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50 Years Ago at the Tony Awards: Channing, Streisand, 'Hello Dolly!' and 'Funny Girl'

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Apr 30, 2014 01:55 PM EDT

If Idina Menzel is disappointed that the 2014 Tony Award nominating committee overlooked her, along with (for the most part) her show If/Then, she might look back to the Broadway scene of 50 years ago and take some comfort. That season welcomed two musicals, and two stars, who would become legends. But the 1964 Tonys tilted all the way to one side, bestowing a then-record 10 awards on Hello Dolly!, including Best Leading Actress (Carol Channing), Best Direction (Gower Champion), and Best Musical. Left in the cold with zero wins were Funny Girl and its star Barbra Streisand.

Few musicals today work as true star vehicles, unless you count the jukebox shows centering on one great performer, like Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill with Audra McDonald channeling Billie Holiday. Instead, even the biggest successes of the 1970s and on--Les Misérables, A Chorus Line, the Andrew Lloyd Webber canon, the Disney musicals and so on--tend to be ensemble works that don't give a single performer the spotlight to break into pop culture in a big way. Evita, I would suggest, was an exception that proves the rule.

By contrast, pop culture wrote those big names of 1964--Channing, Streisand, Hello Dolly! and Funny Girl--into its annals for all time.

In the 1960s, Broadway could still give its stars the chance to go nova. Though Channing took on Hollywood too, her legend is rooted in musical theater, especially her signature role of Dolly Levi.

Streisand walked a very different route. Rather than pursuing a Broadway career after Funny Girl, she became perhaps the most celebrated female pop singer of the second half of the 20th century, as well as a movie star and film director. In a way, you could say she had a kind of last laugh, winning a Best Actress Oscar for the movie version of Funny Girl in 1968.

As for the shows, Hello Dolly! remains one of the most popular musicals around. On just the first page of a web search for "hello dolly" you'll find half a dozen revivals at regional and community theaters--not to mention high schools--around the English-speaking world. A Ford's Theatre and Signature Theatre production in Washington, DC just won several Helen Hayes Awards.

A similar search for "funny girl" will bring you more up to speed than you ever thought you needed to be on TV's Glee, whose big plot line this season concerns Rachel Berry's (Lea Michele) star turn in a Broadway revival of the show. Countless young viewers now know about Funny Girl who didn't before.

To bring this full circle, Rachel Berry's mother on Glee is played by none other than Idina Menzel, who first came to prominence in Wicked but owes her now-wider recognition to the infamous John Travolta name flub on the Oscars broadcast. If Broadway can't catapult you into the firmament anymore, there's always the bizarre accident.

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TagsTony Awards, Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand, Idina Menzel, Glee, Lea Michele, Funny Girl, Hello Dolly

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