Tony Awards preview: Best Musical

By David Buchanan
By David Buchanan
Mar 12 2013 08:04 am
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This season, much like last, there is a clear frontrunner for Best Musical that jeopardizes the overall suspense surrounding the category. However, unlike last year's roster, the competition for a nomination is much stronger. Eight new musicals are eligible, and practically every production has a shot at earning a nod.

Four of the eight musicals have already come and gone: “Bring It On: The Musical,” “Chaplin,” “A Christmas Story, The Musical,” and “Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson.” Any of these, with the exception of “Scandalous,” may find itself nominated for the top honor.

“Bring It On,” a stage adaptation of the popular film, was met with overall positive reaction from critics, especially due to its creative team, all of whom are Tony winners. It features a score by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In The Heights”) and Tom Kitt (“Next To Normal”), a libretto by Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”), and was directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenhuehler (“In The Heights”).  Despite this award-laden creative team, “Bring It On” may have some difficulty securing a nod merely because it closed so long ago; oft-times with the Tonys, shows that are currently running, and therefore able to profit from the award, will be nominated over better shows that are long gone. 

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Unlike “Bring It On,” “Chaplin” does not have such a shining creative team. It features a libretto by three-time Tony winner Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers,” “Hairspray”), a score by Broadway newcomer Christopher Curtis, and direction and choreography by Broadway veteran Warren Carlyle, who has never been nominated for a Tony. Although the reviews of this production were so-so at best, Rob McClure’s performance as Charlie Chaplin was praised – watch out for him in the Best Actor category – as was previous Tony nominee Christiane Noll. However, “Chaplin” closed in January, which could adversely affect its chances of receiving a nomination.

“A Christmas Story, The Musical,” another stage adaptation of a film, also boasts a creative team of mostly Broadway newcomers: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul provided the score; Joseph Robinette wrote the libretto; and Tony winner John Rando (“Urinetown: The Musical”) directed the production. “A Christmas Story” received positive reviews overall, and had a very successful holiday run. Herein lies a problem, however, as no holiday show has ever received a nomination for this top honor. Might “A Christmas Story” set a new precedent? Based on the critical reception, it may be inclined to do just that if it can be remembered come time for nominations.   

The last new musical of these four, “Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,” has virtually no chance at appearing in this category. Although it boasted a talented cast, featuring two-time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello, and two time Tony winner and five-time nominee George Hearn (“La Cage Aux Folles,” “Sunset Boulevard”), the production was stunted at inception because of its weak libretto, written by Kathy Lee Gifford. Some may say that “Scandalous,” which ran only 29 performances, is in a similar situation as last year’s Best Musical nominee “Leap of Faith,” which ran an even weaker 19 performances. Although “Scandalous” is similar to “Leap of Faith” in almost every way, such as its themes, critical reception, and the short length of run, the latter premiered in April, only a month before Tony Award nominations, while the former will have been long forgotten.

The four musicals that have yet to open, which are “Hands on a Hardbody,” “Kinky Boots,” “Matilda The Musical,” and “Motown: The Musical,” appear more poised to receive nominations merely because they are premiering closer to the start of Tony season. Of these, “Matilda The Musical” is the undeniable frontrunner to win the award.

“Matilda,” which is based on the classic Roald Dahl children's book, has come from the West End, where it was critically praised. The production made history at the Laurence Olivier Awards, winning a record seven of ten bids – including Best New Musical. It is poised to repeat that sweep at the Tonys. “Matilda” features a libretto written by BAFTA Award winner Dennis Kelly (“Pulling”), music by Tim Minchin, direction from Tony Award winner and five-time nominee Matthew Marchus (“God of Carnage”), and choreography by Tony champ Peter Darling (“Billy Elliot: The Musical”).

The show nipping at Matilda’s heels is “Kinky Boots,” a new musical based on the film of the same name. Out of town tryouts in Chicago were very well received, foreshadowing a warm reception on Broadway as well. A nomination is certainly a guarantee given the weight of the creative team: three-time Tony Award champ Harvey Fierstein (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Hairspray”) wrote the libretto, Grammy Award winner Cyndi Lauper wrote the score, and Tony Award winner and six-time nominee Jerry Mitchell (“La Cage Aux Folles”) directed and choreographed the production. 

“Hands on a Hardbody” will be a harder sell to audiences and Tony voters alike.  Yet another new musical based on a movie, this one a documentary, “Hands on a Hardbody” features a libretto by Tony-nominee and Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”), music by Trey Anastasio of the rock group Phish, and lyrics by Amanda Green, who also contributed to the score of “Bring It On.” The cast features Tony nominees Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster.  Preview buzz for this unconventional concept is uneven, which may indicate reviews from critics in a few weeks.

The final eligible show is an audience-favorite jukebox musical, this time featuring the catalogue of Motown music. “Motown: The Musical” features a book by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Berry Gordy, and stars Tony Award nominee Brandon Victor Dixon as the musicmaker. Jukebox musicals have certainly not been ignored at the Tony Awards: “Mamma Mia!” was nominated for Best Musical in 2002, and “Jersey Boys” won the award in 2006. Based on the reviews for the show, “Motown: The Musical” could certainly find its way into the category, or it could go the route of “Baby It’s You!,” which was critically panned and virtually ignored at the Tony Awards.

Note: The Tony Awards committee may deem “Cinderella” eligible as a Best Musical nominee; see Tony Awards preview: Best Musical Revival for analysis of that production.

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