Top Tony Award Best Musical Battles
With the Tony Awards just around the corner, the 2015 ceremony is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in recent years. Despite rumblings from some that this is a 'weak' year for new musicals, I couldn't disagree more - and personally feel it's the strongest set of front runners in many years.
The Tony for Best Musical is one of the most coveted awards for both artistic and commercial reasons. A list that begins with Kiss Me Kate in 1946 and sweeps through decades taking in shows such as '1776', 'South Pacific', 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying', 'Hairspray' and 'Rent' is certainly a list that every writer and producer wants to be added to. Commercially, the winner of Best Musical in most cases secures a significant 'bump' in box office figures, meaning that the show can find a new life for audiences after it's enjoyed the seal of approval and a telecast performance.
Much has already been written this year regarding the upcoming contest, in particular the omission of Finding Neverland from any nominations - a move that many in the industry feel is due more to the personality of lead producer Harvey Weinstein rather than the material itself.
The list of eligible musicals for nomination this year were as follows:
An American in Paris (currently running)
Doctor Zhivago (closed after 23 performances)
Finding Neverland (currently running)
Fun Home (currently running)
Holler If Ya Hear Me (closed after 38 performances)
Honeymoon in Vegas (closed after 93 performances)
It Shoulda Been You (currently running)
The Last Ship (closed after 105 performances)
Something Rotten (currently running)
The Visit (currently running)
Of this long list, the top four were selected as nominees: 'Fun Home', 'Something Rotten', 'The Visit' and 'An American in Paris' - a varied and eclectic mix by anyone's standards. Of the full collection of eligible nominees, three were based on films, two were based on books, one on a play, one on the life of a performer and three were original ideas. To me, this collection reflects the most progressive set of original musicals in many seasons, and should indeed be celebrated for its variety.
Any competition that involves Kander and Ebb, Jeanine Tesori, Jason Robert Brown, George Gershwin, and Sting contributing to it in my eyes does not constitute a 'weak' year - and I for one can't wait to see which way the voters go.
Whilst 'The Visit' and 'Something Rotten' may be strong contenders in other categories, the competition at present seems to primarily between 'Fun Home' and 'An American in Paris' - musicals that on paper (and indeed on stage) couldn't be more different. With this epic head to head in mind I thought it would be fun to recap some of the most heated Tony Awards contests of the past:
1. 2015: Fun Home vs An American in Paris
Despite the strong competition - these two highly contrasting musicals have risen to the top of the heap this current season. Both are critical darlings - Fun Home transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater following a unanimous set of excellent notices and award wins on the off-Broadway circuit. The new in the round staging seems to have only added to the acclaim, and the cast of Broadway legends including Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn only adds weight behind it. On the other hand, Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris is being enjoyed for nostalgic reasons, and has taken a much loved film and translated to a beautiful dance musical that appeals to a wide range of audiences (and Tony voters - many of whom have their own interests to preserve in the touring market). Whilst I'd love to see Fun Home take it, as it's certainly the most progressive musical of the season, I think it will have a fight on its hands - which will only make for an entertaining ceremony.
2. 2004: Wicked vs Avenue Q
In what was certainly a brutal year for the Best Musical Award, these two shows battled it out to the very end for the top prize. Whilst the puppet musical was considered the underdog, the show led a clever marketing campaign urging voters to 'vote with their heart', which ultimately saw it clinch the victory. Eleven years on however, it is Wicked that continues to play to capacity houses on Broadway, whilst Avenue Q enjoys an off-Broadway residency - showing that sometimes the top prize doesn't always determine overall success.
3. 1998: Ragtime vs The Lion King
In what many thought would be the death knell for Broadway as they knew it, the House of Mouse took home the coveted award from the more artistically revered work by Flaherty and Ahrens thanks primarily to the work of director/designer Julie Taymor. The shows were pitched against each other in most categories, with Ragtime rightfully winning Best Score and Book - and the Disney lights continued to burn brighter on the Great White Way ringing in a new decade of musicals to come all searching for the same level of success.
4. 1988: Into the Woods vs Phantom of the Opera
5. 1984: Sunday in the Park With George vs La Cage aux Folles
This year saw a battle between the new and the old, with Sondheim's highly artistic work based on the painter George Seurat went head to head with Jerry Herman's brassy popularist work. It defined a break in musical theatre history, as audiences in the 80s found themselves interested in a different style of musical, namely one that doesn't over orchestrate the brass section. Jerry Herman throws serious shade on Sondheim as he took home the award for Best Score, using the opportuniy for a personal dig as he says it proves that the 'hummable show tune is alive and well'...Ouch.
6. 1976: Chicago vs A Chorus Line
This year was really only ever about one musical - Michael Bennett's 'A Chorus Line'. Originating at the Public Theater under the watchful eye of Joseph Papp, this fresh and invigorating concept was unlike any other show on Broadway. Conceived by choreographer Michael Bennett - the show was pitched directly against rival choreograpger Bob Fosse's new musical 'Chicago' which starred Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. As Fosse's direct competitor and 'nemesi' he didn't revel in the success of the show, and Chicago closed a year later, but was later revived to greater acclaim in 1996 and continues to run on Broadway making it the longest running musical revival in history.
7. 1972: Two Gentleman of Verona vs Follies vs Grease
Two shows were tipped for success this year, with popular favourite 'Grease' expected to win over the more artistic, yet tricky, Sondheim musical which was gradually bleeding away its investment at the Winter Garden theatre. Not appreciated in its time, Frank Rich predicted that the show eventually would achieve recognition as a Broadway classic, which it has gone on to be around the world. The award instead was taken by the quirky rock musical, with a book by John Guare and Mel Shapiro and music by Galt MacDermot, based on the Shakespeare comedy of the same name which transferred to the St James following a run in Central Park. The musical has since faded into obscurity, with both 'Grease' and 'Follies' far surpassing it in popularity.
One of the earliest Tony Award rivalries came as David Merrick's 'Hello, Dolly' took on Ray Stark's 'Funny Girl' as the two shows were pitched against each other, in a cememony that at that time still included an award for Best Producer. Despite the presence of Barbara Streisand, 'Funny Girl' failed to win any of its eight nominations, and 'Hello, Dolly!' swept the board, winning in ten categories (out of eleven nominations) that tied the musical with the previous record keeper 'South Pacific' - a record that remained unbroken for 37 years until 'The Producers' won twelve Tonys in 2001.