So, the Tonys are over, and another season has come and gone. I've caught up (mostly) on my reviews, but I wanted to alert y'all out there in EIKILFM land that I've picked up a companion writing gig, and that I'll be migrating some of my posts over to this new platform. Don't worry: I'll still be reviewing all the new musicals on Broadway and many of those from Off-Broadway, as well as shows at my regular regional haunts. I'm hoping that, rather than replace any of my efforts here on the blog, the new gig will act as a complement.
The new gig is at About.com. I'll be their new "musicals and theater" experts. (Yeah, I know. Musicals are theater too. But the folks at about think that emphasizing "musicals" will lead to greater traffic.) If you'd like to bookmark my homepage, it's at http://theater.about.com. I've posted three articles so far, all about the Tony Awards. Here they are:
As you can probably tell by the titles, my About.com posts will proabably be more "evergreen" items, as opposed to posts about particular shows and people. But there seems to be plenty of room for attitude, which for me has never been in short supply.
I'll be posting links to my About.com posts here on EIKILFM, so if you're interested you can just click through. Or not. (But I hope you do.)
Regular readers will know that I have a love/hate relationship with the Tony Awards, with all awards, in fact. On the one hand, I'm as interested and fascinated as the next showtune queen when the Tony nominations come out, which happened for this year's awards on Tuesday. Like you, I'm sure, I'm gratified when the shows and performances that I liked get nods, and I'm disappointed when they don't.
But I also know there's a tremendous futility in the act of setting performer against performer, show against show. The awards process is flawed, as the Tonys have demonstrated time and time again over the years. I mean, according to the Tony voters, The Music Man is better than West Side Story. Fiorello and The Sound of Music are both better than Gypsy. The Lion King is better than Ragtime.
And yet, each year I get a thrill poring over the list of nominees. I think I mostly do it to be reminded of what was good about the immediate past season. Once I've made my way through the list once, I go through again with an eye toward who might have been left out, rightly or wrongly.
Below is my annual take on a select sample of the Tony nominations, with an eye toward what's right, what's wrong, who's going to win, and who deserves to win. I'm only going to comment on the awards that I actually care about, or have personal knowledge about. Since this blog is about musicals, and I didn't see many of the plays, I
will only be commenting on awards that are musicals-related. And lighting, sound, and orchestrations are beyond my skill set.
Click on the links in the show names below to read my original reviews.
Missing:Chaplin, Hands on a Hardbody, Motown, Scandalous Deserves to Win: Matilda Will Win: Matilda My Take: I can't help thinking of this as a deliberate slap in the face to both Hands on a Hardbody and Motown, although IMHO neither show really deserved the nomination. Then again, I don't think A Christmas Story did either. But I'm pretty happy with Matilda and Bring It On, both of which I enjoyed immensely. Kinky Boots didn't really rock my world. I'm thinking this year is going to be a Matilda sweep. At least I hope so.
Missing:Jekyll & Hyde Deserves to Win: The Mystery of Edwin Drood Will Win: Pippin
My Take: I saw Pippin at the ART in the fall, and I'll be seeing it again on Broadway tomorrow night. I didn't like it in Cambridge, but I'm open to the possibility that I might change my mind. I mean, the reaction to Pippin has been pretty off the charts, both from the critics and the public, although Ben Brantley was less than impressed. But I thought Drood was a terrific production of a show that admittedly isn't all that great.
Best Book of
Joseph Robinette, A Christmas Story
Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots
Dennis Kelly, Matilda
Douglas Carter Beane, Cinderella
Missing:Bring It On, Chaplin, Hands on a Hardbody, Motown, Scandalous Deserves to Win: Matilda Will Win: Matilda
My Take: This one's tough, because the Tonys love Harvey, but I'm thinking this is gonna be a Matilda sweep. Both Fierstein and Beane turned out efforts this season that were heavy on jokes but short on real characterizations. So, Matilda FTW. Best
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, A Christmas Story
Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, Hands on a Hardbody
Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots
Tim Minchin, Matilda
Missing:Bring It On, Chaplin, Hands on a Hardbody, Scandalous Deserves to Win: Matilda Will Win: Matilda
My Take: I have tremendous reservations with Tim Minchin's use of slant ryhme and poor scansion, but none of the other scores even comes close to the melodic invention and sheer sense of joy present in Matilda. As for A Christmas Story, I was much more impressed by the score Pasek and Paul turned out for Dogfight. I look forward to their future work, but I don't think this is their year.
Missing: Anthony Warlow, Annie; Hunter Foster, Hands on a Hardbody; Brandon Victor Dixon, Motown; Matthew James Thomas, Pippin Deserves to Win: Bertie Carvel Will Win: Bertie Carvel
My Take: It's gonna be close between Carvel and Porter, but I'm thinking Carvel will benefit from the Matilda momentum. Stark Sands was dull in an underwritten role.Fontana was wonderfully sympathetic and warm as the Prince. And I'm thrilled that McClure got the nod for a dynamic performances that was really one of the only things that made Chaplin worth seeing.
Missing: Lilla Crawford, Annie; Chita Rivera, The Mystery
of Edwin Drood Deserves to Win: Laura Osnes Will Win: Patina Miller
My Take: This one's tough, but I'm going to say Laura Osnes derserves it, but Miller will win. The Leading Player is a much flashier part than Cinderella, and the buzz this year is all about Pippin. LeKae is simply delightful as Diana Ross, but it's more an impersonation than a performance. I love me some SJB and some Carolee, but both shows have closed and Tony voters have short memories. (Oh, and how about that "special award" for the Matilda girls: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence,
Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro. Apparently the Tony nominating committee was trying to avoid another Billy Elliot debacle. "Oh, how could we choose one over the others? How could we break their itty-bitty hearts?" Also, how can voters really vote when in all probability they only saw one of these girls perform? Ergo, the end run around the voting process, saving everyone the tsouris.)
Best Featured Actor in a Musical
Charl Brown, Motown
Keith Carradine, Hands on a
Will Chase, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Gabriel Ebert, Matilda
Terrence Mann, Pippin
Missing: Gregory Haney, Bring It On; George Hearn, Scandalous; Bryan Terrell Clark, Motown; Jim Norton, The Mystery of Edwin Drood Deserves to Win: Will Chase Will Win: Gabriel Ebert My Take: Will Chase was as good as I've ever seen him as Jasper. A deliciously evil and mannered performance. But I'm going with momentum this year, and the two shows with momentum are Matilda and Pippin. Terrance Mann is sort of an institution in Broadway circles, so it's possible this could swing his way, but Ebert has a much more prominent and memorable role.
Actress in a Musical
Annaleigh Ashford, Kinky Boots
Victoria Clark, Cinderella
Andrea Martin, Pippin
Keala Settle, Hands on a Hardbody
Lauren Ward, Matilda
Missing: Katie Finneran, Annie; Lesli Margherita, Matilda; Jessie Mueller, The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Rachel Bay Jones, Pippin Deserves to Win: Annaleigh Ashford Will Win: Andrea Martin
My Take: This category may be the closest we have this year to a lock. I've always been a big fan of Annaleigh Ashford (particularly in Rent and Dogfight), but I really think it's Martin all the way. She's terrific (for the 10 minutes total that she's on stage), and the buzz has been completely in her favor even before the show played its first New York performance. Martin and Rachel Bay Jones were what really made Pippin worth watching, and I'm kind of bummed and surprised that Jones didn't get a nod. Honestly, I'd be fine with any of these fine performers winning this year. It was a great season for featured actresses.
Design of a Musical
Rob Howell, Matilda
Anna Louizos, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Scott Pask, Pippin
David Rockwell, Kinky Boots
Missing:Chaplin, Motown, Jekyll & Hyde, A Christmas Story, Scandalous, Annie Deserves to Win: Matilda Will Win: Matilda
My Take: The Matilda set is stunning. Just stunning. And the Tony voters love stunning. The set for Drood was impressive but conventional. The Pippin set wasn't nearly as ingenious as the Tony Walton original. And the Kinky Boots set is hideous. Hid. E. Ous. So add another to the Matilda sweep.
Design of a Musical
Gregg Barnes, Kinky Boots
Rob Howell, Matilda
Dominique Lemieux, Pippin
William Ivey Long, Cinderella
Missing:Hands on a Hardbody, Bring It On, A Christmas Story, Chaplin, Scandalous, Annie, Motown, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Jekyll & Hyde Deserves to Win: Matilda Will Win: Kinky Boots
My Take: Here's one I'm willing to accede for Kinky Boots. The drag was fierce. But I'd rather Matilda got it, if only for the wonderfully creepy costume for Bertie Carvel's Miss Truchbull. Cinderella looked great but it was standard fairy tale fare. And the Pippin costumes were, from what I can recall, Tony Walton hand-me-downs.
Direction of a Musical
Scott Ellis, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots
Diane Paulus, Pippin
Matthew Warchus, Matilda
Missing:Hands on a Hardbody, Bring It On, A Christmas Story, Chaplin, Scandalous, Annie, Motown, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Jekyll & Hyde Deserves to Win: Matthew Warchus Will Win: Matthew Warchus
My Take: Jerry Mitchell didn't direct Kinky Boots; he serves as traffic warden, and not a very good one. Paulus's new circus concept for Pippin was uninspired. Ellis took the dross of Drood and made it into a lively joy. But I think that, after the disaster that was Ghost, the Tony voters are glad to have the wonderful Matthew Warchus back in such fine form.
Andy Blankenbuehler, Bring It On
Peter Darling, Matilda
Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots
Chet Walker, Pippin
Missing:Annie, Chaplin, A Christmas Story, Motown, Hands on a Hardbody, Scandalous, The Mystery of Edwin Drood Deserves to Win: Matilda Will Win: Matilda
My Take: This one is genuinely a tough call. I think the momentum could either lead to Pippin or Matilda, but I'm going with Matilda. Bring It On is long gone, and Mitchell's work on Kinky Boots is lively but pedestrian.
That was my first thought when I got home Sunday night and saw the results of the 66th Annual Tony Awards. I didn't watch the show live, because I was attending a concert that night, but when I fired up my iPad and saw who won, I got a sort of warm feeling in my heart, as a result of years of cynicism and outright disdain for the Tony Awards suddenly melting.
I'm certainly not the only one to feel cynical about the Tonys, but it's gotten to the point where I'd just as soon go to a concert on the night of the Tony Awards as stay home and watch them live. I won't recount all the various charges against the Tonys over the past few years, but suffice it to say that Tony Awards don't always go to the shows and the people who genuinely deserve them, but rather to the shows that people have a vested interest in promoting. For instance, the show that wins Best Musical is usually not the best musical per se, but rather the one that simply has the best chance of making money on the road. Notable exceptions occurred last year with The Book of Mormon and in 2004 with Avenue Q, and, thankfully, this year.
