At the time you’re reading this it is Tuesday, May 11th two days after the Tony Awards and it’s very possible all hell has broken loose. All pun intended but at the time of writing this the Tony Awards haven’t aired yet, I haven’t seen what opening James Corden has planned, whether the shows chose the right song to use or not (Ahem looking at you Mean Girls), or anything for that matter, all I have to go off of are nominations and the nominations I find most interesting are the nominations for Best Musical. Beetlejuice, Hadestown, The Prom, Ain’t Too Proud, and Tootsie are all great and it’s definitely going to be close. Or for you was close. This whole thing is kinda confusing so if you don’t mind I’d like to rewind from June 9th and June 10th and well 2019 in general to take a look back at some of the Best Musical winners in years past. A.K.A An excuse for me to talk about a lot of shows I’d like to discuss but don’t want to write a full article about.
A “Nicely Nicely” Place To Start
I wanted to start with something classic. Not controversial or interesting really, It gives us our bearings to go forward. The first Tony Awards I want to look at is 1951 when the winner for Best Musical, or at the time “Outstanding Musical” as it was called, was Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls. The “Outstanding Musical” category was actually added in 1949 with Kiss Me, Kate but I’ll be honest I know very little about that show or the winner after it South Pacific. You can call me an ametuer but I just never really liked Shakespeare or Rodgers and Hammerstein, but I do love me some Guys and Dolls. This is a show I want to do a full article about sometime in the future because I find it highly interesting and it’s one of my top 5 favorite musicals so I’ll probably just touch on it here. Guys and Dolls is a highly entertaining comedy about Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit and the situations they find themselves in because of love. The show was adapted from the short story "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” by author Damon Runyon which I promise that I will be reading in the future before that main article comes out because from what I’ve heard characters and plots from his short stories are all mixed together in the musical and if that’s true this makes Guys and Dolls the Runyon equivalent of Seussical and this needs to be elaborated on further in the future. Anyways, the show opened on Broadway in 1950 and obviously was a huge success running for a 1,000+ performances. Guys and Dolls is seen as one of the essential golden age musical and in my opinion one of four defining 50’s musicals. It’s hard to tell what officially was nominated and it ran against for the Tony Award since to my knowledge nominees weren’t made public until the 10th Tony Awards in 1956 but I can make my best guesses at the very least that it’s biggest contender was a Peter Pan musical, most likely not the one you’re familiar with though. There are a lot of Peter Pan adaptations. Guys and Dolls did pretty well over all too winning 5 of the 12 possible categories including Robert Alda as best actor in a musical, George S Kaufman as best director, and Michael Kidd as best choreographer. It’s scenic designer didn’t win which I’d debate for it’s incredible sewer set but the guy who did win is listed for 3 different musicals so I suppose at least one of those was probably jaw-dropping. I honestly can’t lie, I’ve never been too interested in the original production of Guys and Dolls. I mean it’s the focal point since it was the one that won best musical but it’s nowhere near as cool as all of the stuff that came after. Like, four years later MGM (Yikes, remember them?) would release a movie based on the musical starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in the lead roles which for people not adverse in 50’s knowledge, let me tell you that I thought long and hard of what if anything to compare that too or what a movie with that kind of star power would be today and I couldn’t. I just could not. The movie itself is great and it’s held up really well but it probably helps having one of the best singers and actors of all time in the lead roles. Then there was the all black revival in 1976 which I want to know a lot more about than I do, and the 1992 revival that brought the world’s biggest glo up to the logo. I mean go look at the paper cut out one on the album from the 50’s and then the new one with the dice in the logo. It’s gorgeous and I love it and then they tried a new thing in 2009, and it was a nice try but not quite the same. Have I mentioned yet I love Guys and Dolls? You know what, let’s move on before this section becomes any longer than it already is. Oh wait, why did it win best musical? Because it’s Guys and Dolls. It’s great.
