The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1958

The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1958

Oh, you knew that sooner or later I was going to have to address this one, easily the most debated Tony Awards Best Musical outcome in history. Many people feel that West Side Story should have bested The Music Man this season, when it was, in fact, the other way around. Today, we look at the merits and detractions of both shows, as well as those of the three other nominees to debate whether Tony got it right. 

First: let’s take a look at the nominees individually: 

West Side Story was quite unlike anything Broadway had seen... ever. The idea to modernize Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and set it against the backdrop of rivaling gangs of New York City’s upper West Side was a refreshing detour from the Rodgers and Hammerstein models for musicals that had become the go-to model of the day. Leonard Bernstein composed some edgy, evocative music, pulsating with the angst central to the story, but he also created glorious melodies that captured the star-crossed romance between the Polish-American Tony and the Puerto Rican-American Maria. Stephen Sondheim, in one of his early roles as a Broadway lyricist, gave succinct voices to each of the characters, offering a taste of the fear that makes their differences so compelling. Arthur Laurent’s book was well-structured, full of tension, though sometimes a bit lacking in character development. It relied entirely on the score and dancing to propel the plot. Speaking of dance, it was Jerome Robbins’ cutting edge choreography that was West Side Story’s chief innovation, the most-seamless use of movement to tell story to date.

Meredith Willson was a king of pastiche when it came to crafting the music, lyrics, and book (the book was co-written by Franklin Lacey) for the Tony-winning Best Musical The Music Man. Setting the show in 1912, Willson evoked a nostalgia, using music styles of the period (barber shop, operetta, ragtime, vaudeville, and Sousa-inspired marches). Drawing on his experiences growing up in small town Iowa, he invented a world of eccentrically stubborn town-folk who are huckstered by a flim-flam traveling salesman. Though it is easy to dismiss Willson’s efforts as hokey and derivative, it is important to point out that, not only did he demonstrate a mastery of a variety of musical styles to create The Music Man, he also concocted an original story, something that seldom happens in Broadway musicals (most are adapted from existing stories). The show also required a charismatic leading man, which was found in Robert Preston who put an indelible stamp on the title character. 

Jamaica is a musical with such a delightful score (By Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg) it is hard to believe that it is married to a mediocre book (by the usually clever and controversial Harburg and Fred Saidy). The story concerns an island community trying to retain its identity as American commercialism threatens to take over. The songs are actually wry commentary, with “Push the Button” mockingly addressing the American need for modern convenience, “Monkey in the Mango Tree” defending the ape’s reputation in the Theory of Evolution, and “Leave the Atom Alone”, an indictment of the use of atomic energy for warfare. When Jamaica was delving into humankind’s foibles, it was on point, delicious satire of the modern age. The musical also featured a top-notch cast including Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban, as well as colorful set and costume design. 

Of all the titles on this list, Oh, Captain! is the one you hear and read the least about. With music and lyrics by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and a book by Al Morgan and Jose Ferrer, the piece is based on the 1953 film The Captain’s Paradise. It is somewhat surprising that Oh, Captain! was nominated for Best Musical considering critics were generally negative about the show, and clearly from its relatively short run, audiences weren’t exactly lining up to see the show either. The story concerned a ferry boat captain and his dalliances with ladies in the ports where he docked. 

A peculiar premise for a musical, Eugene O’Neill’s intimate play Anna Christie about a streetwalker with tuberculosis who returns home to live with her father is a dark play with tough characters who are hard to like. In adapting the play for the musical stage, composer Bob Merrill and book writer George Abbott softened the characters and plot, found (strained) reasons for comedy, and New Girl in Town was born. The musical featured choreography by Bob Fosse, who wanted to do some inventive things with dance (including a ballet set in a brothel). During the show’s out-of-town tryouts, the ballet was considered too risqué and excised from the show. Every effort was made to keep New Girl in Town just inside the parameters of decency. This also meant that it always felt a bit restrained. Gwen Verdon starred in the show, and, at the time, this made it a must-see show. Without Verdon, it is hard to say if New Girl in Town would have worked or been marketable. 

Here are the number of performances that each of the nominees ran:
West Side Story: 732 
The Music Man: 1,375
Jamaica: 558 
Oh, Captain! 192 
New Girl in Town: 431

Moving forward, I think it is fair to say that, despite each having their respective pros, JamaicaOh, Captain!, and New Girl in Town can be ruled out as true contenders for the Best Musical prize. This is really a debate about The Music Man and West Side Story and the long-held belief by many that the Tony Awards got it wrong. 

But did they? 

This is a tough call. Both musicals have proven a healthy shelf-life with successful revivals at regular intervals. Both contain beloved song standards that have secured their place in the American songbook. To pick one over the other feels a bit like Sophie’s Choice. 

The two musicals could also not be more diametrically opposed in style, mood, music and innovation. One was a feel-good musical comedy that was an enormous hit when it opened on Broadway. The other was a serious show that examined our societal ills, but also seemed to have limited audience draw. Critics were divided where West Side Story was concerned and the show was not, in its day, what the typical theatergoer was looking for. It’s hard to put ourselves in the place of a an audience in 1958, but we have to try to do so to better understand why The Music Man prevailed. 

Hate me if you must, but I feel as though the Tony Awards got it right by bestowing The Music Man with the Best Musical Tony. Were both shows to open for the first time today, West Side Story would most-likely be the victor. Today’s audiences look for edgy musical theatre. In the 1950s, a decade that, in many ways, was a post-war throwback to simpler times, the idea of a Broadway Musical was escapism. Look at the other Tony winners of the decade: South Pacific started the decade but was really a cap on the Rodgers and Hammerstein innovations of the 40s. Moving forward we see Guys & DollsThe King and IWonderful TownKismetThe Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and My Fair Lady leading up to The Music Man’s win. It would not be until the 1960s that the pendulum would swing toward an audience that was ready to embrace the darker, edgier, socially relevant and even, dare I say, cynical musical. West Side Story was ahead of its time, but would be a very important part of our getting to new and groundbreaking things. 

Some people malign The Music Man, they just don’t like it and that is certainly a legitimate feeling. Not every show is for everyone. But others speak of it in anger because it bested West Side Story at the Tonys, and that doesn’t give credence to the fact that The Music Man has proven its merit and shelf-life. The show was a big hit after all. It is also masterfully written. Would we collectively feel different about The Music Man if it had beat, say, The Pajama Game or Redhead in another season? In another year, would it have been our Best Musical without inciting debate? I think it is likely that detractors might feel differently had their West Side Story not been its competition. 

From my personal point of view, I prefer a night of The Music Man over a night of West Side Story. It satisfies me more. That is not to take away from West Side Story’s historic, (then)experimental contributions. In the end, however, taking into consideration time, place, and audience trends, The Music Man was the ideal Tony winner of 1958. And for those about to have me publicly stoned, I submit that you don’t have to win a Tony for Best Musical to change the game or for a piece to ensconce itself in our hearts. And... sometimes a Best Musical transports us, gives us joy, and takes us someplace that feels warm and familiar. 

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