The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1987
In writing about these the Tony-nominated Best Musicals of various seasons and making a judgment as to which nominee deserved to win, I take full ownership of my opinion and realize that many of you will disagree. In fact, I invite the debate and am always interested in hearing your opinions as well. Theatre is obviously subjective, and what appeals to me might invite disdain from you. Contrarily, what I detest might be something you are passionate about. When I write these pieces, I do try to keep by opinions balanced, supported with reasoning, while trying to find that good and the challenging in each musical I dissect. That being said, I often find myself at odds with my own determinations, loving one show more, respecting another, while ultimately conceding that yet another deserved to win. 1987, which featured Les Misérables, Rags, Starlight Express, and Me and My Girl as the Best Musical nominees, is a year that leaves me so divided, as each of them offered something very different and each excelled in very different ways.
Les Misérables was the winner for Best Musical in 1987, and considering its longevity of 6.680 performances, one might argue that it earned its place for Best Musical in 1987. There is certainly much to recommend about this epic musical that effectively crams Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel into 3 ½ hours, including a pop opera-meets-Broadway score by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, with English language lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. An impressive staging by Trevor Nunn and John Caird on an enormous revolving stage was thrilling. Set in 1815 France, the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict trying to reinvent his life before the eyes of God, but finding it necessary to break his parole in order to survive, only to be hounded by the fanatical Inspector Javert who wants to put him back in prison, is inspiring and uplifting. Tragic, romantic, religious, a war story, there is just about something for everyone in Les Misérables.
Rags, on the other hand, was the shortest run of the four nominees, clocking-in at a total of four performances. The musical featured a score by Charles Strouse (music) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) and a book by Joseph Stein. Considering the artistic pedigree of this creative team, one would have expected Rags to be an enormous hit. The musical sought to tell the story of Jewish immigrants who have just-arrived in New York City at the turn-of-the-20th-century, tackling everything from mistreatment at Ellis Island, working in sweatshops, living in cramped tenements, labor protests, corruption at Tammany Hall. Like Les Miserables, it was a lot to pack into one musical. Unlike Les Misérables, the story was a convoluted mess and several revisions have been made to the musical to try to make it work. Even a valiant effort by Goodspeed Opera House in 2017 failed to make the show work. So why does Rags refuse to just die and fade away as a flop? The score is glorious, arguably (and in my humble estimation) the best score of the that Broadway season, rich with melody, possessing emotionally-charged lyrics, soaring ballads, and atmospheric pastiche of the time period.
Of the four nominees of the season, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s Starlight Express was the most spectacular, even if it was not always the most-effective in terms of musical theatre. Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre was gutted for Starlight Express, opening up the space for John Napier’s multilevel set made of ramps and tracks that encircled the audience and brought the action up into the balcony. Bridges twisted, tilted and turned, and the set was alive with all kinds of bells and whistles to accommodate the actors on roller skates bringing to life anthropomorphized trains racing across America, vying for a trophy called “The Silver Dollar.” It kind of felt like Cats on wheels. The musical had been an enormous hit in London (where it premiered), but copious changes were made before it crossed the Atlantic to Broadway that boiled much of the heart out of the story. As far as Webber scores are concerned, it is one of his most repetitive melodically, and does very little to further the story, instead serving more as a bright and buoyant jolt of energy for the spectacle to ride on.
The final nominee of the season was a musical that had actually been around since 1937 where it had had a successful run in London’s West End. It would take Me and My Girl almost fifty years to finally make its way to Broadway, via a hit London revival in 1985. A joyous musical comedy with music by Noel Gay, and book and lyrics by Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose (with revisions by Stephen Fry), Me and My Girl told the story of a coarse cockney man named Bill Snibson who learns that he is the long lost Earl of Hareford. He, with his fish-selling girlfriend Sally, are whisked off to the family manse in the English countryside where his conservative and uptight relations try to reform him so that he can assume the obligations of nobility. Think Downton Abbey. Directed by Mike Okrent (the late husband of Susan Stroman), Me and My Girl had catchy tunes, a corny but always energetic and funny plot, clever (and often hilarious) choreography by Gillian Gregory, and two tour-de-force comedic performances from the leads Robert Lindsay and Maryann Plunkett.
Okay, so let us take a look at the performance run of each of these shows and then get down to the brass tacks of analyzing each show’s merits and drawbacks.
Les Misérables: 6,680 performances
Rags: 4 performances
Starlight Express: 761 performances
Me and My Girl: 1,420 performances
Let me begin by putting my prejudices out there in the open. I have seldom experienced a more blissful evening of musical comedy that transported me into laugh-inducing escapism than Me and My Girl. I count that original Broadway production among my dearest musical theatre experience. The audience surrounding me seemed to feel the same way, as the laughter, the applause, and the energy itself just flooded the theatre. That being said, Me and My Girl is good, old-fashioned musical comedy (something that I gravitate toward) and wasn’t exactly taking-on societal ills like Les Misérables or Rags. Where substance was concerned, it just didn’t have the depth of emotion that those two shows offered. Tony has been known to honor its share of comedies in the Best Musical category, but deep in my heart, as much as I hate to admit it, Les Misérables was made of far too powerful stuff for Me and My Girl to fully eclipse it.
Rags, as I mentioned before, never really had any hope of winning Best Musical, but if there had been any Tony justice in 1987, it most certainly would have brought home the prize for Best Score. The problem was, Rags had already shuttered by the time the Tony Awards had come around, not enough people (one assumes Tony voters included) had seen the show, and really, outside of integrity, what is the point of giving an award to a show that doesn’t benefit from the win? Les Misérables won for Best Score, and we all know that it has enjoyed monumental popularity. Still, the lyrics do not delve the way that Schwartz’s lyrics do for Rags, often sounding more like they have been extracted from greeting card poetry than written for musical theatre. Don’t throw stones at me, I happen to really enjoy Les Misérables (I saw the original run eleven times), but I have to admit that the show’s lyrics are not its strongest suit. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg found a much stronger collaborator and lyricist in Richard Maltby, Jr. when they wrote Miss Saigon.
Then there is Starlight Express. What is there to say about Starlight Express? It was more of a big, colorful, dizzying machine than it was a musical. That is not to say it wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun, but shows of its ilk are more like theme park attractions than they are substantive musicals. When, as one critic said regarding shows of spectacle, “You leave the theatre humming the scenery”, that’s not a good sign that the show’s ingredients add-up to much more than a lot of money spent. I don’t mean to bash Starlight Express. There are room for these kinds of entertainments, and they occasionally even win Best Musical (I won’t say what other shows I lump into this category), but Starlight Express was working on the thinnest of plots and a score that repeated itself far too often.
It almost appears that I am crowning Les Misérables the rightful winner by default, and I guess, in a way, I am. It certainly gets a lot of things right. It’s an emotional run of a musical marathon, and it has risen beyond Best Musical to become iconic. Who doesn’t know that logo of the sad-eyed waif staring out at potential ticket buyers, subliminally telling us that the price of her happiness is the cost of one ticket? I hear the show disparaged as much as it is celebrated in the theatre community, but there is no denying its impact.. Despite its imperfections (which, to a degree, includes scenery hum-ability), it sure tugs at the heartstrings and is a cathartic night of feeling less depressed about your own problems.