What follows is my take on a number of the major awards of the evening. But before I get to that, just a note about the one glaring blemish on Tony's otherwise recovering complexion this year: that ridiculous number from the Royal Caribbean production of Hairspray. Why was it there? Because Royal Caribbean was a sponsor of the TV broadcast. As Vanity Fair put it, this only served to prove that "the Tonys have descended bow first into product-placement hell." Never mind that the performers were non-Equity, and that Equity itself was getting a special award on the same broadcast. (Cue: face-palm) But the fact that the Theater Wing is bending over to accommodate an advertiser is frankly appalling. What's worse is that, because the Hairspray segment took up valuable air-time, something had to go. And you know what went? The "In Memoriam" segment paying tribute to the members of the theater community who passed away during the past year. Yeah, I know. Sort of adds egregious insult to embarrassing injury, doesn't it?
Now let's take things award by award. Not every award, mind you, just the ones about which I have something to say. Click through the links on each show name to read my reviews.
Best Musical Leap of Faith Newsies Nice Work If You Can Get It *Once MY TAKE: The biggest upset since Avenue Q beat out Wicked, and in both situations the better show won. I'm so genuinely gratified that Once came out the big winner this year, garnering 8 awards in total. I think lots of people, myself included, were expecting a Newsies sweep. And, don't get me wrong, Newsies is a ton of fun, but Once is tender, honest, real, moving, and a ton of other warm and fuzzy adjectives. Perhaps the Tony voters have been listening to the feedback over the years and decided that they needed to do something to restore credibility.
Best Actress in a Musical Jan Maxwell, Follies *Audra McDonald, Porgy and Bess Cristin Milioti, Once Kelli O’Hara, Nice Work If You Can Get It Laura Osnes, Bonnie & Clyde MY TAKE: I would love to have seen this one go to Jan Maxwell in Follies. Audra is terrific in Porgy and Bess, but she already had four Tonys. Yeah, awards shouldn't really be about the past, only the present, but Jan Maxwell rocks in everything she's in, and I'd love to see her get some love one of these seasons.
Best Actress in a Play *Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur Tracie Bennett, End of the Rainbow Stockard Channing, Other Desert Cities Linda Lavin, The Lyons Cynthia Nixon, Wit MY TAKE: I'm so glad this went to Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur. She one of the most appealing, animated, layered, and energetic actresses I've ever seen, and she's simply a force of nature in Venus in Fur. Word on the street had this award possibly going to Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow, and make no mistake Bennett is terrific. But I would have been disappointed if the Tony voters had gone for Bennett's flashy Judy Garland impersonation over Arianda's equally flashy but far more nuanced performance.
Best Actor in a Play *James Corden, One Man, Two Guvnors Philip Seymour Hoffman, Death of a Salesman James Earl Jones, The Best Man Frank Langella, Man and Boy John Lithgow, The Columnist MY TAKE: Another upset. The smart money had this one going to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a known Hollywood and stage quantity, but thankfully the Tony voters were more impressed by James Corden's virtuosic hamminess in One Man, Two Guvnors. I saw the play twice, and I will forever treasure the sheer joy that Corden was able to impart through this farcical, physical work of unadulterated silliness.
Best Actor in a Musical Danny Burstein, Follies Jeremy Jordan, Newsies *Steve Kazee, Once Norm Lewis, Porgy and Bess Ron Raines, Follies MY TAKE: Danny Burstein is another Broadway stalwart who, like Jan Maxwell, deserves a Tony one of these days. But Steve Kazee is a understated marvel in Once, a smoldering and sympathetic presence who can also bust out a killer indie-rock wail that sent shivers down my spine both times I saw the show. A genuinely moving and memorable performance.
Best Revival of a Musical Evita Follies *Porgy and Bess Jesus Christ Superstar MY TAKE: Another surprise, given the season-long controversy about Porgy and Bess, and the nearly universal love for Follies. I think this one might come down to the classically short memories that Tony voters often have, as Follies closed at the beginning of the year, and Porgy and Bess is still running. I really enjoyed Porgy and Bess, all three times I saw it, so this upset is by no means distressing to me.
Best Original Score Bonnie & Clyde *Newsies One Man, Two Guvnors Peter and the Starcatcher MY TAKE: No surprise, and really no contest, although I'm a huge fan of the songs in One Man, Two Guvnors, and have the cast recording on regular rotation on my iPod. But it is nice to see Alan Menken get his first Tony, especially after the heartbreak of Leap of Faith closing so (IMHO) prematurely.
Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical Elizabeth A. Davis, Once Jayne Houdyshell, Follies *Judy Kaye, Nice Work If You Can Get It Jessie Mueller, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Ghost
Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical Phillip Boykin, Porgy and Bess Michael Cerveris, Evita David Alan Grier, Porgy and Bess *Michael McGrath, Nice Work If You Can Get It Josh Young, Jesus Christ Superstar MY TAKE: I was thrilled to see Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath receive recognition for their hilarious work in Nice Work If You Can Get It. The show is a wonderful piece of throwback fluff, made especially delightful by the presence of these two Broadway pros.
Best Choreography Rob Ashford, Evita *Christopher Gattelli, Newsies Steven Hoggett, Once Kathleen Marshall, Nice Work If You Can Get It MY TAKE: This one was a bit disappointing to me. Gatelli's work on Newsies is certainly impressive, not to mention omnipresent. But watching the dance numbers in Newsies reminded me too much of the American propensity toward finding things that are bigger, louder, higher, longer, and more expensive impressive simply for the sake of it. I would like to have seen this award go to either Kathleen Marshall, or preferably Steve Hoggett for his simple but wonderfully effective movement in Once.
Best Direction of a Musical- *John Tiffany, Once Best Book of a Musical - *Enda Walsh, Once Best Sound Design of a Musical - *Clive Goodwin, Once Best Orchestrations - *Martin Lowe, Once Best Lighting Design of a Musical - *Natasha Katz, Once Best Scenic Design of a Musical - *Bob Crowley, Once MY TAKE: On the whole, this passel of awards is really what made me happy about the Tonys this year. The Tony voters made smart choices rather than safe ones. They opted for dramatically purposeful work rather than work that was self-consciously labor-intensive and noticeably expensive. John Tiffany's direction was wonderfully heartfelt and evocative. Enda Walsh's book was spare but a marvel of economy. The sound, lighting and set for Once weren't flashy at all, but instead created this marvelous milieu in which the richness of the characterizations could shine. And the orchestrations were ingenious, and not only brought idiomatic sound to the show, but also made an asset of the potential liability of relying exclusively on the actor-musicians in the show's rather small cast.
So, on the whole, a really solid year for the Tonys. Will this usher in a new wave of quality and integrity in Tony voting? Or will the voters simply return to rewarding shows that are obvious crowd-pleasers and/or likely money-makers? Stay tuned.
No, Ghost is bad for three essential reasons. First, the production is a triumph of spectacle over storytelling, with enough technology, video projections, and visual effects to outfit an entire season of musicals. But, as often happens with over-produced shows (see Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), the creators here have lost sight of whether the story, the songs, and the physical production were working together cohesively.
Second, Ghost is a testament to the fact that, as we've seen so many times in recent years, people who can write hit pop songs don't automatically have the skills to craft effective musical-theater songs. The music here is by record producer Glen Ballard, as well as Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame. Ballard and Stewart share the lyric-writing credit with librettist Bruce Joel Rubin. The songs they've created for this show might well have come from the respective "trunks" of these veteran popular songwriters for all the relevance they have to the story at hand. And third, as if to hide the fact that the songs don't really add anything to the story, the performers adopt the kind of belt-your-face scream-singing that too many people these days seem to think passes for an effective musical performance.
The real stars of Ghost would seem to be scenic designer Rob Howell and projection/video designer Jon Driscoll, upon whose work the show is extraordinarily dependent. As the show begins, a scrim stands between the performers and the audience so that we can see the first of many video sequences telling us where we are and what's going on. In a well-crafted musical, the opening number would establish time and place. In Ghost, we get "Here Right Now," the first in a series of generic pop songs that could just as easily fit into any other show. The lyric is alternately bland and impenetrable, sometimes within the same line: "Here is where we make it everything we'll ever need." Um...what? We also get slant rhyme aplenty, including "One foot in front of the other/So much for us to discover" and "As long as we stay together/We'll just keep getting better."
The scrim remains in place for what seemed like the first five minutes of the show, although I'm sure it only seemed that long because I was becoming increasingly peevish. In a way, the scrim presents an apt metaphor for the production in general, a physical manifestation of the emotional barrier that the creators have inadvertently created between the characters and the audience. The scrim eventually rises, but the barrier doesn't. The characters never become real, which lessens the impact of the story's central tragedy and its aftermath. I found myself thinking, amid all the flashy video sequences, why didn't they just play the movie? Why bother hiring actors at all if you're going to upstage them with technology and not provide them with credible characters to inhabit? It seemed like just one more step toward making performers dispensable.
The real shocker here is the show's director: Tony-Award winner Matthew Warchus. Those who have seen God of Carnage, The Norman Conquests, andBoeing-Boeing might be excused for thinking that Warchus can do no wrong. Those of us who have seen Ghost can attest that even Warchus is fallible. Of course, even the best directors have their missteps: Harold Prince and Grind, Bob Fosse and Big Deal, Michael Bennett and Ballroom. Warchus actually has a checkered history with musicals, including the lifeless 2001 revival of Follies and the ill-advised stage adaptation of Lord of the Rings. (Although I do hear good things about Matilda, which Warchus also directed, and which is coming to Broadway next season.) In Ghost, Warchus delivers a few deft directorial touches, particularly during the final moments of the show, but these moments far from compensate for the scattered nature of the production in general, and for the lack of a strong hand in bringing the various production pieces together more cohesively.
Oh, yeah. The cast. I almost forgot. Lost in the shuffle of Ghost are are a passel of seemingly talented performers, although Richard Fleeshman, as leading male Sam Wheat, seems to have been cast mostly on the basis of his abs. Broadway veteran Caissie Levy, as Molly Jensen, is a terrific performer who deserves far better material than she's given here. Bryce Pinkham has the thankless role of Carl, Sam's treacherous friend, and he's wonderfully smarmy in the role, but the audience seemed to respond more to Pinkham's own set of well-defined abdominals. Tony nominee Da'Vine Joy Randolph, brings her own sassy spin to Oda Mae Brown, but her big number in the second act, "I'm Outa Here," is so filled with pointlessly busy stage business that Randolph gets lost amid the bustle.
Ghost received three Tony Award nominations: Randolph for Featured Actress in a Musical, as well as nominations for lighting and set design. That's sort of like when the big sci-fi blockbuster movie of the year gets shut out in all the real Oscar categories, but the Academy throws the film a bone with production nods. I would like to remind the Tony voters that "best" design doesn't necessarily mean "most expensive" or "most complicated." Ideally, it would mean "design that works with the dramatic intent of the piece, enhancing the inherent effectiveness of the work, rather than hiding the fact that there essentially is no effectiveness." When I attended Ghost, the crowd applauded the special effects. I'm genuinely hoping that the Tony voters don't follow suit.
I got a call yesterday from a producer at Marketplace on National Public Radio. She wanted to know what I thought about the impending Tony Award nominations, and specifically what I thought of the chances of Spider-Man getting a nod for Best Musical. As a reporter myself, I knew that there was a chance I might not make it on the program: reporters often interview more people than they need just to make sure they're covered when they sit down to write.
