What If? The Great Tony Award Rewind – Part One
The Tony Awards are often a funny thing. Who or what wins in each category is sometimes tricky to explain, with deserving choices overlooked for more popular or more marketable winners. This is particularly interesting to discuss and debate in juggernaut years such as when Hamilton swept the awards. Would Waitress have taken home the prize or would more support have been thrown behind Bright Star? This got me thinking about other years where the Best Musical winners were essentially foregone conclusions. What might have happened if those titles had never been in play? Read along and debate with me.
1957 – My Fair Lady
Other nominees: Bells Are Ringing, Candide and The Most Happy Fella
Time has facilitated a deep affection for Candide and The Most Happy Fella, especially for their lush scores, intelligent lyrics, and rich orchestrations. Neither, however, was given the appreciation they deserved back in 1957, and neither show had a tremendously long run. Candide lasted for only 73 performances, and closed months before the Tony nominations were even announced. The Most Happy Fella did far better than that at 676 performances, but this wouldn’t have been considered a break-out hit like My Fair Lady’s 2,717 performances. In my estimation, the winner would have been Bells Are Ringing which featured a star performance by Judy Holliday, a popular score by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and a lively, musical comedy feel-good plot. Let’s remember that Holliday was such a star that she bested Julie Andrews in the Best Actress category, an indication of how much allure she brought to Bells Are Ringing. The show ran for a solid 924 performances and was also made into a film. Would a Tony win have propelled this musical to greatness? Probably not. Time has not been kind to its plot, but its score remains as vibrant and heartfelt as ever.
1958 – The Music Man
Other nominees: West Side Story, New Girl in Town, Oh, Captain! and Jamaica
This particular year always stirs up debate about the reasons why West Side Story deserved to win over The Music Man, an argument that I don’t particularly agree with since I feel The Music Man is one of the most perfectly crafted musicals ever written with a score that never disappoints. It’s easy to understand the opposition who praise West Side Story, it’s daring and game changing approach to musical theatre (especially in regards to dance), but in 1957, the larger world was not quite ready for West Side Story’s audacious honesty. Though the musical Jamaica is full of some wonderful music by Harold Arlen and the always amusing satire of E.Y. Harburg, it, too, may have been a little too cutting edge for the 1950s. Oh, Captain! may have been a safe bet but, despite decent reviews, it was only around for 192 performances. My money would have been on the musical New Girl in Town, especially since its star Gwen Verdon and the choreography by Bob Fosse were both big draws (Verdon had just completed her run in the immensely popular Damn Yankees choreographed by Fosse). Though it ran a lackluster 431 performances, the musical adaptation Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie (softened and warmed) New Girl in Town would most likely have been the winner, though not the deserving one.
1960 – The Sound of Music and Fiorello!
Other nominees: Gypsy, Once Upon a Mattress, and Take Me Along
Why I am even bothering with this year is beyond me because the obvious answer is Gypsy. I am still a bit flummoxed as to how the tie that happened this year happened. Fiorello! has a fine score and an interesting, if limited book, that hasn’t held up well. The Sound of Music, though less treacly than its eventual film inception, is Rodgers and Hammerstein lite and appeals to the family audience. The audience for the beloved Mary Martin probably factors in. The combination of these two titles in the winning spot is a peculiar marriage, but clearly both musicals were popular with audiences and critics alike. If you take these two off of the plate, you are left with Gypsy, Once Upon A Mattress (a charming fractured fairy tale) and Take Me Along (a hokey slice of Americana that seems to be riding the coattails of The Music Man). No, in the end, Gypsy is the winner because it has a great score, a compelling story, a diva-turn by the brassy, balls to the wall Ethel Merman, and is one of the great showbiz musicals of all time.
1964 – Hello, Dolly!
Other nominees: Funny Girl, She Loves Me, and High Spirits
With Bette Midler and company preparing to come to Broadway with a revival of Hello, Dolly! next year, its fun to look back to the Dolly juggernaut of 1964. With the popular revival of She Loves Me playing on Broadway and the popular revival of Funny Girl currently running in London, it is interesting how many titles from this season are still in play over fifty-years after their original runs. High Spirits is the only one that has faded, and let’s face it, Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (on which the musical is based) is already a perfect comedy and gains nothing from being turned into a musical. The musical isn’t terrible, its just not particularly memorable. Of the two titles left, She Loves Me was just too small and intimate to outshine the sparkle and pizazz of the electrified performance of Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Let’s not forget Jule Styne’s and Bob Merrill’s indelible score just brimming with hits helps propel Funny Girl to the Tony win!
Join me for “Part Two” in a few days when I take on The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Titanic and a few other juggernauts put through the revisionist time machine of my speculation.