The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1984
For “The Best Musical Tony Award Debate”, my new weekly series, I will take a look at the musicals nominated for Best Musical in one Tony Season, discuss and debate the contenders, theorize why the winner won, and offer my personal opinions on whether or not the voters got it right. This week’s installment looks at 1984 where four incredibly diverse musicals squared-off against each other for the coveted prize of Best Musical. The contenders were La Cage aux Folles, Sunday in the Park with George, The Tap Dance Kid, and Baby, each boasting qualities that merited their respective nomination. Let’s take a look at these pieces individually before comparing and contrasting their virtues toward who should be the rightful champion.
La Cage aux Folles is a musical based on the popular 1979 Franco-Italian film of the same name. The musical concerns about a gay couple living in St. Tropez, where one of the duo Georges (Gene Barry) owns and operates a drag club and the other half of the couple, Albin (George Hearn), is its starring attraction Zsa Zsa. Complications ensure when their adult son (Georges’s biological child) announces he is engaged and is bringing his fiancée, and her conservative parents, home to meet the family. In an effort to look more like a traditional family, Albin pretends to be the perfect house wife (in drag). For 1983, La Cage aux Folles was cutting edge in regards to where Broadway musicals had gone to date, celebrating the idea that family didn’t have to hold the narrow definition that society prescribed. La Cage aux Folles features a score by Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, Mame), full of catchy and heartwarming songs, and a book by gay playwright Harvey Fierstein, who, at the time, had just come off an enormous success with his play Torch Song Trilogy about a gay drag performer who is in search of love and dignity in a world that wasn’t always so receptive. La Cage aux Folles was the winner of the 1984 Tony Award for Best Musical, an audience favorite full of joy, hope, and seemed a refreshing antidote to a cynicism that many claimed had permeated the Broadway musical.
In stark contrast to La Cage aux Folles was the Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book and direction) collaboration Sunday in the Park with George. Cerebral and melancholy (at points), the musical took its inspiration from the Georges Seurat pointillist painting “A Sunday Afternoon On the Island of La Grande Jatte” which features an array of people visiting the titular island. La Grande Jatte was a popular spot to picnic and promenade in Paris of the late 1800s. The story’s first act focuses on Seurat himself and the sacrifices he makes in order to bring the painting to fruition. Of particular note is his feelings toward the model “Dot” whom he loves deeply, but takes for granted. The show’s second act moves ahead 100 years, where the anniversary of the painting is being celebrated and Seurat’s great-great grandson, also an artist, is struggling to have his expressive voice heard. Sunday in the Park with George is an exploration of the artistic struggle and what an artist must give of themselves in order to achieve greatness. The musical is one of a handful to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The original Broadway production starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters was taped for television and released on home video, helping to secure its legacy.
The Tap Dance Kid, our third nominee of the season, is not a show that we hear about much these days and it is seldom revived. With a score by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls, Side Show) and Robert Lorick, and a book by Charles Blackwell, the musical is based on the novel Nobody’s Family is Going to Change by Louise Fitzhugh. The Tap Dance Kid followed the story of a 10-year-old, upper middle class, African-American boy who is torn by his dream to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and become a dancer, and making his more practical lawyer father happy. The Tap Dance Kidwas particularly celebrated for its choreography by Danny Daniels (who won the Tony for Best Choreography). It was an energetic show, bursting with life and exuberance. Featuring Hinton Battle(Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical), Samuel E. Wright, Hattie Winston, Martine Allard, and Alfonso Ribeiro, the show was a modest hit.
This takes us to Baby, a musical that examines the experience of bringing a child into the world. The stories of three couples were followed: Lizzie and Danny, a young college couple, Pam and Nick who are in their thirties, and Alan and Arlene a couple in their forties, each with varying feelings about having a child at the respective junctures in their lives. Baby boasted a score by Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) and David Shire (music), a team best known to that point for their hit Off-Broadway revueStarting Here, Starting Now, and a book by Sybille Pearson. Baby was an intimate show, small, episodic and character driven. The Maltby and Shire score was arguably the show’s highlight, not to mention its winning cast that included Liz Callaway, Beth Fowler, Catherine Cox, Todd Graff, James Congdon, and Martin Vidnovic. Maltby also directed the piece.