But I did, in fact, make it onto the program, albeit in severely edited form. There was about five seconds of me talking and another five of me laughing. It basically went like this:
"A year ago, if you’d told me that we were looking at the prospect of Spider-Man actually getting a nomination for Best Musical...[laughs]...I’m not exactly sure what I would have said. [laughs]"
Ah, but enough of my humble-brag. As it turns out, cooler heads prevailed and Spider-Man did not receive a nomination for Best Musical, although it did receive nods for its costumes and sets. When I was speaking with the NPR producer, I was very cynical and dismissive of the Tonys and the awards process in general, but I have to say that, looking at the nominations, which came out this morning, on the whole the list is a fairly accurate reflection of what was genuinely good this season. (As to whether the eventual winners will reflect the true quality of the season, I remain deeply cynical.)
Here are some of the nominations for musicals this year, along with my take on the nominees, the prospective winners, and the significant omissions. For the purposes of this post, I've haven't included every single category - for instance, I haven't listed the nominees for sound design, lighting design, and orchestrations. This is not because I think that these areas are unimportant, but because I don't have enough knowledge in these fields to comment meaningfully. And, unlike many other people in the theater realm, I'd rather not spout opinions in areas in which I have no authority. (OK, Neil?)
Best Musical Leap of Faith Newsies Nice Work If You Can Get It Once Missing:Spider-Man, Ghost, Lysistrata Jones, Bonnie & Clyde Deserves to Win: Once Will Win: Newsies My Take: The fourth slot here, which many people thought might have gone to Spider-Man, in fact went to Leap of Faith. Unfortunately, this was the only nod for this sadly underrated musical. I hope to publish my review sometime before the show closes, which unfortunately looks like it will be very soon.
Best Revival of a Musical Evita Follies Porgy and Bess Jesus Christ Superstar Missing:Godspell, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever Deserves to Win: Follies Will Win: Follies. Evita and JCS got pretty mixed reviews, and Porgy & Bess has been controversial. So I'm thinking the Tony voters will play it safe and give it to Follies. My Take: Godspell is the only musical production this season to receive absolutely no nominations in any category. I can't say this is surprising, as the show didn't fare well with the critics. The show does seem to be limping steadily along at the box office, and I can't imagine it has very high running costs, so prospects for the production may not be all that bleak.
Best Book of a Musical Lysistrata Jones, Douglas Carter Beane Newsies, Harvey Fierstein Nice Work If You Can Get It, Joe DiPietro Once, Enda Walsh Missing: Leap of Faith, Ghost, Bonnie & Clyde, Spider-Man Deserves to Win: Once Will Win: Newsies. Once is beautiful, but not showy enough. Nice Work If You Can Get It is a laugh riot, thanks to DiPietro's fun and lively book. But I'm thinking this award will be part of a Newsies sweep. My Take: Lysistrata Jones gets its one nomination here, and I suppose that makes sense. The show was definitely funny, even if the jokes were rather superficial and generic. I would have preferred Leap of Faith getting the nod here for its relatively complex characterizations and palpable human feeling.
Best Original Score Bonnie & Clyde, Music: Frank Wildhorn Lyrics: Don Black Newsies, Music: Alan Menken Lyrics: Jack Feldman One Man, Two Guvnors, Music & Lyrics: Grant Olding Peter and the Starcatcher, Music: Wayne Barker Lyrics: Rick Elice Missing: Leap of Faith, Ghost, Spider-Man, Lysistrata Jones. (Nice Work If You Can Get It and Once were not eligible.) Deserves to Win: Newsies Will Win: Newsies My Take: The fact that there are two straight plays nominated in this category is a deliberate slap in the face to the pop-music dilettantes responsible for the painfully lackluster scores to Ghost and Spider-Man. The Tony nominating committee is basically saying, "Be gone! And don't come back until you can learn how to write an integrated, dramatically purposeful musical-theater score." (Well, at least that's what I hope they're saying. At any rate, it's what I'm saying.) And with Bonnie & Clyde, the nomating committee is expressing its surprise that a Frank Wildhorn score was, well, almost good.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical Danny Burstein, Follies Jeremy Jordan, Newsies Steve Kazee, Once Norm Lewis, Porgy and Bess Ron Raines, Follies Missing: Matthew Broderick, Nice Work If You Can Get It; Raul Esparza, Leap of Faith Deserves to Win: Danny Burstein Will Win: A toss-up between Jeremy Jordan and Steve Kazee, but I'm going with Kazee. My Take: Seeing Ron Raines here is a bit of a surprise. Most people seemed to think that slot would go to Raul Esparza, who was going to finally win a Tony this year, and yet he wasn't even nominated. That's what happens when the industry gets a hair across its ass about your show.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical Jan Maxwell, Follies Audra McDonald, Porgy and Bess Cristin Milioti, Once Kelli O’Hara, Nice Work If You Can Get It Laura Osnes, Bonnie & Clyde Missing: Bernadette Peters, Follies; Elena Roger, Evita Deserves to Win: Jan Maxwell Will Win: I'm thinking it's Tony number five for Audra. But Cristin Milioti is winning lots of hearts, so I think this category is a real toss-up. My Take: Bernadette Peters has won twice before, and this year she's getting a special Tony for blah blah blah. But, still, it's a bit of a surprise not to see her nominated for Follies. I mean, Laura Osnes was terrific in Bonnie & Clyde, but we're talking Bernadette Frickin' Peters here, folks.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical Phillip Boykin, Porgy and Bess Michael Cerveris, Evita David Alan Grier, Porgy and Bess Michael McGrath, Nice Work If You Can Get It Josh Young, Jesus Christ Superstar Missing: Patrick Page, Spider-Man; Bryce Pinkham, Ghost; David Turner, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever Deserves to Win: McGrath is quite the scene stealer in Nice Work If You Can Get It, so I'm throwing my weight behind him. Will Win: This could genuinely be anybody, but if I had to choose, I'd say Phillip Boykin. Crown is a very showy, memorable role. My Take: The Featured categories are where we tend to see surprises, so I'd say any of these men have a shot, except for Cerveris. He's won before, and people aren't fond of the production.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical Elizabeth A. Davis, Once Jayne Houdyshell, Follies Judy Kaye, Nice Work If You Can Get It Jessie Mueller, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Ghost Missing: Jessica Phillips, Leap of Faith; Melissa Van Der Schyff, Bonnie & Clyde Deserves to Win: Jessie Mueller, in one of the most sensational breakout performances I've ever seen. Will Win: Judy Kaye is an absolute hoot in Nice Work If You Can Get It, but Houdyshell was pretty kick-ass belting out "Broadway Baby." I'll say Judy Kaye wins, but only because the show is still running and Tony voters have short memories. And because there's no nominee from Newsies. My Take: When I saw the name Elizabeth A. Davis, I had to check online to remember which part she played. (She's the slutty Czech sister.) So, I'm thinking she's not going to win. I'm really hoping that it's not Randolph, with all due respect. She's perfectly fine in the role, but the whole "sassy black woman" shtick has gotten a bit old.
Best Scenic Design of a Musical Bob Crowley, Once Rob Howell and Jon Driscoll, Ghost Tobin Ost and Sven Ortel, Newsies George Tsypin, Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark Missing: Nice Work If You Can Get It, Leap of Faith, Porgy & Bess Deserves to Win: Once, because it's subtle. Will Win: Newsies, because it's a hit. It also represents a huge change for Disney: a modular set that doesn't overshadow the action, but rather serves it in an effectively theatrical fashion. My Take: I am begging...begging...the Tony voters not to reward the pointless extravagance of Spider-Man, nor the mind-numbing, headache-inducing spectacle of Ghost. These shows represent everything that's wrong with modern musical theater: style over substance, spectacle over human drama.
Best Costume Design of a Musical Gregg Barnes, Follies ESosa, Porgy and Bess Eiko Ishioka, Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark Martin Pakledinaz, Nice Work If You Can Get It Missing: Once, Newsies Deserves to Win: Follies Will Win: Either Follies or Nice Work If You Can Get It. They're both period shows with lost of flash and flare. And Spider-Man is frickin' Spider-Man. My Take: I'm really hoping that it's not Porgy & Bess. The costumes for that production were beautiful. Too beautiful. The indigent inhabitants of Catfish Row present quite a stunning array of crisply pressed pastels as they venture off to picnic on Kittiwah Island. I was left to wonder where these people would get all those beautiful clothes. And color-coordinated clothes at that.
Best Choreography Rob Ashford, Evita Christopher Gattelli, Newsies Steven Hoggett, Once Kathleen Marshall, Nice Work If You Can Get It Missing: It's a real shame Dan Knechtges wasn't nominated for Lysistrata Jones. The way he staged the basketball games was idiomatic without being literal and a genuine pleasure to watch. And the guys actually looked masculine. That's quite a feat. Deserves to Win: Nice Work If You Can Get It Will Win:Newsies My Take: I genuinely enjoyed Newsies, but I found the dancing a bit overly strenuous and self-satisfied. The dances seemed to comprise and endless parade of showboating maneuvers on the part of these admittedly talented young men: acrobatics, high leaps, quadruple pirouettes. As my students say, there was tons of "kick your face." But how is this any different from the vocal pyrotechnics of "American Idol," or, for that matter, the self-aggrandizing word-smithing of lyricist Lorenz Hart? It showcases the skill of the performer or the wit of the creator, and doesn't serve the story. Give me Kathleen Marshall's visually appealing but dramatically purposeful dance from Nice Work If You Can Get It any day.
Best Direction of a Musical Jeff Calhoun, Newsies Kathleen Marshall, Nice Work If You Can Get It Diane Paulus, Porgy and Bess John Tiffany, Once Missing: Des McAnuff, Jesus Christ Superstar; Matthew Warchus, Ghost; Michael Grandage, Evita Deserves to Win: John Tiffany, Once Will Win: Jeff Calhoun, Newsies My Take: Broadway dearly loves a hit, and when it gets one, it tends to shower that show with praise and accolades, whether the show deserves it or not. Newsies is an unqualified smash, and not only will it very likely win Best Musical, it will probably win in a number of additional categories from sheer momentum. John Tiffany deserves recognition for shepherding the subtle characterizations and low-key but deeply affecting production that is Once. But I'm thinking Calhoun is going to win here.
I haven't watched the Tony Awards yet. I know that sounds strange, but I had a concert to attend last night, and earlier this year I disconnected my TiVo and got rid of cable, and I haven't had the desire nor the ambition to do whatever it is I need to do to get my TV up and running without cable. Lately, I've been perfectly content with my DVD collection and Netflix.
Of course, as soon as I got home, I fired up my computer to see who won what. Here's a breakdown of how many awards each musical production won:
Before I launch into my take on the individual winners, I just want to give a shout out to whoever designed the logo/poster/Playbill cover for this year's awards. I guess it wouldn't seem so remarkable if last year's poster hadn't been so heinous. Anyway, here are the winners:
Best Musical *The Book of Mormon Catch Me If You Can The Scottsboro Boys Sister Act My Take: Pretty much as expected, and well-deserved. Catch Me If You Can and Sister Act were inept and lackluster, and there was no way the Tony was going to go to The Scottsboro Boys. Remember, the Tonys are about marketing, not artistic quality, and you can't market a closed show.
