Tony Awards preview: What is ahead for Best Musical?

Unlike most years, there is no clear frontrunner for the Best Musical Tony Award for 2014-15. Last season, the battle lines were clearly drawn between “A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” with the former, a critical darling, emerging victorious over the latter, a popular jukebox musical.

This season, no strong candidates have emerged so far because only one new musical — “Honeymoon in Vegas,” the stage version of the 1992 film comedy with Tony Danza starring in the James Caan role — is still running. 

There have only been two other original musicals to have opened on Broadway, both with pedigrees from the pop music world: “Holler If Ya Hear Me” and “The Last Ship.”

“Holler” employed the music and lyrics of the late rapper Tupac Shakur to tell the story of an ex-con’s attempts to go straight. It got blasted by the critics and did not survive the summer.

The Last Ship” featured a score by 16-time Grammy winner Sting with a book by Tony winners John Logan (“Red“) and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”), and focused on a love triangle against the backdrop of a failing English town not unlike the one Sting grew up in. “Ship” floundered on the rocks of mixed reviews and never found an audience. The rock star-composer-lyricist joined the cast in the hopes of bolstering the box office, but he could only stay for a brief time because of contracted concert appearances. Sales increased during his tenure, but advanced sales for after his depature were so weak, the producers were forced to scuttle the “Ship.” It will probably pull down a Best Original Score nod for Sting and possibly a Best Musical nomination, but it’s highly unlikely to win. The last time the Best Musical Tony was given to a closed show was in 1968 with “Hallelujah, Baby!”

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Honeymoon in Vegas,” a wild comedy about a high-stakes gambler’s efforts to woo the prospective bride of a nebbishy momma’s boy, was doing terribly at the box office during previews, but the reviews have been mostly positive with the critics praising the lead performances by Danza and Rob McClure (Tony nominee for “Chaplin“) as the anxious groom, and the score by three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (he won last year for the score and orchestrations of “Bridges of Madison County” as well as for the score of “Parade” in 1999). But the box office is still shaky and the show might not last till the end of the season.

There are seven musical shows still to open before the Tony cut-off date of April 23 and the strongest Best Musical candidates appear to be “Fun Home” and “Finding Neverland.”

Fun Home,” with a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline or Change,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), is based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel about how her coming out as a lesbian caused a family crisis, particularly for her closeted gay father. When it played Off-Broadway last season at the Public Theater, it won almost every possible award for Best Musical including the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Lortel and the Outer Critics Circle (Off-Broadway shows are ineligible for the Tony.)

Finding Neverland,” the musical about J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, has a score by British pop musician Gary Barlow of the group Take That and staging by Tony winner Diane Paulus (“Pippin,” “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”). It generated a lot of positive buzz during its pre-Broadway try-out at the American Repertory Theater where Paulus is artistic director. “Neverland” also marks the Broadway debut of Harvey Weinstein, who oversaw the 2004 film version, as a lead producer. He always plays to win as witnessed by his successful 1998 Best Picture Oscar campaign for “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan.” He managed to get a number from the show on last year’s Tony Awards before it even opened out of town and will no doubt mount an equally robust Tony offensive.  

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The remaining five shows — “An American in Paris,” “It Shoulda Been You,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Something Rotten” and “The Visit” — are a mixed bag.

An American in Paris,” based on the Oscar-winning 1951 MGM musical starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, features tunes from the George and Ira Gershwin canon and a revised book by Tony nominee Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss”). It’s been playing to raves in the French capital and could be a big hit.

It Shoulda Been You” is a musical comedy about a crazy wedding with a book and lyrics by Brian Hargrove, the husband of David Hyde-Pierce who directs. Hyde-Pierce is a Broadway favorite and the show stars Tony winners Tyne Daly (“Gypsy”) and Harriet Harris (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”) as the respective mothers of the bride and groom. It’s been seen in a regional production at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse where some reviewers labeled it a sitcom.

Doctor Zhivago,” based on Boris Pasternak’s epic novel of the Russian Revolution which also provided the basis for the 1965 film, has the Great-Literature-Les-Miz vibe going for it.

Something Rotten,” a musical set in Shakespearean times starring “Smash” co-stars Brian d’Arcy James and Christian Borle, has an impressive creative line-up with direction and choreography by Tony winner Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon,” “Aladdin“) and music and lyrics by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick. Wayne is a Grammy winner whose songs have been recorded by such artists as Eric Clapton and Garth Brooks. Karey’s screenplay credits include “Chicken Run” and “The Smurfs 2.” The duo have collaborated on the book with John O’Farrell, the author of “The Man Who Forgot His Wife.”   

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The Visit” will open on the last possible date for Tony consideration and will star Chita Rivera in what is being talked about as her final Broadway musical performance. It also features the last score by composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb (the team behind “Cabaret” and “Chicago”) so there is sentiment on its side. In addition, the book is by four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally whose “It’s Only a Play” is the biggest hit this season. But the material is very dark. Rivera plays a millionairess who return to her hometown to exact revenge on the man (played by Tony winner Roger Rees) who spurned her as a girl. The show was originally intended as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury in 2001, but she bowed out due to the death of her husband. “The Visit” has had numerous regional productions with Rivera but the fact that it’s taken so long to get to Broadway could work against it at the Tonys.

As of right now, the Best Musical Tony race is up in the air with too many variables to pick a sure winner. Look for “Fun Home” and “Finding Neverland” to pick up the most nominations with “Home” having the possible edge because of its strong performance Off-Broadway last season. “Honeymoon in Vegas” might have a good showing if it survives.

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