Street Gangs vs Marching Bands
Seven years later we finally have knowledge of the official nominations and jeezus beheezus criminy christmas was 1958 one heated year. There’s two musicals you need to know (Oh, Captain, Jamaica, and New Girl In Town are cool I guess) but let’s talk about the fact that Music Man and West Side Story went head to head in the same year. Robert Preston vs no one, because West Side Story’s actors got no nominations, Leonard Bernstein vs Meredith Willson (doesn’t actually matter because Best Original Score still doesn't exist), Jerome Robbins vs Bob Fosse but we already stated that we don’t really care about New Girl In Town and that was the show Fosse was tied to but it’s still a huge battle overall and still easily one of the most controversial decisions in Tony history mainly because nobody knows what should have won. If you look at it there’s a lot of good to look at. Both have stellar scores, good books, great choreography, and are all around very good shows that have earned their place as some of the most important golden age musicals. So if I had to make a decision it would be really hard. West Side Story certainly had better choreography and the Tonys supported that. Robert Preston absolutely sold the show and the Tonys reflected that and so when it comes to everything else, the story and the score. It’s certainly hard. At first thought I wanted to give the music aspect to Berstein but Willson’s marching band-esque score was new and exciting and I personally think the music in The Music Man conveys its messages better than the music in West Side Story but even that is just barely my opinion and would certainly change from day to day. So when it comes down to its book that’s the aspect that makes the winner clear to me. The Music Man certainly has a very interesting and enjoyable story that is still as endearing today as it was then but West Side Story is incomparable. Yes, it is based on Romeo and Juliet which makes it not completely original but I find that brilliant. It uses a conflict in the past in a new way to express a conflict that was serious at the time and it does end up being a slightly subtle and well done look at immigration and racism. I say slightly because it is very clearly there but I feel like it fits into the show in a way that the story merges well with its theme. To talk in full about what West Side Story’s script does right would take a long time and get off of our topic entirely, but the thing that absolutely cements this show book for me is the ending. For those of you who don’t know a spoiler alert is in affect I guess, Romeo and Juliet was written 400+ years ago but whatever. Tony dies and then one of the most ballsy things in musical theatre history happens. Seriously, Les Misérables didn’t even have the gall to do this, they added an upbeat song at the end so the audience can leave on a good note. The show ends with nothing but a funeral procession. No final song to leave the audience with just some music and it’s over. Imagine if Jean Valjean just died and the lights came up, yeah that’s how insane West Side Story is when you really look at it. To give you an idea of how crazy this would have been, My Fair Lady which opened 2 years prior changed the ending of the show to make it “more happy for the audience” when it wasn’t originally intended to be that way, but these gods came out here and said “No we’re not doing that”. Even Sweeney Todd ends with a reprise of the opening song, but West Side Story ends with nothing at all and is the ultimate spit in the face at the idea that “every musical ends with a happy ending.” It lost to The Music Man. The Music Man won Outstanding Musical in 1958. Bad decision? That’s up to you because I do really love The Music Man and plenty of people have stated they disagree with me. If you do see yourself in my party you can rest with the fact that both West Side Story and The Music Man would go onto be made into a movie in the early 60’s and only one would win The Best Picture at the Oscars...and it wasn’t the marching band one.
A Bloody Brilliant Breakthrough
By this point we’ve talked about Stephen Sondheim a fair bit, probably more than I should have to be honest but I hope you’re not tied because I plan to talk about him more, because we’re going to talk about his best show unless you think the other one is his best show which in that case go ahead and skip down to the next section and if you think I’m talking about Assassins or Company then dial your expertise back a bit because we’re not going that in depth. We’re talking about the 1979 winner for best musical, Sweeney Todd. Now back when I first joined the blog about a year ago, good lord time flies by, I had originally planned on a series discussing the history of Broadway by looking at the most influential musical of decade starting with Oklahoma, the one I did do. Not my best but what can you do. There’s several ones I had planned I’m really sad I never got to write about but the 70’s submission Sweeney Todd is one of the ones I was most excited to write. Now I don’t personally know how influential Sweeney Todd was overall. It didn’t usher in a new age of dance, or rewrite the musical standard, well wait maybe it did do that just a bit. No, the thing that makes Sweeney Todd easily the most important musical of the decade and by that standard one of the most important of all time is that it’s the musical that in my opinion definitively proved that you could have a musical about anything from a horror adaptation to a spelling bee and it could work and be well, kinda successful. It wasn't much at first but there’s absolutely no denying the success of it today and it’s a perfect example of the growth of musicals that we can go from one of Sondheim’s first ever works in 1958 which itself was an important break from a bunch of ritzy musicals that always had happy endings to a musical about a guy who splits people's throats and they show it in full graphic onstage, incredible! Sweeney Todd is easily one of the strangest adaptations and it was a significant first step because I don’t know that anyone but Sondheim and his music which is masterfully composed and deeper than just the face value of the lyrics could have made a show so certain to fail in musical format work to such an astounding degree. Sweeney Todd won Best Musical in 1979 against some competition like The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, but nothing that seriously stood against it and it’s award. It's a brilliant musical that defied all odds to become one of Sondheim’s best if not his best, but there's a camp of people you'll see that disagree.
Broadway's Biggest Battle
About ten years later It’s time for a rivalry to be born with two nominees specifically that are going to clash for Best Musical, one that many would consider the best musical theatre composer of all time’s Magnum Opus, Into The Woods. The other a similarly established composer with some big names under his belt who is about to make his magnum opus as well also known as the single most successful musical of all time that will lead to him becoming the most successful musical theatre composer of all time with his musical, The Phantom Of The Opera. It’s the Broadway battle to end all Broadway battles. Stephen Sondheim vs Andrew Lloyd Webber. Sondheim’s submission, Into The Woods, is an interesting take at fairy tale characters who find themselves tied together with the threat of giants looming overhead. The other an epic about a masked man who lives beneath an opera house and longs for one of the singers. When it comes to music, Sondheim is known for his complex scores and Into The Woods is no different. Webber also creates a great score with Phantom that conveys the dark and heavy mood of the show well. Phantom is a much bigger show overall especially with it’s showstopping scene where a giant chandelier crashes into the audiences and Into The Woods is very minimalistic and relies heavily on its music and story. In the end despite Sondheim’s tony winning history, Phantom took home the award. One of the first milestones in it’s long line of success. In a way Webber dethroned Sondheim and they’ve never had shows line up to have a rematch to this day. Do I think this decision was right? Well, yeah probably. Into The Woods is a beautiful show that I discover more about every time I see it but Phantom is bigger in just about every way. It doesn’t have the same meaning and depth to it’s music I’ve come to love Sondheim for, but it makes up for it with an epic and overwhelming story and score. There simply was no stopping Phantom once it got rolling, not even by the great Stephen Sondheim and the debate that pins Sondheim against Webber for best musical theatre composer still goes on to this day.
