Tony Talk 2009


Part 2- The Musicals

There were ten new musicals and four revivals on Broadway this season, and I saw all but two. I missed Irving Berlin's White Christmas, a holiday special that some suspect was brought to Broadway (at a financial loss) simply to give it additional credence in its more lucrative regional life. And I haven't yet seen the revival of Guys and Dolls, although I've heard it is not worth the time. But I've seen everything else (yes, I even saw The Story of My Life, which didn't run long enough to be Tony-eligible). My favorite musicals of the season are Next to Normal (which received 11 nominations) and [title of show] (which sadly only received one- for Hunter Bell's book). And while I don't think Billy Elliot will completely sweep the awards this year, I think it will do quite well, and will likely win in categories I don't think it deserves, starting with…

Best Musical

I don't think Billy Elliot should win here, because while some aspects were quite wonderful (the direction, and perhaps the book), the total product was surprisingly disappointing. But voters love big musicals, and from what I can tell, most people seem to enjoy this show, and don't mind the bland score as much as I did. If there is an upset, it will be Next to Normal. On certain days, when I'm feeling especially optimistic, I think this might be possible. I certainly wouldn't count it out (and if it happens, it could be a tie-breaker in Tony contests). But I'm betting that Billy Elliot, with its 15 nominations, will win Best Musical. The other two nominated musicals, Shrek and Rock of Ages, have almost no chance, especially because some feel one (or both) took the slot(s) that should have been given to either 9 to 5 or [title of show]

Best Revival of a Musical

This one is kind of a no-brainer. Pal Joey was an excellent revival, but it closed on March 1st . And while I am very glad I saw it, I think the musical itself is more for musical theater buffs, whereas the other three nominees are more popular shows that will appeal to a wider audience. I haven't seen Guys and Dolls , but many say it was only nominated for Best Musical Revival because there is a clause that says the nominating committee MUST fill all of the slots in a category when possible. So since there are only four musical revivals, they all automatically receive nominations. (It's the same reason the apparently hideous revival of Grease was nominated last season.) This leaves West Side Story and Hair. Before I saw them, I thought they might be about evenly matched. But after seeing both in the past few weeks, it is clear that Hair will win this category hands (and pants?) down. West Side Story might be a better musical on paper, but this isn't what wins a Best Musical Revival. West Side Story has sets that seem to be taken from a regional, or even college, production, and direction that is relatively uninspired. It isn't that it is a bad production- it is almost impossible to ruin West Side Story. And this is a solid production. But there isn't much that is special about it (other than a few performances)- if I return to West Side Story it will really be to see Karen Olivo again (see Featured Actress category). Hair, on the other hand, has been hailed as a minor revelation- a production that brings out the best qualities of the musical, and shows the magic that can be found therein. And I agree- I will almost definitely return to see Hair again because of the overall experience.

Best Book of a Musical

Supposedly the book of a musical is one of the hardest things to write, and is often the first thing blamed when the musical suffers. It is also kind of difficult to quantify- it is more than just the words people speak when they aren't singing. I think of a musical's book as the structure, and the outline for what happens- so even when a musical is sung-throughout, there is still a book. This year, the four nominated books are from Billy Elliot, Next to Normal, Shrek, and [title of show]. Even though David Lindsay-Abaire has a Pulitzer, I think his book for Shrek is the first to rule out. Not because it isn't good, but because in a category like this, voters need to feel drawn to a show, and I think Shrek is the one show with the least emotional pull. Next to Normal is pretty much sung-through, and while that shouldn't make a difference, I think it might hurt here. Many think Billy Elliot is the likely winner, because it is the big show of the season. Personally, I'm hoping for Hunter Bell to win for [title of show]. While the show closed in October, I wouldn't be surprised if this was one of the big upsets of the evening. There's a line on the recording where Bell sings "What if this show won a Tony award?" I'm hoping voters want to find out.

