Why They Didn't Win: An Analysis of "Robbed" Shows

Darren Wildeman

“________ was robbed!” you will often hear theatre fans exclaim. Whether it be after the most recent Tony Awards, or whether they’re still bitter about a previous awards season almost everyone probably has a favourite show that never won, or even got nominated. But why did some high profile shows lose? Whether you agree with it or not the voters have a reason for voting the way they do for a show. Let’s jump in and take a look at some shows which are perceived to have been robbed and maybe why they didn’t win.

 

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1958 Tony Awards

The Robbed Show: West Side Story, losing to The Music Man.

Thankfully this now beloved show didn’t get totally skunked at the Tony Awards. Jerome Robbins won for best choreography and Oliver Smith won for scenic design. However, this now beloved show not winning the Tony for what was then called “Outstanding Musical” seems baffling. This now begs the question, what went wrong, and why did it not win?

One thing that may have at least played a role in this is the show being covered in controversy. Sara Fishko writes on NPR about how Jerome Robbins was a former Communist Party member and he exposed ten other people as such before court. Of course communism in 1950s America was a huge deal. He was also a secret homosexual, however I’m not sure if this would have played a role in the show being robbed as not many people knew about it. The other thing Sara discusses in the article is how Jerome Robbins intentionally would try to create tension in the cast. The actors of the gangs weren’t allowed to even eat together (for Sara’s full article, click here). Finally, there’s the matter of the content. Race, rape, and general bigotry are something modern day theatre audiences have become somewhat more accustom to being addressed in theatre. However, it’s possible that even though the show was popular that it may have just been too much for the award voters.

We also need to consider the musical that won. The Music Man. The Music Man is largely to be considered a good show in its own right, however most people don’t seem to put it on the level as West Side Story either. By comparison, it’s a much more “safe” musical that includes some comedy, and a romance story, and it didn’t have the controversial for the time subjects of race, and rape brought up. By 1957 standards The Music Man is much more what people were accustom to seeing in the theatre, and this could very well be what gave it the win.

1960 Tony Awards

The Robbed Show: Gypsy, losing to The Sound of Music and Fiorello!

Looking back, this is another show that’s hard to believe didn’t win any Tonys. Not only did it lose Best Musical, but Ethel Merman also lost the Tony for best leading actress for her role in Gypsy. It had eight nominations in total and lost all of them. What happened?

While probably not related it’s interesting that this is the second musical that Robbins and Sondheim worked together on that is now perceived as being robbed.

The Sound of Music was released in 1959. America was only fourteen years out of World War Two and the world as a whole would have still had it in their memory. Something that we will see time and again in theatre, is that something that is relevant to the times, will win. Given that World War Two was quite recent in people’s minds, and that by this time Rodgers and Hammerstein had already built quite the name for themselves it makes sense that this won the Tony. While not directly related to winning the Tony it is also worth noting that this would be their last show together due to Oscar Hammerstein eventually passing away from cancer.

Fiorello! also opened to amazing critical reviews and large audiences. Gypsy is also another example of a show with a bit of a darker and deeper storyline not winning. This combined with the fact that it was up against two other very good shows led to its not winning. One show was really relevant and the other was considered very good. Gypsy turned out to be the odd one out in every category. It was just too competitive of a season for it.

1964 Tony Awards

The Robbed Show: She Loves Me losing to Hello Dolly!

Honestly this one is relatively easy to explain. As beloved as She Loves Me is now, it initially wasn’t that well received. Combine the fact that it was up against a show that was both a powerhouse both in its day and in modern times, and it never really had much of a chance. The same goes for Barbara Cook not even being nominated. She had a fabulous career, but She Loves Me just wasn’t going to be the show to get the big awards.

1972 Tony Awards

The Robbed Show: Follies, Grease, and Jesus Christ Superstar losing to Two Gentlemen of Verona

This one confuses a lot of people. One of the popular opinions on this one is that Two Gentlemen of Verona won because Galt Macdermot lost at the Tonys with Hair a few years prior. It was essentially a “make up” decision to give him the Tony that some people thought he deserved. Also one blogger Pewterbreath, points out that no matter how he is portrayed on stage it is pretty hard for people to argue with anything Shakespeare related (for the full article on this you can click here). It was another year with too many good musicals, and Two Gentlemen of Verona was a semi successful show. Most people think the voters got it wrong, however in some ways it is another case of there being too many good shows in the same year. Jesus Christ Superstar wasn’t even nominated for best Musical (although it was nominated for five other awards) probably just due to being too crowded in the category and it was the odd one out. Between being moderately successful and well received and Galt Macdermot not winning a Tony a previous year, Two Gentlemen of Verona managed to push out many other successful shows and come out on top in a very crowded Tony year.