Best Revival of a Musical *Anything Goes How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying My Take: You know, the more I think about it, the more I like the new How to Succeed more than the current Anything Goes. Both were immensely enjoyable to sit through, but I find that How to Succeed has lingered with me longer. I sort of have to actively think about Anything Goes to recall specific things about the production. So, on the whole, I would rather the Tony had gone to How to Succeed.
Best Actor in a Musical *Norbert Leo Butz, Catch Me If You Can Josh Gad, The Book of Mormon Joshua Henry, The Scottsboro Boys Andrew Rannells, The Book of Mormon Tony Sheldon, Priscilla Queen of the Desert My Take: Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells appear to have split the Book of Mormon vote, giving previous winner Butz a chance to pick up his second Tony. Don't get me wrong: Butz is great, in this show as well as in everything he does. But I kinda would have rather seen the award go to Rannells, or Gad, who both give impeccable comic performances. Why couldn't Gad and Rannells have gotten a single nomination, like those oh-so-adorable and three young men who undeservedly won a three-way Tony a few years back for Billy Elliot? Yeah, I know, the kids were all playing the same part. But Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley weren't playing the same part in Side Show, and they got a tandem nomination. I'm only half serious here, but honestly, if the Tonys can make the rules up as they go along, why can't I speculate with reckless abandon?
Best Actress in a Musical *Sutton Foster, Anything Goes Beth Leavel, Baby It's You! Patina Miller, Sister Act Donna Murphy, The People in the Picture My Take: Just as it should be. Sutton Foster is a gift to musical comedy. Both Beth Leavel and Donna Murphy are remarkable performers, but they're really the only reasons to see the otherwise execrable shows that they are unfortunately appearing in. Patina Miller is a very talented newcomer, and I wish her well, but I wasn't all that thrilled with her performance in Sister Act, nor indeed with the show itself. Sister Act was very deservedly shut out in every category.
Best Featured Actress in a Musical Laura Benanti, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Tammy Blanchard, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Victoria Clark, Sister Act *Nikki M. James, The Book of Mormon Patti LuPone, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown My Take: Word on the street had Laura Benanti winning for a second time. But Women on the Verge appears to have left far too bitter an aftertaste for many of the Tony voters. (Not to mention me.) Plus, Nikki James, although she is wonderful in her role, clearly benefited from the Book of Mormon behemoth. I would love to have seen the award go to Tammy Blanchard, who does a wonderful job of making Hedy Larue her own.
Best Featured Actor in a Musical Colman Domingo, The Scottsboro Boys Adam Godley, Anything Goes *John Larroquette, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Forrest McClendon, The Scottsboro Boys Rory O'Malley, The Book of Mormon My Take: A genuine surprise. The smart money was on Rory O'Malley, who's an absolute stitch as the closeted gay Mormon. (Must...resist...redundancy reference...) Godley didn't do much for me in Anything Goes. And for Domingo and McClendon, well, nomination is its own reward. Larroquette was terrific as Bigley, evincing much of the smart comic timing that won him so many Emmy Awards. I would have given the award to John McMartin in Anything Goes, but he wasn't nominated. So I guess I'm pretty happy it went to Larroquette.
Best Book of a Musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Alex Timbers *The Book of Mormon Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone The Scottsboro Boys, David Thompson Sister Act, Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane My Take: Bingo. Jackpot. Straight Across. Bloody Bloody and Scottsboro were both worthy contenders, but clearly this award was going to go to the funniest book to hit Broadway in many a season. And as for Sister Act, well, the less said the better, really.
Best Costume Design of a Musical *Tim Chappel & Lizzy Gardiner, Priscilla Queen of the Desert Martin Pakledinaz, Anything Goes Ann Roth, The Book of Mormon Catherine Zuber, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying My Take: PUH-LEEZ. Predictable and disappointing. The Tony voters appear to have caught on to the American mania for more, More, MORE! Sure the costumes for Priscilla are lavish, gaudy, expensive, and over-the-top. But are they good? I kinda wish the Tony voters had gone with the Mormon momentum and given the award to Roth. At least her costumes were genuinely witty.
Best Direction of a Musical Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes *Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, The Book of Mormon Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys My Take: I'm thrilled to see Nicholaw get some much deserved love. My admiration for his work has only grown over time. The man really knows how to dress a stage, shape comic performances, and get the show running at a jaunty pace. I'm looking forward to seeing his career progress, both as a director and a choreographer.
Best Choreography Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying *Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes Casey Nicholaw, The Book of Mormon Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys My take: I would love to have seen this one go to Nicholaw, but really any of these fine people were deserving of this award. And Marshall's work on Anything Goes is outstanding, so it's really hard for me to gripe here.
Best Original Score *The Book of Mormon, Music & Lyrics: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone The Scottsboro Boys, Music & Lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb Sister Act, Music: Alan Menken, Lyrics: Glenn Slater Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Music & Lyrics: David Yazbek My take: My sentimental side (and, yes, I do have one) was sort of hoping this would go to Kander and Ebb for their fine work on Scottsboro Boys. But I genuinely enjoy the score to Book of Mormon, and find new things to love in it every time I listen to the recording. Sister Act and Women on the Verge were merely placeholders this year, although the more I listen to the Women on the Verge CD, the more begrudgingly fond I become of certain numbers (especially "Island" and "Lovesick").
Best Lighting Design of a Musical - *Brian MacDevitt, The Book of Mormon Best Scenic Design of a Musical - *Scott Pask, The Book of Mormon Best Sound Design of a Musical - *Brian Ronan, The Book of Mormon Best Orchestrations - *Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus, The Book of Mormon My take: Clearly, this year we saw the Tony momentum go to Book of Mormon. Much as The Producers got more Tonys than it deserved simply because the Tony voters wanted to set a record, so too Book of Mormon won in more categories than was probably warranted because the Tony voters wanted to congratulate themselves on finally having another smash hit on the boards. So Best Lighting? Best Scenic Design? Best Orchestrations? These fine upstanding professionals can, for the most part, thank the Book of Mormon juggernaut for their coveted little trophies.
Hmm, maybe this year the Tony Awards won't be a complete and utter embarassment.
It seems as though the Tony nominating committee really took to heart the rampant (and warranted) criticism that the Tonys received last year for bending over big-time for Hollywood stars. Last season, it seems that all you really needed to win was a SAG card. (See Scarlett Johansson, Denzel Washington, Catherine Zeta-Jones.)
But this year's nominations, with a few exceptions, genuinely seem to capture what was good, and what was definitely not good, about the past Broadway season. Take a look at the total nominations per production:
Tony Nominations by Production The Book of Mormon - 14 The Scottsboro Boys - 12 Anything Goes - 9 How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - 8 Sister Act - 5 Catch Me If You Can - 4 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - 3 Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson - 2 Priscilla Queen of the Desert - 2 Baby It's You! - 1 The People in the Picture - 1 Elf - 0 Wonderland - 0
There are a few things I would change about the nomination distribution, and I get specific below about people and productions. But, overall, I would take away all of the nods for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, if only because I'm still recovering from the trauma. I'd give a few more nods to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and subtract a few from Catch Me If You Can and Sister Act.
But, otherwise, kudos to the Tony nominating committee, particularly for remembering that there were some fine shows that opened in the fall. (The committee hasn't always exhibited a fully functioning, collective long-term memory.) I'm thoroughly heartened by the banner showing by The Scottsboro Boys. My sources (OK, my friend Kevin) inform me that 12 nominations for a closed show is very likely to be a record. And the belated recognition for The Scottsboro Boys has sparked interest in regional, non-profit productions for the show, including one that will likely arise at the Old Globe in San Diego, and other prospective productions in Chicago, Boston, and Seattle.
So, here's my take on the Tonys, with a decided and unapologetic focus on musicals. (Structure adapted from a similar feature in the New York Times.)
The Book of Mormon
Catch Me If You Can
The Scottsboro Boys
Will win:The Book of Mormon Should Win: The Book of Mormon Should Have Been Nominated: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson Shouldn't Have Been Nominated: Catch Me If You Can, Sister Act
Best Book of a Musical
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Alex Timbers
The Book of Mormon, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
The Scottsboro Boys, David Thompson
Sister Act, Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane
Will win: The Book of Mormon Should Win: The Book of Mormon Should Have Been Nominated: None Shouldn't Have Been Nominated: Sister Act
Best Original Score
The Book of Mormon Music & Lyrics: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
The Scottsboro Boys Music & Lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb
Sister Act Music: Alan Menken, Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Music & Lyrics: David Yazbek
Will win: The Book of Mormon Should Win: The Scottsboro Boys Should Have Been Nominated: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson Shouldn't Have Been Nominated: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Sister Act
Best Revival of a Musical
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Will win: Anything Goes Should Win: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Should Have Been Nominated: None Shouldn't Have Been Nominated: None
Best Actor in a Musical
Norbert Leo Butz, Catch Me If You Can
Josh Gad, The Book of Mormon
Joshua Henry, The Scottsboro Boys
Andrew Rannells, The Book of Mormon
Tony Sheldon, Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Will win: Josh Gad Should Win: Andrew Rannells Should Have Been Nominated: Benjamin Walker, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; Daniel Radcliffe, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Shouldn't Have Been Nominated: Tony Sheldon
Best Actress in a Musical
Sutton Foster, Anything Goes
Beth Leavel, Baby It's You!
Patina Miller, Sister Act
Donna Murphy, The People in the Picture
Will win: Sutton Foster Should Win: Sutton Foster Should Have Been Nominated: None Shouldn't Have Been Nominated: None Best Featured Actor in a Musical
Colman Domingo, The Scottsboro Boys
Adam Godley, Anything Goes
John Larroquette, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Forrest McClendon, The Scottsboro Boys
Rory O'Malley, The Book of Mormon
Will win: Rory O'Malley Should Win: Coleman Domingo Should Have Been Nominated: John McMartin, Anything Goes Shouldn't Have Been Nominated: None
Best Featured Actress in a Musical
Laura Benanti, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Tammy Blanchard, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Victoria Clark, Sister Act
Nikki M. James, The Book of Mormon
Patti LuPone, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Will win: Nikki M. James Should Win: Tammy Blanchard Should Have Been Nominated: Laura Osnes, Anything Goes Shouldn't Have Been Nominated: Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone
Best Direction of a Musical
Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes
Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, The Book of Mormon
Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys
Will win: Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, The Book of Mormon Should Win: Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys Should Have Been Nominated: Alex Timbers, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson Shouldn't Have Been Nominated: None
Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes
Casey Nicholaw, The Book of Mormon
Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys
Will win: Casey Nicholaw, The Book of Mormon Should Win: Any of the above Should Have Been Nominated: None Shouldn't Have Been Nominated: None
Regular readers will recall my strong reaction to Next to Normal in both its Off-Broadway (my review) and Broadway (my review) incarnations. I won't rehash my reservations here, but I will say that there was something about the production with Mazzie and Danieley in the leads that made the apparent message of the show more ambiguous, which for me is a good thing. Life is ambiguous, and art is more satisfying when it reflects that lack of certainty.