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

By all rights, I don't think Billy Elliot should even have been nominated (I would have picked the scores to both [title of show] and 13 over this one.) But it IS a score with music by Elton John, and it IS the big new musical of the season, so it could well win. The trouble is, the score to Billy Elliot is, to put it simply, bad. And I have a feeling I'm not the only one who thinks so. And because people will expect Billy Elliot to win a bunch of awards, voters may use this category to award another show. So who will win? Shrek 's score has music by Jeanine Tesori (who has been nominated three times already, and who should have won a Tony for Caroline, or Change) and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (who won the Pulitzer prize for Rabbit Hole). And the score is (surprisingly?) quite good- intelligent and funny and maybe even a little bit subversive. But the show as a whole is just pleasant- you leave the theatre thinking "that was nice." And this is why Shrek may not win anything. It is the same with 9 to 5 - the score was written by Dolly Parton, and overall, I think she did a fine job. I am looking forward to listening to the score again (the album hasn't been released). However, I'm not sure that Dolly's immense fan base overlaps much with the Tony voters. So Next to Normal is Billy Elliot 's biggest competition. In my opinion, it has the best score of the year. The show is almost entirely sung-through, and the score does an incredible job in creating the complex characters on stage.

Best Direction of a Musical

In the Academy Awards, the winner for Best Director often (but not always) wins for directing that year's Best Picture. The same thing generally happens with musicals at the Tonys, with the difference that in the Tonys, there are two "Best Musicals"- the new musicals and the revivals. So given that Billy Elliot and Hair will most likely win these respective categories, this category is basically between Stephen Daldry (who directed Billy Elliot) and Diane Paulus (who directed Hair). Kristin Hanggi did a decent enough job with Rock of Ages, and probably is one of the key people responsible for making it as good as it is, but I have as much chance of winning this award as she does. And as much as I love Next to Normal, my biggest problem with it is the direction. Michael Greif (who also directed Rent - boy does he love his scaffolding!) probably contributed a lot in the developmental process of this piece, so I guess one might justify the nomination for that reason. But his direction always seems serviceable to me, with occasional moments where I think "why on earth did he have them do that?" Whereas Diane Paulus staged perhaps the best ending of any musical this season (and those last ten minutes or so are ALL her). I'd love to see her win for this reason alone. But I suspect Stephen Daldry will win here, and as much as I thought Billy Elliot was just ok, I have to admit Daldry's direction is excellent.

Best Choreography

Given that Billy Elliot is a show about dancing, and that it is the big show of the season, and that there is a lot of solo dancing and group dancing and flying in the air dancing, does anyone else have a chance? I don't think so. Randy Skinner's choreography in Irving Berlin's White Christmas was reportedly quite good (I didn't see it). Karole Armitage's work in Hair fit the piece well, which means it is less showy than the dancing in Billy Elliot. And Andy Blankenbuehler, who deservedly won this award last year for In the Heights, did some of the same things again this year with 9 to 5. All fine choreography. But I bet even if Jerome Robbins had risen from the dead and re-choreographed West Side Story, he still would lose to Peter Darling and Billy Elliot.

Best Orchestrations

This is one of those awards that most people (including, I suspect, many Tony voters) don't quite know how to judge. The orchestrator's work varies depending on the composer, and the right orchestration can turn a simple melody into a thrilling moment in the theatre. However, where does the score stop and the orchestration begin? I suspect rather than thinking through this, many voters simply go with either their pick for Best Musical, or their pick for Best Score. (Occasionally musical revivals have new orchestrations that are nominated, but that didn't happen this year). If they do, Shrek and Irving Berlin's White Christmas have little to no chance, leaving Billy Elliot and Next to Normal. My personal pick is Next to Normal - the orchestrations turn what could have been a more traditional "rock" sound into something much more complex. But I have a feeling Billy Elliot may have better chances.

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical

Everyone I know is crossing their fingers that Alice Ripley wins on June 7th (ok, what can I say, I know a lot of theatre queens). Ripley's performance in Next to Normal is one of the best performances this season- man or woman, play or musical. It is so difficult to play a crazy person realistically- that is, not go overboard with the craziness- and Ripley's genius is that she simultaneously shows both the unhinged, bipolar person, and the completely rational (in her mind, at least) person who is battling that illness. Ripley was nominated once before with Emily Skinner- the two women played the Siamese twins Daisy and Violet in Sideshow . (Emily, when will you return to Broadway?) And since this is the only acting category in which Billy Elliot has no nominees, Ripley's chances look good. I'd guess her biggest competition is Allison Janney (who we all love, of course). Janney is quite good in 9 to 5 (in the Lily Tomlin role), but she isn't the strongest singer, and that may hurt her. Pal Joey 's Stockard Channing was wonderful, but the show closed already. Sutton Foster was also good in Shrek - funny, quirky, a bit of a tomboy, but she's already won a Tony and now just seems to get nominated every time she does a Broadway musical (for roles in which she is funny, quirky, and a bit of a tomboy), so I don't think people will vote for her. And while Josefina Scaglione is lovely as Maria in West Side Story , she doesn't remain etched in one's memory days after the show the way that Ripley or Janney or even Channing do. So c'mon Alice Ripley!