The Worst Tony Awards Ever
Ok, alright let’s just talk about this for a second because holy good lord this is just the worst year, the single worst Tony Awards of all time. I don’t care what you guys think of Dear Evan Hansen vs Great Comet because this one is the worst decision of all time. The year is 1991 and several musicals have just opened on Broadway and are prepared to be adjudicated for the Tony awards. In the end several musicals will get nominations but only 4 will get nominations for the most prestigious award of all, The Best Musical unless you don’t have music then it’s Best Play but also sometimes plays have music like Choir Boy or Peter and the Starcatcher so I mean… It’s the one that ends it so it’s the best, there. That’s a good enough reason. Anyways there were 4 musicals up for this award and odds are you’ve heard of all of them. The first one was Once on This Island by Ahrens and Flaherty. Another one was The Secret Garden based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett with music by Lucy Simon, who didn’t do any other shows but didn’t need to because The Secret Garden is a magnum opus and a musical that was written by a composer known for previous shows and wasn’t his Magnum Opus, Miss Saigon by Boublil and Schonberg. Anyways some seriously good musicals against Will Rogers Follies by Cy Coleman. Now a lot of you probably don’t know that musical. Before researching some things about The Secret Garden I didn’t either. I do know Cy Coleman but better for his musical Barnum so I can say at least that he has good music but nothing that could ever compare to The Secret Garden...oh and the others. Alright, now just listen because you’ve probably heard of The Secret Garden. It’s kinda like Parade in the fact that you may never have listened to it but you’ve heard someone talk about how good it is and it really is. All of the music is gorgeous and it’s orchestrated so that each character has a different type of sound. I don’t have to sell you on Miss Saigon because it’s music is pretty much Les Mis and you are lying to me if you say you haven’t listened to that and then there’s Once on This Island with music by composers who have a lot of other musicals I like a lot more, like My Favorite Year. Underrated classic, no one talks about but some of the songs are amazing. Anyways, the point is to tell you that those 3 musicals are solid and even more so with their music all to lead up to the winner of the 1991 Tony Awards for Best Musical...Will Rogers Follies. Now you’re probably asking the same question I am right now which is how? Well hold on, I’m not done, because even though it beat all of those other way better shows for Best Musical it’s onslaught was greater because it also won Best Score which if you have listened at the very least to The Secret Garden or Miss Saigon you know is absolutely ridiculous. So, back to that question of Why? Well, there’s a lot of speculation but the most popular reasoning is that Will Rogers Follies was bigger with Tony voters because it represented an older age of Broadway. whatever the reason I not agree with it and it just goes to teach the lesson that even when you think a show has no competition, that anything can happen.
Oh man, I don’t really want to end it there because 1991 was so long ago and that’s kind of a sour note but thats really i have Well maybe not everything. Alright, I've got an idea, let’s just do a speed round of a few more history facts…
Ready set Go!
Fact #1 In 1996, four years after their first musical Disney got a Best Musical win with The Lion King.
Fact #2 In 1999 Fosse and Parade fought for Best Musical. Parade being a superior show won Best Book and Best Score but lost Best Musical which is incredibly odd.
Fact #3 In 2001, The Producers won Best Musical and basically everything else leading it to become the musical with the most Tony won. A record it hold to this day.
Fact #4 In 2003 Avenue Q beat Wicked in a surprising turn of events for Best Musical. With Avenue Q recently closing Wicked got the last laugh outlasting it
Fact #5 In 2012 Disney had good odds to get their second Best Musical win with Newsies, However controversially the show lost to Once
...And that basically puts us to today where only a few years ago Hamilton swept, fans cried out when Dear Evan Hansen beat Great Comet, The Band's Visit had zero chance of losing and now it’s time for a brand new battle...for me at least. For you that battle is over and history.
I love the history of the Tony Awards and there is plenty more I’d love to talk about but I think I’ll leave that for another year, As always I’d really like to thank you for reading, It really means a lot to me and I try to write monthly so I hope to see you again the next time i do and even though I’m a day late I would like to wish you a Happy Tony Awards whether you watched it at home or saw it live in person. Me, I'll be just a few blocks away...so close yet so far. Anyways, that is it Thank you again, look for some finishing Tony stuff soon from talented writers on the blog and I hope you all have a fantastic day. Goodbye.