Perhaps it was the comparative subtlety of the performances, particularly that of Marin Mazzie, that made the message less blunt. (Alice Ripley is many things, but she's certainly not subtle.) But seeing Next to Normal with an almost entirely new cast provided the opportunity to evaluate the piece afresh.
The show started off a bit garbled and indistinct. Quite a few of the lines and lyrics were lost to poor diction and a general lack of focus, on everyone's part. But things quickly improved in that respect. Mazzie wasn't quite getting the laughs that Ripley got from the role, but Mazzie's Diana was more human and believable, and more heartbreaking as a result. Plus, Mazzie has a killer belt, and she doesn't share Ripley's pitch problems. Personally, I didn't witness any intonation issues with Ripley either time I saw her in the show, but that is a frequent criticism that I've heard leveled against her.
Again, Mazzie's Diana is a lot more realistic, and considerably less batshit, than Ripley's. Don't get me wrong: Ripley was terrific in the role. But Mazzie is effective in an entirely different way. Her moment in act 1 with the music box ("I Dreamed a Dance") was profoundly moving. And the look she gave her husband Dan at the end of act 1 as she was being wheeled off to her first ECT treatment was so incredibly haunting that I haven't been able to erase it from my mind. I may never forget the sheer terror on her face. It was one of the most stunning moments I've ever experienced in the theater.
As for Jason Danieley, he may need a bit more time to warm up to the role of Dan, Diana's husband. Danieley seemed a bit too casual in performance, playing at a level that was not commensurate with the stakes of the proceedings. He was never less than serviceable, but he didn't really start making an emotional impact until the climax of the show, at which point he acquitted himself nicely. Plus, whereas Mazzie's vocals meshed well with the pop/rock idiom of Tom Kitt's score, Danieley's legit style was a bit out of place.
Taking Aaron Tveit's place in the pivotal role of Gabe is Kyle Dean Massey, who also played the role while Tveit was in Seattle for the out-of-town tryout for Catch Me if You Can. Massey seems to have been cast based on how much he looks and sounds like Tveit, but he's certainly talented in his own right, and brings a number of individual touches to his portrayal. Meghann Fahey as Natalie was considerably less grating than Jennifer Damiano, who's off to star in the debacle-in-progress that is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Damiano irritated me to no end, although in retrospect in may have been that Damiano was more fully evincing the annoying female-teenager self-centered-ness and sarcasm. Whatever, Fahey was a lot less likely to set my teeth on edge.
So, Next to Normal definitely seems to be growing on me, particularly under the auspices of the new Broadway cast. After my strong negative reaction to the show in its initial run, it's a bit of surprise. Who knew I'd become such a fan, if only a reluctant one?
Why? Because Bernadette Peters is now proving eight times a week that you didn't deserve it. It's not as though you embarrassed yourself in A Little Night Music. Far from it. Your Desiree was never less than professional, but never more than merely competent. Let's be honest: the only reason you got that award is that the Tony voters wanted to congratulate themselves on being able to attract A-list Hollywood talent to Broadway, and to encourage other stars to make the trek east.
But now, visitors to the Walter Kerr Theater in New York can see how a real star of the stage comports herself in one of the best female roles in the musical theater canon.
To be sure, Bernadette is not without her mannerisms and eccentricities, which are on full display here. Peters seems hell-bent on wringing every possible laugh from Hugh Wheeler's urbane and literate script, whether through exaggerated line readings or shameless mugging, even when she's not the immediate focus of the scene. But the marvel here is that it works, and swimmingly so.
When I saw Zeta-Jones play the role (read my review), there was a definite sense of nervousness about her, despite her striking beauty and killer smile. And that anxiety was contagious. But with Bernadette, I just sat back and enjoyed being in the hands of a seasoned stage performer. It reminded me of seeing Maggie Smith in Lettice and Lovage or Three Tall Women. In both cases, I knew she was hamming up a storm, but I eagerly and ravenously devoured every last scrap of pork.
And when it comes to hearing Bernadette Peters interpret Stephen Sondheim's ravishing score, well, there's just no comparison. Zeta-Jones was on pitch (mostly) throughout the show, but her delivery of "Glamorous Life" was irritatingly labored, compared to Bernadette's joyous playfulness. And "Send in the Clowns" in Peters' hands is a tour de force. Suddenly the mannerisms die away, the defenses are down, and we're left with a masterful performer laying bare a raw and palpable sense of loss and regret. It's nothing less than stunning.
And then there's the formidable Elaine Stritch. With all due respect to the wondrous Angela Lansbury, Stritch has a much firmer grasp on the humor inherent in the role of Madame Armfeldt. Of course, Elaine is showing her age much more than Angela was. Elaine's pacing is extraordinarily slow, giving the impression that accessing every single line and lyric is a chore. The show is about 15 minutes longer than it was with CZJ and Angela, and most of that extra time comes from Stritch's continual grasping and shameless backphrasing, particularly on "Liaisons."
But, again, it works. Stritch is every bit the pro that Bernadette is, and she knows her way with a caustic one-liner. In fact, she can make almost any line into a caustic one-liner, whether the authors intended it or not.
When I first heard that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch would be taking over for CZJ and Angela Lansbury, I was skeptical. I wasn't sure that either was right for her respective role. But after seeing the show, I can confidently announce that both women suit their parts admirably, bringing a spark of vitality to a production that was sorely lacking in same prior to their accession. These consummate professionals breathe bountiful life into a formerly moribund property. It's an amazing sight to witness.
NOTE: New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require bloggers to disclose when they accept anything of material value related to their blog posts. I received complimentary press tickets to this performance of A Little Night Music.
What do you get when you mix seven incipient theater critics, eight professional-critic mentors, two new musicals, three new plays, two community productions, 90-degree weather, 100% humidity, and zero air conditioning? A recipe for theatrical homicide?
Well, if you're lucky, you get a two-week experience nonpareil, with lots of opportunities for networking, professional growth, and the occasional cat fight.
Regular readers will recall that I spent the last two weeks in southeast Connecticut at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, recipient of the 2010 Regional Theater Tony Award, taking part in the National Critics Institute, sort of a boot camp for theater critics. It was an experience I will never forget, and I hope to share much of what I learned with you, dear reader, over the next few weeks. I'm also hoping that the experience will make me a better blogger, and perhaps help me line up some more paying gigs as a critic and arts journalist.
A typical day at the NCI would go something like this: Each night we'd see a show. Then it was home to write a review, with a 7:45 a.m. deadline. After breakfast, we'd read each other's critiques and get feedback from our critic mentors and each other. After lunch, we'd have workshops on such topics as writing opinion pieces, using new media for self-promotion, and using descriptive language. Then, after dinner we'd see another show in the evening, and the whole process would start again.
One of our sessions took place at the Monte Cristo Cottage, the site of Eugene O'Neill's childhood home. We had a chance to read through Long Day's Journey Into Night in the very room where most of the play is set. I got the chance to read the lines of James Tyrone, the fictionalized version of O'Neill's father, James O'Neill. Were I a drinkin' man, I might have broken out the Irish whiskey, but instead I made do with Diet Coke.
As luck would have it, our stay at The O'Neill coincided with the annual convention for the America Theater Critics Association (ATCA), which gave us the opportunity to sit in on a number of session about how...well, how the industry is going to hell in a hand basket, and that the chances of any of us landing a full-time gig are approximately zero. We also attended a panel discussion about how arts critics can use social media to promote their work.
OK, enough with the press release. Tune in tomorrow for my "Critic's Manifesto," a distillation of much of the collected wisdom that I gleaned over my two-week stint. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to blast the A/C and watch some trashy TV.
Just a heads-up to all of you wonderful people out there in the dark. I'll be taking a two-week hiatus from blogging, but thankfully not from theater. From July 5th to the 19th, I'll be participating in the National
Critics Institute, an annual event sponsored by the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. For the next two weeks, I'll be hobnobbing with my fellow wizards, watching shows, discussing same, writing reviews, providing feedback on same, attending rehearsals, and just generally immersing myself in all things theatrical. I'm genuinely thrilled at the prospect.
For those of you unfamiliar with the O'Neill Center, it sits on a lovely spot in New London, Conn. overlooking the ocean, on the site of the actual O'Neill homestead, the spot where Eugene
O'Neill and his family spent many of their summers. Of course, if you're at all familiar with Long Day's
Journey Into Night, you doubtless know that these family summers
were anything but homey and tranquil. The house is now a museum, dubbed Monte Cristo Cottage (see photo below) in honor of the role and the play that made O'Neill's father, James O'Neill, rich and famous.
As part of my preparation for the event, I've been re-reading Long Day's Journey, as well as watching two of the filmed versions of the play: the 1962 version with Katherine Hepburn and Jason Robards, and the 1987 version with Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey. Each take is stellar in its own way, but, I mean, c'mon Kate Hepburn as Mary Tyrone? To die.
I also watched a filmed version of Ah, Wilderness!, which likewise takes place in New London, but is only autobiographical insomuch as it represented an idealized version of O'Neill's family background, what he in fact would have preferred his family to be like.
Expect a full report when I get back. I'm not allowed to write about any of the workshops that I'll be seeing at the O'Neill, but I'll be sure to report back to you about the experience, as well as on any non-O'Neill shows I may see as part of the bargain. (The critics "boot camp" includes field trips to local theaters, including the Ivoryton Playhouse and the Goodspeed Opera House.) Will I return with my analytical faculties sharpened to a finely honed edge? Or will the entire experience produce a sense of existential angst and ennui, prompting me to throw up my critical hands at the sheer pointlessness of it all? Tune in late July to find out.
More on that later, but first I wanted to address some Post-Tony controversy initiated by performer Hunter Foster. As I've said, the Tonys this year were dominated by Broadway congratulating itself for attracting A-list Hollywood stars, and awarded them Tonys, in some people's estimation, simply for showing up. Hunter took it upon himself to start a Facebook group called Give the Tonys Back to Broadway, which at the time of this writing had 7,651 members.
I've admired Hunter's work for years, but I find this effort misguided and naive. The Tonys are about business and marketing. And Hollywood stars are currently seen as the key to box-office success. As long as that ethos remains extant, Tony Awards will continue to go to shows and performers that are most likely to earn the voters money. And nothing will change in that regard until theater critics are restored to the ranks of the Tony voters.
That said, I believe that Catherine Zeta-Jones was undeserving of her Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. (Read my
review of this production.) If you didn't get to see her on stage, all you have to do is listen to the cast recording to witness the problem. She was fine in the book scenes, but during the songs she pushed and emoted to an egregious extent. Check out this clip from "The Glamorous Life." It's rather painful to listen to. It's as though she's trying with every note to justify her presence in the show. This otherwise excellent recording is marred by a leading performance nearly devoid of subtlety, although "Send in the Clowns" is admirably restrained.