You could argue that Grease also lost for being too “poppy” and “fun.” The exact opposite problem West Side Story had. You see by this point in theatre history Sondheim had ushered in an era where it was okay for musical theatre to be more serious. It was up against Follies which is a Sondheim creation, and Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death which is another show that goes deeper and explores the African American life in the ghettos. Grease was up against these as well as the eventual winner and really in a season like this it really didn’t have a chance.

It is also worth noting that Follies managed to pick up 4 other Tony including best score and direction. It isn’t as if they were totally ignored.

1976 Tony Awards

The Robbed Show: Chicago losing to A Chorus Line

This is another one that really doesn’t need much of an explanation. What A Chorus Line did for dance was revolutionary. Meanhwile the first run of Chicago was not terribly well received. It didn’t do horribly, but calling it robbed is definitely an overstatement; especially when you look at what the winner did for theatre.

 

1984 Tony Awards

The Robbed show: Sunday in the Park with George losing to La Cage aux Folles

This is a really interesting one. Sunday is an incredible show and Sondheim did something with this show that had never really been seen before in turning a painting into a musical. It’s a very original concept and the show is flawlessly executed.

Not only did Sunday lose best musical, but La Cage pretty much wiped the floor with them leaving Sondheim’s creation with just 2 design awards. It’s hard to point to one single thing as to why Sunday lost. However, one thought is maybe Sunday was just too far out there for the voters. In his Washington Post review of the 1984 Tony Awards David Richards echoes these thoughts calling Sunday “radical and adventurous” and saying it was “experimentation.” Meanwhile he said that La Cage “is right out of Broadway mainstream.” (to read his full 1984 Tony summary click here).

This isn’t to say La Cage was undeserving of the Tony award as it was very well reviewed and the voters themselves obviously loved it. It’s also hard to ignore the storyline of La Cage. From the 1970s onwards many of the States were in the process of decriminalizing homosexuality. While by the 1980s this revolution still had a long ways to go, it was also relevant to the times. Remember, we’re also in 1984 here. We’re just nine years away from the first workshop of Rent.  Not to mention that Broadway has historically been ahead of social issues. Considering these two things, and combining them with the popularity La Cage was getting as a show it starts to seem somewhat obvious why La Cage won.

1991 Tony Awards

The Robbed Shows: Miss Saigon losing to The Will Rodgers Follies

Given that Miss Saigon was drowning in controversy at the time over its casting, I don’t think it’s a huge surprise to see why it lost. Although Lea Salonga did win for her performance, the show as a whole lost all around. From criticism to their portrayal of Asian people, to the “yellow facing” of white people to make them look Asian including one of the lead roles. While being well received the show just couldn’t overcome these mistakes among a few other things. It’s also worth mentioning that by today’s standards, while Miss Saigon is certainly a spectacle to see, a lot of the music and book fall flat. A lot of the reviews of it at the time were positive, there were also some mixed to negative reviews (such as this one by Linda Winer of the LA Times). Between controversy, and some critics not loving it from the get go, it leads to Will Rodgers Follies winning.

1998 Tony Awards

The Robbed show: Ragtime losing to The Lion King

Today Ragtime is a quite well liked show that has aged very well, and has stayed if not become even more relevant. However, it opened to mixed reviews. For the most part it wasn’t completely trashed by the critics, however they weren’t exactly raving about it either. A lot of the criticism the show faced is not unlike the complications Les Miserables had. The nuances of bringing a novel that deep, with that much going on can be difficult, and things can get lost, and to a lot of critics this is what happened.

Furthermore, it was going up against The Lion King. While the Lion King itself isn’t without its flaws, it’s a spectacle. You can hide a lot with spectacle, powerful music, and great vocal performances. Not to mention the cultural influences on this show that give it yet another layer that makes it even more attractive to a lot of people.

Considering all these things I think it’s pretty easy to see why Ragtime lost the Tony this year. It’s also worth noting that Ragtime did win for best score and best book. It wasn’t totally ignored.

