The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1991

The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1991

After taking a short hiatus and some much needed rest and relaxation, Theatreguy is back to continue write about Broadway musicals of the past, present, and the future. One of the new additions I am making to my writing is a weekly series called The Best Musical Tony Debate. Each week, 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. 

For our first season of discussion, I have chosen 1991. It was a contentious year, with four terrific musicals vying for the prize, each with their ardent supporters:  The Will Rogers FolliesMiss SaigonThe Secret Garden, and Once on This Island. All of these musicals have proven to have a healthy shelf-life, and each of them had plenty of great components that made them worthy of their nominations. Ultimately, the winner was The Will Rogers Follies. Did the voters get it right? Let’s take a look at each of the musicals individually before playing them against each other.

The Will Rogers Follies is a musical written by members of Broadway’s old guard, respected groundbreakers and multi-Tony-winners of the business. The show featured music by Cy Coleman (Sweet CharityCity of Angels), lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the TownOn the Twentieth Century) and a book by Peter Stone (1776Woman of the Year). At the musicals helm was director-choreographer Tommy Tune who had just won Tony Awards for Best Director and Best Choreographer the season prior for his work on the startlingly original Grand Hotel. The Will Rogers Folliestold the story of the titular orator, radio personality, comedian, and politician through framework of a Ziegfeld Follies show (Rogers had been a headlining attraction of several installments of the Ziegfeld Follies). Though this convention was clever and expertly handled, it did leave the show light on substance, its book nothing more than a string of connective tissue holding together a thin biographical plot. The musical starred Keith Carradine (as Rogers), Dee Hoty, and Cady Hoffman. 

Miss Saigon was the most anticipated musical coming to Broadway since The Phantom of the Operahad opened in 1988. The piece, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Scöenberg  who had composed the score for the epic Les Misérables, along with lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. (Closer than Ever), had unparalleled hype and controversy behind it. The musical faced a certain amount of backlash when producer Cameron Mackintosh insisted on bringing in Jonathan Pryce, who had played the role of the Engineer (an Asian character) in the West End production. Actors Equity put their foot down, insisting that the role be played by an Asian-American performer.  Mackintosh decided not to bring the show to Broadway, forcing AE to reverse its decision. This stand-off may have influenced voters against naming Miss Saigon Best Musical, but Pryce took home a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical regardless. Miss Saigon also introduced Broadway audiences to Lea Salonga who played Kim, a Vietnamese woman who falls in love with an American soldier during the Vietnam War on the night of the fall of Saigon . Salonga would win a Tony for her performance as well. However, what most everyone seemed most excited about in regards to Miss Saigon’s arrival was the promise of a spectacular helicopter that would fly to the stage during the show’s climactic scene. 

When The Secret Garden came to Broadway in 1991, it did so as a bit of a dark horse. Not much was known about the show and little was anticipated other than another adaptation of classic children’s book for the musical stage. True, the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel had its fans, so there was a small but invested built-in audience for this musical with a score by Lucy Simon (music) and Marsha Norman (lyrics and book) piece. Susan H. Schulman directed the production which boasted a cast that included many Broadway favorites including Mandy Patinkin, Rebecca Luker, John Cameron Mitchell, Alison Fraser, Robert Westenberg, and Daisy Eagan (who won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical at age 11).  Marsha Norman also won for Best Book of a Musical. The two stand-outs of the production were its haunting score (which incorporated folk instrumentation) and its Tony-winning set by Heidi (then Landesman, now Ettinger), a stunning combination of valentine decoupage, surreal backdrops, and ornate, interlocking pieces, picture frames, and chandeliers. 

Finally, there was Once on This Island, which it is important to note, won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival at the 2018 Tony Awards. For its first go-around, the musical was nominated in several categories, but walked away empty. This may have had something to do with the smallness and simplicity of the original production, which was inventively staged by Graciela Daniele, but felt like a direct transition from Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons (which it essentially was). The show just didn’t feel as big and as “Broadway” as the others. What it did do was to introduce to Broadway the composing team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, a combination which would yield some amazing scores down the road including RagtimeA Man of No Importance, and Anastasia. Not that the Caribbean-flavored score for Once on This Island was anything to sneeze at. Its vibrancy and vitality are the driving force of the show which is basically a fairytale, a folk tale, and a love story all rolled into one. The musical starred La Chanze who was Tony-nominated for her performance as Ti Moune, the island girl who goes in search of love. 