But the fact remains that this show would never have made it to Broadway without CZJ. And based on the momentum established by CZJ (and the lovely Ms. Lansbury), we now get a chance to see Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch take up the roles. Would the show have made it to Broadway solely based on the draw of Misses Peters and Stritch? It's possible, but I have my doubts. So we very likely have CZJ to thank for providing us with the chance to see two genuine pros of the stage take on the roles. When Peters and Stritch leave, could we possibly see some additional recasting to keep the show afloat? Perhaps the mother/daughter team of Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow, as previously rumored?
Well, if that does happen, Hunter Foster will no doubt be pleased to know that neither would be eligible for a Tony, since only the cast from opening night of a particular production qualifies. Unless, of course, the Tony commission changes the rules to accommodate replacement casts. And, depending on the wattage of the stars in question, is that notion really that far-fetched?
I'm sure that I don't have to tell you that the Tony Awards were presented on Sunday night. I had a concert that night (see post below), so I had to watch the proceedings on TiVo delay. But truth be told, it really didn't matter to me because this season was so lackluster with respect to new musicals. Sure, there were shows that tried to do new things, particularly Fela, American Idiot, and Come Fly Away. But none of them really succeeded, in my humble estimation. (Click on the links above for my reviews of each production.)
So it really wasn't a surprise when Memphis won Best Musical. I would have preferred that Fela win, simply because it was more ambitious. I thought the first act of Memphis was super slick, but the second act descended into predictability and essentially veered off into Hairspray country. (Click on the link above for my full review.) Why did Memphis win? Simple: the critics were dumped from the voting ranks of the Tonys and the remaining voters went for the relatively safe choice. Memphis won not because it's very good (it isn't) but rather because it's more likely to be successful on the road.
The Tony Awards broadcast was rather unremarkable, although lots of people seemed to think that Sean Hayes knocked one out of the park as host. I thought he was fine, but he paled in comparison to the charm, ease, and spark that Neil Patrick Harris brought to last year's telecast.
One notable trend this year was Broadway congratulating itself on being able to attract A-list Hollywood stars. Did Scarlett Johansson, Denzel Washington, and Catherine Zeta-Jones genuinely deserve their Tony Awards? I saw neither A View From the Bridge nor Fences, so I'm in no position to judge there. (I concentrated almost exclusively on musicals this season.) But I did see A Little Night Music, and can honestly say no, I don't think she deserved it. (Click on the link for my review.) I would have been happy to see the award go to Kate Baldwin (Finian's Rainbow), Montego Glover (Memphis), or Christiane Noll (Ragtime). I think this is another case of the skewing effect of having producers, presenters, and other business types vote for the awards. Rewarding stars for coming to Broadway means more stars come to Broadway. And in the current environment in which plays and musicals are increasingly reliant on marquee names above the title, that's a very important business proposition.
Of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with merit. Or art.
Never doubt the power of the Tonys, at least when it comes to marketing a show. No sooner had the Tony nominations come out than the producers of the new play Enron announced that the struggling show, which opened April 27th to decidedly mixed reviews and weak grosses, would be closing Sunday, May 9th after only 12 days of regular performances. The producers were likely hoping for more than just the four nominations that the show received, but alas, the all-important nod for Best Play was not among the four.
I have to say that I'd feel a lot worse for the Enron folks if the play itself were any good. But, in my humble estimation, it is not. I saw the show last weekend, before the closure announcement, and it wasn't anywhere near the electrifying experience I had been led to expect.
Enron was the one play of the season that I was actively looking forward to. That's probably because I had heard that it was sort of a play/musical hybrid, with ample amounts of dance, music, and stylistic touches. Plus, I had heard that the cast would feature Broadway musical stalwarts Norbert Leo Butz and Marin Mazzie. The New York Times even referred to the show as a musical in one of its Arts, Briefly notes. (The Gray Lady later appended that article with a note that, despite the songs and dancing, author Lucy Prebble considers it a play.)
After the reviews for Enron came out, I heard some speculation that the New York production wasn't well received because Americans don't like to see themselves criticized. Sorry, I don't buy that. You'd be hard pressed to find an American who would defend Enron, or to take any attack on Enron personally. No, it comes down to the effectiveness of the play itself. Despite an acclaimed London run, Enron seems to have lost something in translation. Rumor has it that director Rupert Goold was only able to spend two weeks rehearsing with the cast because of his schedule. But it's not clear to me that more rehearsal would have made much difference. It wasn't the presentation that was lacking, but rather the substance of the play itself.
Enron is certainly well-presented, but the dramaturgy is pedestrian. I'll say one thing for Prebble: she made the abstruse financial machinations almost comprehensible. But the play has no point of view, other than "Gee, weren't these guys greedy and evil?" Theatre thrives on ambiguity and nuance, and there's precious little of either in Prebble's play. There were a few times when I thought I was getting a glimpse of the people behind the disaster, particularly in the final monologue of Jeff Skilling (played here with characteristic aplomb by Butz):
You wanna hold a mirror up to nature? [A projection reveals a graph of the Dow Jones Index over the last century.] There's your mirror. Every dip, every crash, every bubble that's burst, that's you...This one gave us the railroads. This one the Internet. This one the slave trade. And if you wanna do anything about saving the environment or getting to other worlds, you'll need a bubble for that, too.
That's a fairly interesting insight, but that's really all we get, and it comes after a lot of unconvincing drama and plodding dialog. In one of the first scenes, the Andy Fastow character (played rather broadly by Stephen Kunken) is at an Enron party, and says (to no one in particular) "Look, even Ken Lay is here." In a later scene, Fastow is being bullied by some of the energy traders, and says "I'll remember this when I'm CFO." That kind of ham-handed indication should have been edited out after the first draft.
Prebble also traffics in facile and obvious metaphors: the arcane financial instruments become corporeal "raptors," in a reference to "Jurassic Park." And the energy traders take on the countenance of Jedi knights, complete with a light-saber-laden dance number. Now it's entirely likely that Prebble took those cultural references directly from the Enron folk themselves, but accuracy doesn't necessarily translate into inspiration.
I will admit that it was illuminating to see the extent to which the Bush family, George W. in particular, was in bed with the Enron folk, and relied heavily on financial contributions from same. It was also eye-opening to see how soon-to-be governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger was involved, with particular regard to the disastrous deregulation of electricity in California, which led to the rolling blackouts in 2000 and 2001. The implication was that Enron helped get The Terminator into office, specifically with the goal of bringing about deregulation. But all that info is readily available elsewhere. If you're looking for some insight into the Enron fiasco, you're better off reading The Smartest Guys in the Room or renting the 2005 movie version.
Despite the play's flaws, it's possible that Enron could have found a receptive audience. I find it really hard to believe that, with this many producers (IBDB lists a whopping 34), there weren't sufficient cash reserves to allow the show time to catch on. But they probably saw the show's gross go down one week after the reviews came out and just panicked. (I'm sure there's an incisive parallel in there somewhere with the investor panic involved in the collapse of Enron, but I really can't be bothered.)
GRADE: B minus (Not nearly as insightful or thrilling as it thinks it ought to be)
The end of the Broadway season typically becomes an orgy of self-congratulation on the part of the theatrical community. Not that this is any different from the music or movie industry, but the continual announcements of nominations and award winners does get rather bewildering. Even if awards are really nothing but marketing, the awards season does provide an opportune chance to reflect on what was good about the past season.
On the whole, not a lot. Despite the relatively high number of new musicals on Broadway (eight, if you count Everyday Rapture), I found the actual quality of the shows wanting, to say the least. My overall feel for the season, at least with regard to new musicals, can pretty much be summed up visually by the horrid Tony Awards poster to the left: dull, colorless, and uninspired.
There was an ambitious, well-meaning, but seriously flawed exploration of a relatively unknown African musician and activist (Fela), a partially enjoyable but ultimately derivative would-be feel-good musical (Memphis), a visually stunning but narrative-deficient rock concert (American Idiot), a for-fans-only jukebox musical (Million Dollar
Quartet), a for-fans-only songbook revue (Sondheim on
Sondheim), a dull-as-dishwater dance concert (Come Fly Away), a jokey but undistinguished piece of prepackaged nostalgia (The Addams Family), and a quasi-autobiographical almost-one-woman cabaret show (Everyday Rapture).
Of course, there were also the musical revivals, which were a lot more successful artistically. Included in this number are some genuinely delightful shows that unfortunately didn't last (Ragtime, Finian's Rainbow), a star-laden barge that ironically failed to twinkle (A Little Night Music), a lovely gem that caught a lot of people off guard (La Cage aux Folles), a colorful-but-colorless star show (Promises,
Promises), and an utter abomination before all mankind (Bye Bye Birdie).
Given what the Tony committee had to work with, this year's slate of nominations is actually a fairly accurate indicator of what was relatively good this season. Here are the total nominations by production:
Fela - 11 La Cage aux Folles - 11 Memphis - 8 Ragtime - 7 A Little Night Music - 4 Promises, Promises - 4 American Idiot - 3 Finian's Rainbow - 3 Million Dollar Quartet - 3 The Addams Family - 2 Come Fly Away - 2 Everyday Rapture - 2 Sondheim on Sondheim - 2 Bye Bye Birdie - 0
And here's a selection of the actual nominations by category (musicals only), along with my take on what should have been nominated, who deserves to win, and who's actually going to win.
Best Musical American Idiot Fela Memphis Million Dollar Quartet Who's Missing: Come Fly Away, The Addams Family, Sondheim on Sondheim, Everyday Rapture Who Should Have Been Nominated: Maybe Sondheim on Sondheim, but I'm not gonna make a stink about it. Again, it was a fairly lackluster year, Who's Gonna Win: Who knows? Who cares? I'd say it's toss-up between Fela and American Idiot. Fela is the prestige choice, simply by virtue of the noble subject matter, but American Idiot gives the Tony voters a chance to show that, heck, theater can be cool. Who Should Win: None of the above. But, gun to my head, I'd have to choose Fela.
Best Book Everyday Rapture, Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott Fela, Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones Memphis, Joe DiPietro Million Dollar Quartet, Colin Escott and Floyd Matrux Who's Missing: The Addams Family, Come Fly Away, American Idiot Who Should Have Been Nominated: I agree with the Tony nominators on this one. None of the omitted shows deserved a nomination, in my humble estimation. Who's Gonna Win: Probably Fela. Who Should Win: Again, none of the above. But if I had to choose, it would probably be Fela, if only for being the most experimental of the nominees. Even if it was, IMHO, a failed experiment.
Best Score The Addams Family, Andrew Lippa Enron, Adam Cork, Lucy Prebble Fences, Branford Marsalis Memphis, David Bryan, Joe DiPietro Who's Missing: American Idiot and Fela. Who Should Have Been Nominated: I have to say that I genuinely enjoyed the music to American Idiot. And the album was conceived as a quasi-theatrical piece. How is this any different from Evita or The Life getting a concept album and then going on to gain a Tony nomination? Heck, The Who's Tommy got a nomination. Hey, The Who's Tommyfrickin' won. (It tied with Kiss of the Spiderwoman.) I
mean, in a year in which they have to resort to nominating Enron
and Fences, why not throw American Idiot a bone? Who's Gonna Win: Probably Memphis. Enron and Fences got in by default, and there's a decided anti-Addams Family vibe. Who Should Win: None of the above. I would have given it to American Idiot.
