35 Years Ago, Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim Went Head-to-Head at the Tonys

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Jerry Herman photographed at the Sebel Town house in Kings Cross on Feb. 25, 1985. 

In accepting the award for best score, Herman made a comment that caused a brouhaha among Broadway fans.

Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim are two of the most successful creators of musicals in Broadway history, but they directly competed at the Tony Awards just twice. In 1979, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd beat Herman's The Grand Tour for best original score. Five years later, Herman's La Cage Aux Folles beat Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George in that same category.

In accepting the Tony on June 3, 1984—35 years ago next week—a delighted Herman said, "This award forever shatters a myth about the musical theater. There's been a rumor around for a couple of years that the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway. Well, it's alive and well at the Palace."

Some saw that phrase—"the simple, hummable show tune"—as a subtle dig at Sondheim, whose forte is more challenging and complex songs. Was it an innocent comment or a loaded remark? In 2004, Herman did a Q&A session with readers of Broadway.com. In response to a reader's question, Herman said he meant no slight to Sondheim by his use of that phrase.

"Only a small group of 'showbiz gossips' have constantly tried to create a feud between Mr. Sondheim and myself. I am as much of a Sondheim fan as you and everybody else in the world, and I believe that my comments upon winning the Tony for La Cage clearly came from my delight with the show business community's endorsement of the simple melodic show tune which had been criticized by a few hard-nosed critics as being old fashioned…I was simply saying 'thank you for letting me be what I am.'"

Julie Andrews and Robert Preston (co-stars of the 1982 film musical Victor/Victoria) were the co-hosts of the 38th annual Tony Awards, held at the Gershwin Theatre in New York. La Cage won six Tonys, including best musical. It bested Sunday in the Park with George in each of those categories, though Sunday won in two other categories. Songs from both musicals were performed on the telecast, but La Cage got an extra push when many of the evening's performers joined in a rousing finale performance of "The Best of Times."

Sondheim, now 89, received a Tony for lifetime achievement in the theater in 2008. Herman, 87, got his one year later. Both men have received Kennedy Center Honors. Both won Grammys for song of the year—Herman for "Hello, Dolly!" from the show of the same name and Sondheim for "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music.

In a very real sense, both of the night's top musicals came out as winners. Sunday in the Park with George went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It's one of only nine musicals in history to have won that award. And La Cage continues to be a crowd-pleaser. It has been revived twice on Broadway. Both productions won Tonys for best revival of a musical.