1999 Tony Awards

The robbed show: Parade losing to Fosse

Like Ragtime the previous year, Parade picked up the Tonys for best score and best book, however, it failed to win the big award in best musical. The reviews for it were mostly positive, and some of them downright glowing. That really wasn’t the issue here. Tony voters have a bit of a habit of sometimes turning away from dark and heavy material. While the shows get reviewed well and do well at the box office, they don’t always win Best Musical, even if it looks like it might be the best of that season. Maybe the voters aren’t sure how well the show will do post Tonys or even post-Broadway. It might sound crazy to some but as we will see in a bit with Wicked this is something that gets considered. It’s possible they’re concerned if non NYC crowds will go see these heavier shows and receive them as well in other cities. Sometimes it’s possible they’d rather give the Tony to a safer show for touring purposes.

It’s also worth noting that Fosse was a chilling remembrance of one of Broadway’s best composers in Bob Fosse. It was very well received and payed great homage to him. Between Parade possibly being too dark for some and Fosse remembering a Broadway great you wind up with Fosse winning the Best Musical.

2004 Tony Awards

The robbed show: Wicked losing to Avenue Q

This one is somewhat easy to explain as well. Avenue Q was new, innovative, and was really well received. There is also speculation that it needed the Tony win to continue to be successful. Whereas Wicked wasn’t as well received critically, but commercially it would do just fine Tony or not. Ergo, Avenue Q wins the Tony

2009 Tony Awards

The robbed show: Next to Normal losing to Billy Elliot

This is yet another example of a darker show not winning. This isn’t to say a dark show can never win, however the Tony voters tend to prefer the “safer” shows. Not that Billy Elliot is all rainbows and unicorns, but Next to Normal is so heavy and as discussed earlier this can scare Tony voters for a variety of reasons.

That’s not to say the Billy Elliot isn’t a fine show in its own right either. It’s a fabulous show that many people love. This isn’t necessarily a case of an inferior show winning like we’ve seen in other seasons. This was really a heavy weight match which saw Next to Normal win best score, but Billy Elliot took the big award.

The same thing also partially applies with what was discussed in regards to The Lion King about spectacle, beautiful music, and powerful vocals being a winning combination. Billy Elliot doesn’t quite have the same type of music as Lion King but it’s moving nonetheless. Also it is a dance spectacle, whereas Next to Normal is smaller scale, and more intimate.

Between Next to Normal being darker and Billy Elliot being a really good show on its own, and being more of a spectacle this leads to a best musical Tony award for Billy Elliot.

2014 Tony Awards

The robbed show: Big Fish with zero nominations

This one is a bit unusual. It’s odd that a show of Big Fish’s caliber doesn’t at least get some nominations. I’m not sure that it would have won anything but not even getting a nod is weird. So what happened?

It’s hard to say, it did receive some mixed reviews, and it was a very strong season. It probably just got overlooked. Some seasons a show just happens to be the odd one out. That appears to be the case here.

2015 Tony Awards

The robbed show: Finding Neverland with zero nominations

For the sake of length I generally haven’t discussed shows robbed of nominations. However, Big Fish was worth talking about and Finding Neverland was also an interesting case.

In the first place Finding Neverland was not received well by critics. In the second place, it was behind the scenes politics. Harvey Weinstein fired a lot of staff members and left a general distaste in the mouth of a lot of important people (you can read more about this here).

This goes to show that having a good show alone isn’t good enough for nominations. Key members of the show also need to be careful not to upset the wrong people. Otherwise they will find themselves on the outside looking in.

2017 Tony Awards

The robbed show: Everything vs. Dear Evan Hansen

Last year was a really interesting season. I don’t know how many people think something was robbed, but last year no matter which way the voting fell someone was going to be upset. All of these shows could have won the Tony in any other season, but it was a loaded year.

One of the big reasons Dear Evan Hansen won is trendiness and marketability. The show is so popular that it is going to tour well, and get attention no matter where it goes. Slapping that Best Musical title on it is only going to increase the hype. Not to mention that technically speaking it is a very well done show.

It’s not to say that the Tony wouldn’t have helped the other shows, but it was just such a strong season but wherever you go Dear Evan Hansen always stood out among fans as being the top show of the season, and the critics agreed. It by far generated more attention than any other show, was super well done, and stood out just enough more than anything else in a good Tony season.

It’s not that there was anything really wrong with the other shows but Dear Evan Hansen broke away from the pack more than anything else did.

I understand that people aren’t going to always agree with the Tony voters. However, even if you don’t agree with them, or think a show got robbed- I hope this article at least helps you to understand why a show didn’t win. It might help to try and see what the voters look for, and why some shows might not get as much attention from the voters.