Best Musical Revival Finian's Rainbow La Cage aux Folles A Little Night Music Ragtime Who's Missing: Bye Bye Birdie, Promises Promises. And for very good reason. Who Should Have Been Nominated: No one. The Tony committee got this one spot-on. Who's Gonna Win: La Cage, all the way. What a delightful surprise. Everyone thought it was too soon to bring the show back, including me. But we were wrong. Who Should Win: La Cage, all the way.
Best Direction of a Musical Christopher Ashley, Memphis Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Ragtime Terry Johnson, La Cage aux Folles Bill T. Jones, Fela Who's Missing: American Idiot Who Should Have Been Nominated: Say what you want about American Idiot, director Michael Mayer has made the show into a compelling visual and auditory feast. It's not his fault the book is thin. (Oh, wait, it is his fault...) Yes, it's style over substance, but I would have given Mayer the nod over Ashley. Memphis is slick, but American Idiot is arresting. Who's Gonna Win: Terry Johnson, hands down, no contest, thank you for coming. Johnson made La Cage into the delightful diadem that should hopefully be ensconced at the Longacre Theater for many months to come. Who Should Win: Again, Terry Johnson.
Best Choreography Rob Ashford, Promises, Promises Bill T. Jones, Fela Lynne Page, La Cage aux Folles Twyla Tharp, Come Fly Away Who's Missing: Sergio Trujillo, Memphis and Addams Family Who Should Have Been Nominated: I'm really kind of stunned that Trujillo was left off this list. His work on Addams Family is laughable, but the dance in Memphis is electrifying. It's one of the best reasons to see the show. Whereas Rob Ashford's work on Promises, Promises is pedestrian at best. Who's Gonna Win: This one's tough. Tharp and Jones have both won before, which often factors into the Tony voters' decision process. I think it might go to Lynne Page simply because of the La Cage momentum. Who Should Win: I liked Bill T. Jones' work on Fela much more than that of his Tony-winning Spring Awakening. The dance in Fela is sensational, and in my opinion deserves recognition. Best Actor in a Musical Kelsey Grammer, La Cage aux Folles Sean Hayes, Promises Promises Douglas Hodge, La Cage aux Folles Chad Kimball, Memphis Sahr Ngaujah, Fela Who's Missing: Nathan Lane, Kevin Mambo, John Gallagher Jr., Stark Sands, Cheyenne Jackson, Alexander Hanson, Ron Bohmer, Robert Petkoff. Who Should Have Been Nominated: I feel bad for Kevin Mambo, who shares the role of Fela with Sahr Ngaujah. I saw both, and Ngaujah is electrifying, whereas Mambo is thoroughly competent. I still would have given the nod to Ngaujah, but it's gotta be tough for Mambo to work in that shadow. I could easily have substituted Ron Bohmer for either Kelsey Grammer or Sean Hayes. Bohmer brought a palpable humanity to the role of Father in Ragtime, which is no small feat. Who's Gonna Win: I'm gonna say Hodge, because it's such a flashy, mannered role. Who Should Win: I'd give it to Ngaujah, in one of the most stunning debuts I've ever seen.
Best Actress in a Musical Kate Baldwin, Finian's Rainbow Montego Glover, Memphis Christiane Noll, Ragtime Sherie Rene Scott, Everyday Rapture Catherine Zeta Jones, A Little Night Music Who's Missing: Bebe Neuwirth, Kristen Chenoweth Who Should Have Been Nominated: I'm pretty solid with the nominees here, mostly because I wasn't all that impressed by either Neuwirth or Chenoweth in their respective roles. Who's Gonna Win: I think the Tony voters are going to go for star quality here and give it to CZJ. Who Should Win: I'm thrilled that both Kate Baldwin and Christine Noll were nominated, but I'd take Christine Noll, by a hair.
Best Featured Actor in a Musical Kevin Chamberlin, The Addams Family Robin de Jesus, La Cage aux Folles Christopher Fitzgerald, Finian's Rainbow Levi Kreis, Million Dollar Quartet Bobby Steggart, Ragtime Who's Missing: Jim Norton, Euan Morton, Tony Vincent Who Should Have Been Nominated: Much as I love Kevin Chamberlin, I might have substituted Jim Norton in on this one. Who's Gonna Win: Fitzgerald is a Broadway favorite, and people are pretty high on Bobby Steggart right now, and for good reason. But Robin de Jesus might get this one, in a La Cage sweep. Who Should Win: I've been enamored of Bobby Steggart since I first saw him in 110 in the Shade. I've thoroughly enjoyed him in The Slug Bearers of Kayroll Island and especially in Yank. And his Younger Brother in Ragtime was smoldering and explosive. So, I'm really hoping it's Bobby.
Best Featured Actress in a Musical Barbara Cook, Sondheim on Sondheim Katie Finneran, Promises Promises Angela Lansbury, A Little Night Music Karine Plantadit, Come Fly Away Lilias White, Fela Who's Missing: Terri White, Jackie Hoffman, Vanessa Williams, Cass Morgan, Carolee Carmello, Leigh Ann Larkin Who Should Have Been Nominated: I genuinely love me some Jackie Hoffman, and probably would have substituted her in for the Come Fly Away dancer. Who's Gonna Win: Katie Finneran is really the only reason to see Promises, Promises. Yes, she's won the Tony before, for Noises Off. But her delicious performance as Marge MacDougall is a Tony-worthy bow if ever there was one. Who Should Win: K-K-K-Katie all the way.
Best Scenic Design of a Musical Fela American Idiot Ragtime La Cage aux Folles Who's Missing: Sondheim on Sondheim, The Addams Family Who Should Have Been Nominated: This is certainly one category in which the Tony committee is demonstrating a clear anti-Addams Family bias. Say what you want about the show itself, the set is phenomenal, including the modular staircases and the ingenious curtain system. And the set for Sondheim on Sondheim is a technical wonder, but also serves the show extremely well. Who's Gonna Win: I'm thinking maybe America Idiot, unless the Tony voters go for a La Cage sweep. Who Should Win: I personally thought the set to Ragtime was marvelous, looking both spare and grand at the same time. It gave the show a monumental feel without upstaging the proceedings. So I'm gonna go with Ragtime.
Best Costume Design for a Musical Fela Ragtime Memphis La Cage aux Folles Who's Missing: Promises, Promises, The Addams Family, A Little Night Music
Who Should Have Been Nominated: I'm fine with the current crop of nominees.
Who's Gonna Win: I'm going to say La Cage, again assuming a wave of Tony love for the show.
Who Should Win: I would love to see Ragtime take this one. Period pieces often have the edge in costume categories. Plus, I'd love to see the short-lived revival get some retrospective attention.
When Avenue Q opened last week at its new Off-Broadway home, the New World Stages, a lot of people in the theatrical community were paying close attention. Of course, it's a much-beloved show, and many are simply wishing it well. (Except, perhaps, the producers of Wicked, from whose verdant hands Avenue Q so summarily snatched the Best Musical Tony in 2003.)
But the main point of interest seems to be how well Avenue Q will do financially after making this unusual move. It's not entirely unprecedented for a Broadway show to move Off Broadway, but it's certainly rare. And if Avenue Q succeeds, we can probably expect other small shows to follow suit. There's talk that The 39 Steps will make a similar move after it closes at year's end at the Helen Hayes. Perhaps Next to Normal and Rock of Ages might consider returning to their Off Broadway roots after their respective Broadway stints have run their course.
I've been enamored of Avenue Q ever since I caught one of its Broadway previews back in 2003. I've subsequently seen the show on tour (read my review), and then revisited the Broadway production shortly before it closed (read my review). And, over the weekend, I caught the show once again at its new digs. And I'm happy to say that the show has lost none of its charm upon multiple viewings. Of course, part of the fun for me the last two times is that I saw the show with friends, and got to witness their delighted reactions to the show upon their first viewings. But even when I saw the show solo on tour, I was still caught up in the response of the rest of the audience.
The performance of Avenue Q that I saw over the weekend featured three understudies, indicating that even Off Broadway shows are not immune to the scourge of absenteeism that seems to be sweeping New York theater. Fortunately, the standbys were mostly stellar, particular the charming Jed Resnick as Princeton/Rod and the delightful Ruthie Ann Miles as Christmas Eve.
The more I see Avenue Q, the more I'm struck not just by its wit, but also by its wisdom. Yeah, I know, that sounds pretty pretentious. But there's so much about the show that's just plain smart, from the wistful nostalgia of "I Wish I Could Go Back to College" to the downright Buddhist quality of "For Now." So I wish the show well in its latest incarnation, and strongly recommend that you make your way to 50th Street, between 8th and 9th to catch the show, if you haven't already.
According to Variety, there's been a considerable backlash on the part of the New York critical establishment on the decision by the Tony Awards Powers That Be to remove journalists from the voting rolls. The move has some "journos," as Variety so colorfully coins them, mulling some sort of retaliatory tactic, including "lodging a formal complaint to reopen negotiations, as well as
prompting talk of expanding the [New York Drama Critics Circle] annual awards to counter the
exclusion from the Tonys."
The article goes on to address various nefarious motivations that different folks have posited as the real reason for the change, with most people dismissing the "conflict of interest" ploy as utter hogwash. Among them:
promoters want to tighten
their control over the Tony Awards, further emphasizing that the whole thing's just a marketing ploy anyway.
Producers are sick of forking over 800 pairs of free tickets, which is ridiculous, since critics see the shows free anyway, even if they're not Tony voters.
Some theater folk have been pissed at certain theater pundits making Tony predictions and voting to ensure those predictions come true, which even if true seems like an extraordinarily minor point at best.
So, whatever. The Tempest in a Tony Teapot will eventually die down, but another point that the article made really hit home for me, as I'm sure it will for my fellow bloggers:
Others feel the outbreak in recent years of bloggers who disregard
established professional etiquette by weighing in before a show's
official opening has damaged the reputation of the entire critical
community. "Anyone in a position to make editorial comment is now
regarded as the enemy," one pundit said.
"Disregard professional etiquette?" I find that wording offensive. "Professional" implies that we're getting paid, which we're not. And "disregard" assumes that bloggers are privy to the inner workings of the critical sanctum sanctorum, which I find arrogant and solipsistic.
But the larger, and more important, point is this: Should bloggers be reviewing shows during previews? I've done so myself, although I've made it plain that the show I was reviewing was in previews. My attitude has always been, if they're charging for admission, the ticket-buying public deserves to know what kind of show they're paying for. But if the bad word gets around before the creators have a chance to make changes, is that fair to the creative staff and the performers?
So, you're on a bobsled and it's snowing out, and it's cold. OK. Go.
Last night, the Tony Awards management committee announced that the so-called "First Night" critics -- the ones who (in theory) attend and review shows based on opening nights -- will no longer be eligible to vote in the Tony Awards process. The reason, according to a New York Times report, is that "...the committee concluded that it was a conflict of interest for
journalists to vote on Tony contenders when they have a platform to
champion a show in news and entertainment media."