As we already know that La Cage aux Folles was the Tony winner for Best Musical this season, let us move on to discussing and debating that choice. To start, here are the number of performances each of the aforementioned musicals ran:
La Cage aux Folles: 1,761 performances
Sunday in the Park with George: 604 performances
The Tap Dance Kid: 669 performances
Baby: 241 performances
Weighing the pros and cons of each show as a Best Musical Tony contender, let’s work backward through the list. Baby obviously had the shortest run of the four and showed a struggle to find audiences over the long term. The hardest part of Baby’s uphill climb was its size. In many ways, it just belonged Off-Broadway where a small, intimate show could run for years. Even in the manageably-sized Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Baby looked like a mouse lost in a cavern. It’s a shame, because the show really has a soaring score that sounds fantastic when sung in a big theatre, but that just wasn’t enough to entice audiences. Your average Broadway theatergoer is looking for a little more bang for their buck (production values, large chorus numbers). Baby was always going to have a limited appeal on Broadway.
The Tap Dance Kid was predominantly a reason to dance, albeit a worthwhile reason to. The plot of the show was relatively thin and the story’s resolution was a bit too pat. The score was surprisingly forgettable, with only one song “Four Strikes Against Me” standing out as offering any depth of character development (and this song was performed by a supporting character). Where the show shined was whenever the Danny Daniels choreography started. Fortunately, there was plenty of it, most of it executed to aplomb by Hinton Battle and Alfonso Ribeiro. The Tap Dance Kid mined the Tony Awards for the accolades it deserved, but it was never going to win Best Musical in a season with much more polished and refined fare.
This leaves us with La Cage aux Folles and Sunday in the Park with George as the two worthiest contenders for Best Musical (though I will make an argument that another show that season, The Rink, also deserved to be nominated in this category, but that is a debate for another time). Two shows could not be more opposite from one another than Sunday in the Park with George and La Cage aux Folles. Stephen Sondheim has enjoyed an artistically successful decade in the 1970s with musicals like his Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd some of the decade’s most beloved (and award-worthy) musicals. By the 80s, Sondheim was basically deified and could seemingly do no wrong. Then came Merrily We Roll Along which was his first major bomb as composer-lyricist since Anyone Can Whistle(1964). Despite a wonderful score, “Merrily” hit the reset button on Sondheim’s career. Sunday in the Park with George would determine whether or not we would continue to hear more from Sondheim. In one respect, Sunday in the Park with George feels like Sondheim’s most deeply-personal musical, an artist (or composer) baring his soul to offer a glimpse at his process (interchangeably the processes of myriad artists). In another respect, Sunday in the Park with George felt alienating to many theatregoers who felt the show was not a story about people they knew or could relate with. Book writer and director James Lapine took a static approach to staging the piece, working in tableaux and a two-dimensional use of the stage that evoked the feeling of looking into a painting. It was all very artful, but required an invested audience who paid close attention and who had the patience for the show’s payoff. Not everyone did. Sunday in the Park with George was not the easiest sell, but the Sondheim score is packed with breathtaking music including an Act One finale that puts all other Broadway musicals to shame. This was simply a brilliant show that was not everyone.
Though many will argue with my ultimate summation (even I’m aghast, my love lies squarely with Sunday in the Park with George), La Cage aux Folles was the deserving winner of the 1984 Tony Award for Best Musical. It broke grand in telling stories about homosexual characters in a Broadway musical. The Jerry Herman score is so infectious (“The Best of Times”), soul-searching (“I Am What I Am”), funny (“A Little More Mascara”), romantic (“Song on the Sand”) and touchingly-honest (“Look Over There”). The characters were larger than life in that delightful musical theatre way that invokes the spirits of Dolly Levi and Mame Dennis. It was musical comedy with a slight edge, palatable enough for the masses and groundbreaking enough for those who like their theatre experiences to challenge.