Top Tony Award Best Musical Battles - 2016 Edition
With the 70th Annual Tony Awards this weekend, there are no prizes for guessing which show will be taking home most of the trophies. With a record breaking 16 nominations, Hamilton is set to sweep the board, and predicted to win in almost every category in which it is nominated, saving a few awards for a number of Broadway's other successful shows.
Having already won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Off-Broadway production won the 2015 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical as well an Obie Award, a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, an Outer Critics Circle Awards and a Lucille Lortel Award for Best New Musical. There is little to no doubt that the show will walk home with the Tony Award for Best New Musical this coming Sunday, adding to the ever growing cabinet of accolades.
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.
Unlike previous years where shows have ridden this wave, the benefits of winning the Tony for Best Musical will be lost on Hamilton, but the other musicals nominated in the same category, Bright Star, Waitress, School of Rock the Musical and Shuffle Along may be able to bask in its reflected glory, whilst enjoying performances on the telecast.
2016 may not be much of a battleground for Best New Musical, but below are some of our favourites from over the years that have reflected the changing face of commercial Broadway theatre.
1. 2015: Fun Home vs An American in Paris
Despite the strong competition - these two highly contrasting musicals rose to the top of the heap last season. Both were 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 only added to the acclaim, and the cast of Broadway legends including Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn only added weight behind it. On the other hand, Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris was enjoyed for nostalgic reasons, taking a much loved film and translated to a beautiful dance musical that appeals to a wide range of audiences. Whilst many thought that Fun Home would have a clear shot as the most progressive musical of the season, it certainly had a fight on its hands, but in the end it won out. On the whole the ceremony was quite balanced for wins in different places, but Fun Home's win was the first time a women-only creative team took the top prize.
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.
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.
This year was important for many reasons, and the race for Best Musical exemplified for many the competition between American composers and the so called 'British Invasion' which saw shows that had originated in London taking over Broadway. Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Phantom of the Opera' took home the award for Best Musical, going on to become Broadway's longest running theatre where it still continues to pack in the crowds at the Majestic. Sondheim and Lapine's fairy tale mashup won in other major categories however - none more notable that Joanna Gleason winning the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical over the tipped-to-win Patti LuPone in 'Anything Goes'. To quote Miss LuPone directly - the moment below stunned her and sent her into some kind of acid trip where Gleason looked like the Tin Man from 'Wizard of Oz'. Sadly - the cameraman failed to capture her actual reaction on screen, or if he did, he is no longer alive to tell the tale...
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. 1982: Nine vs Dreamgirls
This year pitched Michael Bennett against his junior, Tommy Tune, in what was certainly one of the most bitter Broadway battles. After Dreamgirls had dominated the season, speculation over when Tune's dark and experimental staging of Nine would open led to Bennett pressuring his friend to do a pricey out of town tryout, opening in the fall and not before the Tony deadline. Judy Jacksina, the show's press agent had an idea to open on May 9 - the exact cut-off date, knowing that the show needed some publicity. Nine was thrown together (to quote Michael Riedel) "like a high school play" in order to open on time, with doves released into the auditorium and the set being painted up until an hour before curtain. Despite being the underdog, the show took home the Tony and created one of the biggest rifts in theatre history.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 1964: Hello, Dolly vs Funny Girl
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.
The 2016 Tony Awards are screened live from The Beacon Theatre in New York City on CBS on Sunday 12 June 2016.