The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1993
Going into the 1992-1993 theatre Season, most theatergoers were anticipating the forthcoming musical The Goodbye Girl to be the big hit and Best Musical victor at the Tony Awards. By June of 1993, that supposed kick was to be challenged by two musicals that would instead face-off against each other for the Best Musical Tony: The Who’s Tommy and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Throw in the long-running British import Blood Brothers, and 1993 was suddenly a very uncertain outcome in regards to the Tony. Even on the night of the show, we remained on tenterhooks and even saw the possibility of a tie. Ultimately, Kiss of the Spider Woman would be the victor, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of its highly publicized and mostly maligned New Musicals production at SUNY Purchase a few years earlier.
Let’s take a look at the four nominees individually, and then debate their merits as a Best Musical Tony contender.
A musical about a gay window dresser named Molina (in Argentina) who’s been incarcerated for a morals charge, suddenly finding himself sharing his cell with a heterosexual revolutionary, hardly seems like the ideal basis for a Broadway Musical. Based on Manuel Puig’s novel and play of the same name, the story of Kiss of the Spider Woman is almost entirely confined to a jail cell, a limiting scenario when musicals tend to be big and open, with places to dance. Ahhh- but we forget we are in good hands with Kander and Ebb writing the score, Terrence McNally adapting the piece for the stage, and Hal Prince with the directorial reigns in hand. Kiss of the Spider Woman was a revelation of theatre, proof in the pudding that, with the right approach (almost) any story can be reimagined as a musical. The authors took Molina’s infatuation with old movies and turned it into an infatuation with movie musicals, particularly a mysterious starlet named Aurora. Molina used his memories of her films as a mental escape from the harshness of the prison. When things would get intolerable, he would launch into monologues about these films and suddenly the prison bars and its dank cells became the locales of Aurora’s musicals, the star stepping out of the shadows and enticing Molina to become her co-star. Of course, each musical sequence was a commentary on what was happening in Molina’s life. There was only one film Molina never cared for, one where Aurora played the ominous Spider Woman, an angel of death. He would see her climbing through the labyrinthine bars of the prison like it was her own enormous spider web, waiting to usher him to his death. He could feel his impending demise throughout the show. Chita Rivera, one of Broadway’s most durable triple threats played Aurora to Brent Carver’s Molina, and it was theatrical chemistry that crackled like St. Elmo’s Fire. Anthony Crivello played Molina’s cellmate Valentine, a character who befriends the gay man and eventually makes love to him as a ploy to get him to deliver information to the outside world upon his release. Kiss of the Spider Woman wasn’t exactly a feel-good, happily ever after musical, but it was gritty, powerful, on a level with Prince’s greatest directing achievements and in the vein of first-tier Kander and Ebb such as Cabaret and Chicago.
The band The Who had released the album “Tommy” in 1969 and it was an enormous success. Not just a selection of songs like most records of the day, “Tommy” sought to tell the story of a little boy scarred by a violet event, retreating into himself and becoming deaf, dumb, and blind, then going on to being “The Pinball Wizard”, an international sensation at playing pinball.The album had a story, and that story would eventually be turned into a 1975 film starring a parade of stars from the recording industry, including Roger Daltry, Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Ann-Margaret. In 1992, original member of The Who Pete Townshend and director Des McAnuff reimagined Tommy for the musical theatre stage, premiering the piece at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California. The show was enthusiastically received and The Who’s Tommyjourney to Broadway the following year, opening at the St. James Theatre in the spring of 1993. McAnuff’s production was full of bells, whistles, and lights, as if the story were set inside an enormous pinball machine. Utilizing the relentless pulse and heightened emotion of The Who’s music, McAnufff staged a pageant, a spectacle, taking the loosely-threaded plot of the Tommy album and tightening it into a compelling story about how we overcome adversity. Even though it had taken on a new musical theatre form, The Who’s Tommy still felt like a rock concert AND a Broadway musical. The show’s chief weakness was the lack of depth given to the characters, ciphers really, rather than fully drawn. This had a distancing effect, keeping the audience at arms-length. This did now, however, make The Who’s Tommy an unentertaining evening of theatre. Far from it. There was enough great music, spectacle, riveting performances, and palpable energy filling the theatre that the show was truly an event. In many ways, it captured the rock concert origins that inspired it.