So, who's left to vote for the Tonys? Producers, theater owners, publicists, actors, writers, designers, and other union and committee members. You know, the people who have absolutely no conflict of interest. As Robert Diamond, editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld.com, tweeted last night shortly after the announcement, "As if voting for the Tony Awards needed to find a way to make the process even more insular/biased."
The Tony Awards have really never been more than a thin marketing ploy. (When was the last time the season's best musical actually won Best Musical?) However, as Diamond intimates, this decision brings the voting process in the wrong direction. There were only 800 or so people who voted for the Tonys before this decision, and now there will be only about 700, a reduction of about 13%. And one of the worst kept secrets in the industry is that many of those voters don't bother to see all the shows, although they are supposed to before voting in any particular category. Some shows in recent seasons have seen fewer than 1/3 of the eligible Tony voters show up to see the show. In addition, we're now even more likely to see skewed results: shows with larger casts and crew are even more likely to win because they have more people involved in them to vote, and fewer overall voters to offset that bias.
According to Adam Feldman, critic for Time Out New York, the idea that critics have a conflict of interest is "thin stuff
indeed." He writes, "If anything, critics are among the voters least
compromised by conflicts of interest, and most likely to vote
objectively and fairly for the work they judge to be best." So why did the Tony committee really make this change? Feldman offers this rationale: "...[C]ritics, and indeed criticism, are inconvenient to the modern
theater marketer: Old-fashioned in our insistence on quality,
unreliable in our support for expensive projects and less necessary in
light of the diffusion of information in the Internet age."
Cynical, to be sure, but I'm not so sure he's inaccurate. What do you think, dear reader? Is Feldman right? Is this part of a tacit marginalization of the critical mass? Or is this just sour grapes on the part of the slighted?
The first official post-Tony casualty will be Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty, which will close June 14th after about 80 regular performances. But that's a play, right, dear reader? We wanna know which musical will close first, don't we?
My money is on the Guys and Dolls revival, which last week played to 61% capacity, with an average ticket of about $70. The show's grosses have been heading steadily downward since hitting a high of about $750,000 in April, and have lately been around $400,000. And the lackluster Guys and Dolls production number on the Tony broadcast, combined with a grand total of zero Tonys earned, probably won't help to turn that trend around.
On the "original" musical front, the show that would seem to be in the most immediate danger is 9 to 5, which played to about 75% percent last week, with an average ticket of $75. The show's recent weekly grosses of around $750,000 might be enough to keep it alive, if it can sustain that level of performance. I have a feeling that the show may last through the summer, buoyed by the strong tourist trade in New York, but will probably close come fall.
Then there's Next to Normal. Although the show has recently seen its attendance rise to more than 90%, its average ticket has been about $65. The show's grosses have peaked at around $350,000, although since the show has a cast of six and a modest band, that may be enough to keep the show afloat. Will the show's three Tonys (best score, best actress, and a shared Tony for best orchestrations) give it a much-needed lift in its grosses? N2N does seem to be building a significant following, but then so did [title of show].
As for the musicals that have legs, clearly Billy Elliot and West Side Story are in no danger of closing any time soon. Both are doing spectacularly at the box office. (Click on the show titles for historical grosses.) And Hair, after a slow start, has been growing steadily in ticket sales and grosses, and I see that growing even stronger after its Tony win for best revival and the national exposure from the show's terrific title number.
What's your take, dear reader? Did the Tony broadcast make you more or less likely to see the shows listed above? Which do you think will last, and which are not long for this world?
P.S. When I originally posted on this topic, I completely forgot about Shrek. Kinda tells you something, doesn't it? Well, Shrek is a real wild card, and rather tough to predict, because rumor has it that the show has pretty much been running in the red since it opened. The show's average ticket price has been about $70, its attendance at about 70%, and its grosses around $650,000. Many other musicals would be able to make a profit at that level, but Shrek has a huge cast and presumably a pretty big weekly nut to meet. But but since Dreamworks has really deep pockets, and a tremendous amount to prove, there's no telling how long they're going to be willing to run the show at a loss before taking it on tour and cleaning up in the provinces.
P.P.S. Where is my head today? I also forgot about Rock of Ages. Mea culpa, dear reader. Well, ROA has also been seeing its grosses increase steadily since it opened. Lately it's been pulling in about $450,000 a week, and it very well could be making a profit at that level. The average ticket has risen slowly from about $40 to around $64, which is OK, but could be better. But what's interesting is that the attendance percentage has stayed roughly the same, about 90%. Which means that the audience size has been relatively constant, but the amount that people are paying to see the show is rising. If that continues, the show might just return its investment and settle in for a profitable run.
With all the pre-show hullabaloo about the Tony Awards broadcast, I went in expecting it to be one big crass-fest. Maybe that's why I came out feeling that it was the best Tony show in a number of years. Admittedly, the bar's not very high here.
I wasn't able to watch the show live and provide play-by-play on Twitter. (If you'd like to follow my random theater musings on an ongoing basis, I'm @ccaggiano.) So here are the impressions that I would have been posting, based on watching the show last night on TiVo delay.
The opening number: Was busy and frantic, and had some major sound problems. Actually, the show in general had significant sound issues, but it was most notable in the opening number, as well as during the Guys and Dolls performance. Oddest pairing: Stockard Channing and Aaron Tveit. Um, why?
Shrek number: I was pleased to see that the folks at Dreamworks decided to do an entire number from the show and not a greatest-hits montage, as so many shows have done in the past. The cast from Shrekperformed "What's Up, Duloc?," featuring Tony nominee Christopher Sieber. Yeah, it's not the best number, from an admittedly lackluster score, but I give them props for not cutting and pasting bits and pieces from each of the nominees' best numbers.
Neil Patrick Harris: I thought NPH as the show's host was terrific: charming, confident, and self-effacing. I particularly liked the number with which he ended the show -- "Tonight" from West Side Story, with rewritten lyrics -- my favorite line from which was "The show could not be any gayer, if Liza was named mayor, and Elton John took flight." And I loved the sushi joke, at Jeremy Piven's well-deserved expense.
The touring-show numbers: The numbers from the touring productions of Mamma Mia, Legally Blonde and Jersey Boys were pointless. Bend over, Tony: the Broadway League wants a free commercial. The only number I didn't fast-forward through was Jersey Boys, because I found the gimmick of bringing in the five different Frankie Valli actors at least momentarily intriguing. (Be honest: by the end, you had chosen a favorite, right?) Yeah, I know: the Tony Awards in general are just one big commercial. But at least showcasing numbers from the nominated shows has a shred of credibility.
Best score: Yeah, Billy Elliot proved to be the juggernaut of the evening, but plucky little Next to Normal stopped Billy from sweeping up every award in sight. Congrats to Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt for snatching the Tony from the undeserving hands of Elton John and Dolly Parton. And props to the Tony voters for seeing beyond the stars in their eyes.
West Side Story number: "The Dance at the Gym" was a good choice for the show. It showcased the terrific playfulness between Matt Cavenaugh and Josephina Scaglione, as well as Jerome Robbins' kick-ass choreography. I wasn't so hot on the way they ended it, with a snatch from the "Tonight" duet, but again I was glad not to see a montage/commercial.
Rock of Ages number: Speaking of montages, I was rather unimpressed by the custom-made production number from Rock of Ages. Despite the effort, the number really didn't do the show justice, and failed to capture what is actually appealing about this show. If I hadn't already seen the show (twice) this number would not have induced me.
Liza: Is Liza Minnelli falling apart before our very eyes, or what? Did they have paramedics standing by in case she imploded?
Guys and Dolls number: "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" was an unfortunate choice for Guys and Dolls, since that was the number that the 1992 cast performed on the Tonys, and it created an unfortunate reminder of what the present revival is lacking. Plus, it put the miscasting of the otherwise talented Tituss Burgess into unflattering relief. And then there was the microphone trouble: we could hear the backstage folk panicking, but we couldn't hear Burgess sing until a stagehand ran on stage with a hand mike. What is this, 1950? Haven't we mastered the challenges of live TV by now? And how many people are greeting their Monday morning to the sight of a pink slip?
Best supporting actor: One of the genuine surprises of the night was when Greg Jbara won for Billy Elliot. I would have put good money on Will Swenson from Hair. But the voters were probably recognizing Jbara for admittedly strong performances past and present, and were likely caught up in the Billy Elliot tidal wave.
Next to Normal number: Alice Ripley seemed to be having some tempo problems in this number, although it might have been more sound issues with the TV production. But performing "You Don't Know/I Am the One" was a super choice, showing this moving show to its best advantage. Oh, and Alice, lovey, I applaud your winning best actress for Next to Normal, but WHY WERE YOU YELLING DURING YOUR ACCEPTANCE SPEECH?!
In Memoriam: Was anyone else annoyed by the relentless camera pans during the tribute to theater folks who died in the past year? I could barely read Marilyn Cooper's name.
The Billy Elliot monolith: Best sound design? Best SET!? Did the Tony voters actually see the Billy Elliot set? It's hideous and awkward. You might say, "Well it's supposed to be ugly. These people are living in squalor." Granted. But does that mean we have to throw an award at urban blight? Again, we're probably just witnessing the Billy momentum here.
Frank Langella: I applaud Frank Langella for what some might consider a self-aggrandizing speech. Perhaps it was. But he did serve as a reminder to the Tony nominating committee that, um, there were a bunch of shows that opened in the fall, many of which (The Seagull, anyone?) were entirely shut out.
The Hair number: Performing the title song from Hair was a very good choice, nicely capturing the exuberance of the show, which thankfully went on to win Best Revival. I loved it when Oskar Eustis said "Peace now! Freedom now! Equality now!," emphasizing the last one by pointing to his wedding ring, a clear and welcome reference to gay marriage.
Billy Elliot number: On the one hand, I was glad to see that they chose only one Billy Elliot to showcase in the "Angry Dance." (It was Trent Kowalik.) On the other hand, the number, which was one of the moments in the show
that I found genuinely compelling, came off as loud, tuneless, and harsh,
and was also poorly shot. Oh, and BTW, would that the Tony nominating committee and voters had shown the same strength of character and actually chosen *one* Billy as best actor. But that would hurt somebody's feelings, now wouldn't it? We can't have an awards show hurt someone's feelings, can we? (Yeah, well, talk to Frank Dolce, the poor kid who shares the part of Michael with Tony nominee David Bologna, about that one.) I didn't see David Alvarez, but I heard he's very good. I got Kiril Kulish, who is a terrific dancer, but the heavy acting scenes were a bit of a stretch for him. And now, all three of them have a Tony. Oh, isn't that just adorable?
Best Musical: As for the Billy Elliot sweep, well, all I can say is, I hated the show in London (read my review), but I was moderately engaged by the Broadway production (read my re-review). It's a great big crowd-pleaser, and there's some really solid stagecraft in evidence. But the score is awful, and the dance is IMHO overrated. Is it a classic for the ages? Will it become a stalwart part of the musical theater canon? Will community theaters and high school drama societies be performing Billy Elliot fifty years from now? Oh, sister, I have such doubts.