The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1973
This week’s debate takes us back to 1973, a year were anything was likely to happen and where two musicals (out of four nominees) were really the chief contenders for Best Musical, and two others that had much to offer but would ultimately be outshined. This was, after all, the decade where the team of composer Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince would revolutionize musical theatre. After their last collaboration Follies had failed to win the Tony for Best Musical (oh, a debate for another day) would they regain the crown in 1973 with A Little Night Music? This would also be the decade where director-choreographer Bob Fosse would solidify his signature style and make some bold leaps in his efforts to tell story through dance. Would 1973’s Pippin, with a score by Stephen Schwartz, be the vehicle that would catapult Fosse’s work to a new level? The other nominees of the yea held as much promise: Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope was a musical revue about the African-America experience in the United States with music and lyrics by Micki Grant. The 1970s was a groundbreaking decade for musicals that finally explored stories of back culture. Would Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope prove to be a an important spoke on this revolutionary wheel? The final nominee was a stage adaptation of the film Some Like It Hot, the classic Billy Wilder film comedy that starred Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Redubbed Sugar, the musical would receive a score by two of the most-qualified members of the old guard, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill who had collaborated on Funny Girl. 1973 had such a wide variety in styles, themes, stories and characters, and the debate is like comparing apples to oranges to pears to watermelons. So let’s take a look at the four nominees individually and weight their merits and their flaws.
Pippin was an explosive piece of musical theatre in that it employed almost every magic trick, sparkle, and smoke screen to give the illusion of being a musical of deep substance. The plot of Pippin is relatively thin, episodic in nature, the “Everyman’s” journey to find his purpose in life. Under Fosse’s guidance, Pippin grew and stretched into a direction that the show’s authors, composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and book writer Roger O. Hirson hadn’t initially intended. The title character, a fictionalized version of the first born son of King Charlemagne, has just returned home from university and assumes that his purpose in life is to do great things. Pushed and prodded by a band of sinister players, Pippin must fight to maintain his idealistic and ambitious nature that will ultimately take him to his purpose. Fosse imagined that journey as a relentless, seamless, quest told through movement, the dance of the show becoming an omnipresent, machine-like narrator through which this slight story could be magnified and told. Each dance sequence outdid the one prior, and Fosse’s imagination for the using the medium to convey war, sex, and self-discovery were truly the show’s highlights. Schwartz provided an agreeable score, sometimes enchanting, but even such effective numbers as “Corner of the Sky”, “Magic to Do” and “Morning Glow” took backseats to Fosse’s pageantry.
Sugar, set in 1929, follows two down-on-their-luck musicians who accidentally happen upon the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In an effort to hide from the men who wish to eliminate them as witnesses, they disguise themselves as women and join an all-female band heading to Florida to play one of the resort hotels there. They soon befriend a member of the band, the sexy and kindhearted “Sugar”, a singer with whom they both find themselves attracted. As both go about gaining her confidence and doing their best to win her over for their own desires, life becomes much more complicated when the goons from which they are hiding, check-in to the hotel. Peter Stone, who has an enduring reputation writing the books for musicals, faithfully adapted the screenplay for the stage. Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, who individually and together been responsible for many terrific scores, provided the music and lyrics for Sugar. The musical also featured two stand-out performances by Robert Morse and Tony Roberts as Jerry/Daphne and Joe/Josephine, respectively. In many ways, Sugar was a throwback to the musical comedies of the 50s and 60s, a last vestige of a musical comedy style that Broadway seemed to be growing away from in the 1970s.
Musical revues are interesting creatures where Best Musical nominees are concerned. They seem to have a hard row to hoe toward securing a the big prize, predominantly for the reason that they are delivering a Broadway musical outside the structure of a book musical. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done (Ain’t Misbehavin’ comes to mind as one that did) and Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Hope certainly was well-received. Utilizing a variety of musical styles including gospel, jazz, funk, soul, calypso, and soft rock. The piece tackled such subjects as black power, feminism, the plight of urban America, ghetto life, and student protests. Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Hope was directed by Vinnette Carroll and choreographed by George Faison. The whole revue was conceived and written by singer, actress, writer and composer Micki Grant. The fact that an African-American, female composer had her work produced on Broadway, was, in the early 1970s, an achievement unto itself. But Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Hope was not simply a benchmark in social progress, it was an insightful, emotionally-charged revue that had something to say.