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical

This year, it was ruled that all three boys who share the role of Billy would be considered together. And it was also ruled that voters only needed to see one of them perform. While both of these rulings make sense (otherwise, it would mean needing to see Billy Elliot three times), it means that those who vote for the three kids will be voting for performers they haven't seen. This nomination really asks voters to vote for a role, rather than a performance. The role of Billy is exciting to watch- a 10-12 year old boy dances all over the stage. But I'd contend that the boys who do the role in five years will be just as exciting- it is the role that is the star here- the choreography and the sight of a kid dancing it. While I think voters will be suckered in by the draw of youth (the mindset of "yay- I love when kids win awards!"), I think all of the other nominees deserve the award more. American Idol alum Constantine Maroulis was surprisingly good in Rock of Ages. Gavin Creel in Hair is terrific (although I liked castmate Will Swenson even better). Brian d'Arcy James somehow manages to humanize Shrek the ogre, even through all of that makeup. And while some feel that James was better than J. Robert Spencer in Next to Normal (James did the role of Dan at Second Stage, but left the show to star in Shrek), I think Spencer perfectly captures the ordinariness of his character, a father and husband who wants desperately to live a normal, even boring, life. So yeah, when this award is announced, I fully expect to be annoyed, but hey- that's commercial theatre for you.

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical

Ok, it is really hard for me to be objective with this category this year. I worked with Karen Olivo several years ago, and love her in everything she is in. And she is an incredibly warm, loving person to boot. I'm trying not to jinx her chances by getting my hopes up too much, but I DO think she has a good chance at winning- her performance as Anita is one of the best parts in the current revival of West Side Story . So since I can't be objective, who else is nominated? There are two women from Billy Elliot - Carole Shelley (Billy's grandmother) and Haydn Gwynne (Billy's dance teacher). Of these two, Gwynne has the better chance, if only because her role is larger. I think she is Karen's biggest competition. Martha Plimpton's rendition of "Zip" was a highlight of Pal Joey, and while this is the third year in a row she has been nominated, I don't think the role was enough of a standout to make up for the fact that the show isn't running anymore. And finally, there's Next to Normal's Jennifer Damiano. While I'm thrilled she is nominated (because I love the show), I think this is a case where the nomination is the prize.

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical

Enough with Billy Elliot already! This category also has two nominees from that show- Gregory Jbara (who plays the father) and David Bologna (who plays Billy's soon-to-be-gay friend Michael). Or rather, Bologna is one of the two kids who plays Michael- the other one (Frank Dolce) isn't nominated. Apparently, while the producers made a special petition to get all three Billys considered together, they didn't do the same for the two Michaels, so because Bologna did the show opening night, he is the only one eligible for the nomination. The two kids are still splitting performances, so it is conceivable that many Tony voters won't even see Bologna in the role. Whatever- if someone from Billy Elliot wins this category it will be Gregory Jbara, who I loved in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and who also gave my favorite performance in this show. Which isn't to say I think he should win (although he has a good chance). I'm rooting for Will Swenson, who played Berger in Hair. Easily the best performance in that show, Swenson perfectly encapsulates the spirit and energy and innocence and playfulness that Hair is all about. But I wouldn't count out Marc Kudisch or Christopher Sieber either- both are well-known Broadway stalwarts who have been nominated in this category before (Kudisch for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Sieber for Spamalot). Kudisch is perfectly cast as the lecherous boss (the Dabney Coleman role) in 9 to 5. And Sieber gives probably the most unforgettable performance in Shrek - as Lord Farquaad he spends almost the entire performance on his knees. So this is another tough category, and I'm honestly not sure who I'd pick if I were taking part in the Theasy Tony Guessing Contest (where you can win 5 pairs of tickets to the Fringe Festival). Good Luck!

Stay tuned for Part 3- Everything Else