So we already know which musical won the Tony, but let us, for a moment, see how many performances each of these shows ran:

The Will Rogers Follies: 981 performances
Miss Saigon: 4,092 performances
The Secret Garden: 709 performances
Once on This Island: 469 performances

Though a long run doesn’t necessarily distinguish a piece as “Best Musical” it is interesting to note that Miss Saigon outran all of the other three shows combined. Clearly, Miss Saigon was the audience favorite of the season. It is also important to look at how shows come back around. Once on This Island and Miss Saigon have both received critically acclaimed revivals in recent years, and The Secret Garden continues to be mentioned as a possible property for returning to Broadway. The Will Rogers Follies is seldom (if ever) discussed for a Broadway return. 

From here forward, everything is speculation on my part. Why did The Will Rogers Follies win the Tony for Best Musical? It was the easy choice, arguably the show that would tour best to middle America. It also was written and directed by members of the “Old Guard”, tried and true talents of the American Musical Theatre who had churned out some of theatre’s most-enduring musical theatre pieces. Also, it was unlikely that Tony voters were going to reward the strong arming approach of Cameron Mackintosh by giving Miss Saigon the Best Musical prize.The Will Rogers Follies is by no means a bad musical, but in comparison to the other entries in this category. The only category where is excelled was in the category of Best Choreography, Tune’s dances joyous, even relentless, fun. 

So what deserved to win the Best Musical Tony? I must admit that, from a personal point of view, Miss Saigon is my least favorite show on this list. For me, it was over-produced, an intimate story that would have been better served by a smaller production. Miss Saigon was staged like an enormous pageant, and though the spectacle was dazzling, it ultimately undercut the power of the central story.  Also, I’ve always found the melodies and song placement to be an agreeable (if uninspired) imitation of Les Misérables, with many of the numbers matching up, song by song, with those sung on the barricades. It felt formulaic. Maltby’s lyrics, however, are intelligent and sharp, more character-driven and insightful than those of Les Miserables 

The Secret Garden had more emotional pull for me, though I do have to confess that only a few of its songs stuck with me the first time around. It wasn’t until the cast album was released that I reveled in the glory of the entire score (which is wonderful). I had never read the Burnett book, but I found the story heartachingly moving and, through its dark and unyielding presentation, far more satisfying than the other Best Musical nominees. Later, when I DID read the novel, I was impressed with how Marsha Norman had deepened the characters with subtext and shaped the plot into a compelling framework for musical theatre storytelling. The chief drawback for The Secret Garden was that it was a melancholy evening of theatre. Yes, it had a hopeful ending, but the road to that ultimate happy conclusion was marked with a lot of sadness. For me, I’ve always liked this kind of theatrical emotional catharsis, but most audiences do not. The Secret Garden was always going to have a limited appeal. 

Once on This Island felt innovative and fresh, the score joyous and at least half of it catchy in that glorious way that you walk out of the theatre humming the melodies.  It’s story is less about being cleverly original than it is about taking something simple and staging it cleverly. Graciela Daniele was the real star of the original production (just as Michael Arden was the star of the revival) with her seamless direction that made the storytelling organic and inventive. It breathed an energy and lightness that few musicals ever achieve. Still, it was not what many ticket buyers expect when walking into the theatre. The cost of tickets almost demands more spectacle than that original production of Once on This Island had to offer. Smaller musicals seldom succeed on Broadway, so it would take both time and a different approach to give Once on This Island the spotlight it deserved. 

In the end, and as much as I don’t particularly want to admit it, Miss Saigon probably should have won the Best Musical Tony Award that season (though I’d have personally given it to The Secret Garden). The show definitely has proven its impact, durability, and popularity over the years. How about you? Which of these four musicals do you feel is the most deserving of the 1991 Tony Award for Best Musical? 

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