Stephen Sondheim had emerged as the decade’s most-innovative composer, having boldly taken musical theatre in new directions with his 1970 musical Company. Director Harold Prince was the perfect match for Sondheim’s work, innovative in his own right, possessing a keen eye and a cleverness that helped to shape these musicals into events of startling originality. The two would prove just as daring with Folliesthe following season. Would their third collaboration reveal a used-up bag of tricks? Hardly. Their next piece, found them adapting (with the help of book writer Hugh Wheeler) Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night into what would ultimately be titles A Little Night Music. Set in Sweden around 1900, the story follows several romantic couples whose indiscretions and secret longings have resulted in a handful of complicated love triangles, with the show’s ultimate responsibility to sort things out and make sure the right lover is matched to the right lover. A Little Night Music was probably less-daring than the prior two Sondheim-Prince collaborations, but in many ways came closest to perfection. A Little Night Music glided through the trials and tribulations of love and marriage, finding the perfect balance of wit and melancholy, the two byproducts of most romantic interludes. It offered astute commentary about our stations in life and how degree of affluence often dictates the rules by which we are allowed to engage in the games of love. A Little Night Music was a cynical love story that didn’t necessarily provide a happy ending, but rather one of relief and catharsis. The song “Send in the Clowns”, the biggest hit to come out of the show, is the perfect summation of the show’s reticence about love, a tentative confession and an embarrassed apology for being human.
Now let us take a look at the nominees in regards to how long they lasted on Broadway:
Pippin: 1944 Performances
Sugar: 505 performances
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope: 1,065 performances
A Little Night Music: 601 performances
Now, onto the debate, such that it is:
Pippin was mostly a case of style over substance. Do not get me wrong. Pippin was a spectacular show, an expert use of dance and design to breathe life into a musical that, without Fosse’s touch, would have been better served running Off-Broadway. It deservedly won its Tony Awards for Best Director and Best Choreography, as well as Ben Vereen for Best Actor in a Musical and Tony Walton’s genius Best Scenic Design. However, if you were going to discuss the show’s writing, Pippin, a wonderfully witty wisecracks aside, was not much more than an outline, a bare-bones solid idea that required a visionary director to make it amazing. They got that with Fosse.
Sugar, and the film that it was based on, are both farcical in nature. As the story progresses, situations spin out of control and race toward the finish line. Properties like this rarely make good musicals. Farce thrives on momentum, and by design, musicals require moments to stop and reflect. When you stop for such things, you have to find a way to build your momentum again, and this can be a challenge where the slapstick, silly, and farce are concerned. Sugar also includes one of Jule Styne’s least-memorable scores, and Merrill’s lyrics seem to try too hard to rhyme without much imagination. None of it is awful, it is just not their best work, as if they liked an idea of a musical of Some Like It Hot but could find very little in the plot that organically sings. That’s because there is not much to be learned about these characters that songs can provide. The situation only warrants music for the show-within-a-show numbers, and that isn’t enough to give a musical lift-off. In Sugar, situation is the driving force, not character or plot development.
In the case of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Hope, I am afraid that, despite its many groundbreaking attributes, the show suffered from simply being a musical revue. Fair or not, most musicals are judged as much by their story as they are by their production and their scores. When an actual book is absent, it can feel like a missing component. If anything, this discussion points towards finding a new way to articulate the value and merits of a musical revue. In the end, however, how was Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Hope going to compete with the divine structure and perfectly-developed book of A Little Night Music?
Yes, A Little Night Music was the ultimate winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical, and deservedly so. Sondheim composed one of his most-enchanting scores, written in variations of waltz time, a subtle tip of the hat to the various romantic trios in the show. Wheeler wrote what was arguably the best book of his career, probing, full of subtext, sharp as a knife with caustic wit, and structurally the perfect Christmas tree for Sondheim to hang his glorious songs on. Everyone knows “Send in the Clowns”, but just as achingly poignant and/or deliciously clever are “Every Day a Little Death”, “You Must Meet My Wife”, “Liaisons”, “A Weekend in the Country”, and “The Miller’s Son.” Prince guided the musical with just the right touch, never heavy-handed, and often with a magical energy that made A Little Night Music swirl amidst its glorious waltzes, like a dizzying dance that we were invited to join.