“Accepting the award for Dr. Borodin…”

Bust of Borodin at his grave

Who is the odd man out in the following list?

  • Alexander Borodin, M.D.
  • James Kildare, M.D.
  • Marcus Welby, M.D.
  • R. Quincy, M.E.
  • Gregory House, M.D.

    As is often the case, the “correct” answer depends on the context you bring to the question. For example, the most obvious choice (based solely on the list and with no other knowledge whatsoever of the names) would be that Quincy was a Medical Examiner, and the others weren’t, which is true; but if you said that the others were M.D.s and Quincy was not, then that is false, for he was both an M.D. and an M.E.

    Or perhaps you know that House is a 21st-century creation and the others (as far as you know) are earlier. True, though not particularly odd, even if House’s personal eccentricities are central to the goings-on

    Or, if you didn’t know but followed the two links above and learned that the last two are TV dramas, maybe that reminded you that Marcus Welby, M.D. was also. And it is only one more step back from that to Dr. Kildare, whether “Young” or not, whether a character in movies, radio, television, or even comic books!

    That last sentence has the clue to my version of the correct answer: “character.” Alexander Borodin was not a character in an eponymous Eastern European soap opera. Rather, he was a real, living, breathing human being. Despite the suggestion in the title of this post that someone was receiving an award for such a show, if you look closely, the absence of italics implies that the award was not to a show of that name, but to the person of that name.

    In fact, Borodin (1833-1897) was trained as a doctor, worked in a military hospital, and gained professional standing in European scientific circles as a research chemist. But he is best-known today as a composer of quintessentially Russian classical music. Actually, the argument could go the other way around. Borodin was part of a group, variously referred to as “The Mighty Five,” “The Russian Five,” or simply “The Five,” who set out consciously to create a nationalistic Romantic music. In The Lives of the Great Composers (1970), Harold C. Schonberg, former music critic of The New York Times, describes them as “a group of inspired amateurs gathered around a father-figure named Mili Balakirev.” The first to join Balakirev in 1857 was César Cui, an army officer and engineer; then Modest Mussorgsky, an 18-year-old cavalry ensign; then Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a naval officer; and finally, in 1862, Borodin.

    Amateurs they may have been, but they were indeed a group, constantly sharing their musical scores with each other, until originality and attribution sometimes became difficult to determine. As Schonberg says: “One never really knows, for The Five were constantly tinkering with one another’s scores….” As for their being “inspired,” you need look no further than Rimsky and Borodin’s drive to learn the elements of orchestral sound: “Rimsky would arrive at the Borodin house lugging three or four instruments, and the two men would spend a weekend experimenting with, and trying to play, the tuba, the English horn, the bassoon, or whatever instruments were at hand. Between the two of them, they worked their way through every instrument of the orchestra.” The outcome of all this, in Schonberg’s view of Borodin’s Symphony #2 in B minor, was “gorgeous, resilient, exotic-sounding melodies” and “bright orchestral sound of unusual personality.”

    Fast forward to the mid-20th century, as two songwriters, Robert Wright and George Forrest, were working on a musical set in Baghdad in the era of The Arabian Nights. Nine of Borodin’s “exotic-sounding melodies” eventually formed the core of that musical, Kismet. In addition to being a box office success in New York, Los Angeles, and London, Kismet was a critical success at the 1954 Tony Awards, winning as Outstanding Musical.

    Unlike today, where only music written specifically for a play is acknowledged in the Tonys, the 1954 win for Kismet included the two authors of the book on which it was based, the producer, the songwriters (the aforementioned Wright and Forrest), and, as composer, Alexander Borodin. In our era of mind-numbing ceremonies for Oscars and Emmys and Espys, it is not unusual to watch an emcee deliver an accepting-the-award-for-the-winner announcement. But even in 1954, they surely realized that Dr. Borodin, who had been dead more than sixty years, would not be showing up, let alone delivering an acceptance speech. Which raises the interesting question: Who got Borodin’s Tony?…

    Finding the answer to that question turned out to be both easy and anti-climactic: No one. This simple (inferential) answer came from looking at the story about the awards ceremony at the Plaza Hotel in the morning-after edition of The New York Times (March 29, 1954, p.23). It includes this sentence: “Altogether, there were nineteen ‘Tonys’ and three scrolls in the sixteen categories covered by the awards.” A bit farther down the column, you discover that, at least in those early days, scrolls were awarded to the producers. So, by counting the list of winners (last link above) — twenty, without the three producers — and comparing to the names in the Times article, there is only one person missing: Alexander Borodin. Literally the odd man out. Without a transcript or a recording of the NBC radio broadcast of the ceremony, we don’t know whether he was even mentioned by name, but the overall impression is that he was, understandably, ignored. A fête worse than death, if ever there was one.

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