “He expressed gratitude to an assortment of people , ‘lastly but most importantly, to the one person who believed and followed the dream from the beginning, who never said ‘You’re crazy; it can’t be done’; and I refer to my partner and lover, Lawrence Lane,” noted the New York Times in its 2018 obit on Glines.

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“Mr. Glines has long been committed to producing and writing plays with gay characters and gay themes that would appeal to a broad audience. To have taken such a play to the pinnacle of American theater, and to forthrightly thanks his partner on national television at a time when the emerging AIDS crisis was making gay men a target of new fear and hostility, was indeed, as he put in the acceptance speech, ‘a stupendous and miraculous moment.’”

In a 1989 Los Angeles Times interview, Glines recalled his neighbors celebrating the win when he returned home to Brooklyn after the awards. Two days later, there was a death threat on his answering machine, and the curb outside his apartment had a sprayed death threat. “Sure, I was frightened,” he noted. “You do what you have to do. I knew what I was saying on television was crucial to gay people. And on the other end of the death threats, was the outpouring of mail from all over country-people saying how much what I’d done had meant to them”.

The Tony Awards were held at the former Uris Theatre with a trio of legendary hosts — Richard Burton, Lena Horne and Jack Lemmon — and telecast on CBS. There was a star-studded salute to the beloved composer George Gershwin with Ben Vereen performing “Stairway to Paradise”; Lemmon and Ginger Rogers trilling “Somebody Loves Me”; Rogers and Hal Linden duetting on “Lady Be Good”; and Bonnie Franklin singing “How Long Has his Been Going On.” At the end of the show, the Uris Theatre was renamed the Gershwin.

Fierstein won best performance by a leading actor in a play for “Torch Song Trilogy,” while veteran actress Jessica Tandy took home her third and final Tony for leading actress for “Foxfire.” And 21-year-old Matthew Broderick received featured actor in a play for Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” The year before, he had appeared in the off-Broadway production of “Torch Song Trilogy,” earning an Outer Critics Circle Award for best debut performance. Best featured actress went to Judith Ivey for “Streaming.” Gene Saks won best director for “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and Ming Cho Lee received best scenic design for “K2.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster musical “Cats” went into the ceremony with 11 nominations, and it was a near purr-fect night for the singing felines, winning seven. Besides best musical, it won Tonys for best book for T.S. Eliot, who had died in 1965, and best original score for Webber and Eliot. Betty Buckley received best featured actress-she brought down the house when she performed “Memory” during the ceremony. Rounding out the wins were best director for Trevor Nunn, as well as lighting and costume design

The American Ballet Theatre’s superstar Natalia Makarova received best performance by a leading actress in a musical for the revival of the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical “On Your Toes,” while Tommy Tune won leading actor as well as best choreography-shared with Thommie Walsh-for the Gershwin musical “My One and Only.” That show’s third Tony went to the influential black tap dancer Charles “Honi” Coles for featured actor. Best revival went to “On Your Toes.” And the Oregon Shakespeare Festival received the Regional Theatre Award.

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