A long-running hit in Britain, Blood Brothershad been around for ten-years before it finally crossed the Atlantic and came to Broadway. The musical was completely written (book, music, lyrics) by Willy Russell, and was a soap-opera-esque, epic tale about two twin boys separated at birth and the superstition that, if they ever learn of their blood relation to the other, both will die. The characters of the show were quite endearing, and much of the score is quite emotionally-charged (despite an annoying, recurring song about Marilyn Monroe), and it was easy to get caught up in the tragic tale of the Johnstone twins. The boys grow up just blocks apart from each other, one living in poverty while the other is raised with all the advantages. Coincidentally, they become best friends, but their lives take different paths even as they both fall in love with the same girl. The show’s Broadway berth was relatively successful, running almost as long as The Who’s Tommy and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Audiences either embraced it, enjoying all the British references and the tendency toward melodrama, or they hated it for the same reasons. Stephanie Lawrence and Con O’Neill from the London revival of Blood Brothers played the leads in the Broadway production, both giving touching performances that were Tony-nominated. In the end, Blood Brothers was probably just too British for most theatre audiences.
So what happened to our poor The Goodbye Girl, which we were all sure was going to be the season’s biggest hit? It was based on the popular 1977 Neil Simon film of the same name. The story followed a dancer named Paula with a daughter who is forced to cohabitate in a small NYC apartment with an eccentric actor. For the stage version, Simon returned to write the book, with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by David Zippel. One of the show’s biggest problems was that it was based on an intimate film that relied upon three performers in close quarters, getting in each other’s space for the comedy to work. For the stage production, the musical was opened up and spread out to several locales, and despite a clever attempt to recreate that small apartment, the scenes in it never felt confined, just busy as the performers navigated a rotating maze of clutter. Another issue was the casting of Paula. The character is supposed to be plain Jane, a person who has been left myriad times by many men. It may just be my personal opinion here, but there is nothing plain or “easy to leave” about Bernadette Peters, one of Broadway’s most-alluring and unique actresses. Richard Dreyfuss had won an Academy Award for playing the arrogant, egocentric actor Elliott Garfield. The answer to the stage Elliott was Martin Short, a winning stage comedian, but wacky and whimsical, not the insecure ass that made the tension between his character and Paula work. Even before The Goodbye Girl arrived on Broadway, there were signs of problems. The musical’s original director Gene Saks, a longtime Neil Simon collaborator, was fired from the show and replaced with Michael Kidd. The score went through many revisions and the final result was a mixed bag, some of it quite wonderful with Hamlisch concocting some wonderful earworms and Zippel penning some deliciously acerbic and witty lyrics.
So, those are out competitors for the Best Musical Tony of 1993. Now, let us take a look at how they fared in terms of number of performances before closing:
Kiss of the Spider Woman: 904
The Who’s Tommy: 899
Blood Brothers: 840
The Goodbye Girl: 188
The Goodbye Girl received a barrage of bad reviews> Some of the criticism was warranted and some of it not. It most likely ran as long as it did on the name power of Bernadette Peters and Martin Short. As soon they prepared to depart the show and a new cast was announced (Sheryl Lee Ralph and Rick Moranis), ticket sales dwindled and the show shuttered before the new cast could would ever see a rehearsal. In the end, The Goodbye Girl was not horribly bad. In a weak season, it probably would have run a respectable year. It just couldn’t measure up to the more compelling shows of the season.
Blood Brothers simply was not going to win Best Musical because (and I love Blood Brothers) it required a certain willing suspension of disbelief and an understanding of British superstition to make the story accessible. Those who were invested in such things found a certain joy in Blood Brothers, but not everyone has those tools when walking into the theatre. Also, you had to be a bit of a soap opera fan to thoroughly accept and enjoy the heightened drama of Blood Brothers. It’s a unique musical, but too divisive to win Best Musical. It just wasn’t for everyone. But the same could be said about Kiss of the Spider Woman.
The night of the 1993 Tony Awards kept us on edge, as The Who’s Tommy and Kiss of the Spider Woman seemed to be splitting the awards. In the instance of Best Score, the two musicals actually tied. Many viewers thought it a strong possibility that the two shows would share the Best Musical prize as well, but Kiss of the Spider Woman was the lone recipient.
Did it deserve to win?
It did. Kiss of the Spider Woman was one of the most original musicals to emerge from the 1990s, a devastatingly poignant story, executed masterfully, and possessing a depth that The Who’s Tommy just couldn’t touch. It won Best Book of a Musical, tied for Best Score, Best Costumes, and all three of its leads took home trophies for their unforgettable performances. McAnuff won the Tony for Best Director on The Who’s Tommy, as did Wayne Cilento for his imaginative choreography. It also took home the awards for its unparalleled lighting and set designs. In the end, it came down to a matter of substance, and Kiss of the Spider Woman was the more compelling show.