The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 2004
I find this particular Tony year the most oft-debated on social media. Of course, it was a year with incredibly diverse offerings, and the four nominated Best Musicals each had a great deal to recommend. Most people are either squarely and adamantly behind Wicked, certain that it was robbed by Avenue Q. Just as many are ardently confident that Avenue Q was the rightful victor. Then we have two other shows, Caroline, or Change and The Boy From Oz, both pieces that arguably have equal claim for the Best Musical Tony. Not since The Music Man bested West Side Story at the 1958 Tony Awards has there been a more hotly contested Best Musical category. So, let’s take a look at the nominees individually and then begin the debate.
Coming from Off-Broadway and seemingly destined to get lost in a large Broadway house,Avenue Q opened at the intimate John Golden Theatre where a musical that boasted “Full Puppet Nudity” proved to have plenty of heart and just enough sauce and sass to charm audiences. Avenue Q, with a score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and a book by Jeff Whitty, felt like a spoof of children’s television shows like Sesame Streetand The Electric Company. Utilizing a mixture of live-performers and puppets tackling problems of adult life, but with the same wide-eyed, child-centric, approach as the programs they were satirizing, the show yielded a bevy of memorable characters that explored the worlds of unemployment, coming out of the closet, homelessness, porn addiction, self-confidence, career woes, sex, living from paycheck to paycheck, and making bad choices. For such a tiny show, Avenue Q spoke volumes about societal ills and forced us to take a look at ourselves with a sense of humor. The story took place on its titular street in a community of ne’er-do-wells struggling to get by. The show brilliantly connected to individuals while simultaneously capturing our commonality.
The Boy from Oz was a musical biography and jukebox musical that celebrated the life of singer-songwriter-entertainer Peter Allen. Utilizing his catalogue of hit songs sandwiched into a plot that brought us through the ups and downs of Allen’s life and career, The Boy From Oz was a splashy song and dance show that owed much of its success to its star. The reason to see The Boy From Oz was for the dynamic, show-stopping performance of Hugh Jackman, who won a well-deserved Tony Award for his portrayal of Allen. Jackman had a limited contract with the show, and as long as he was the star, The Boy From Oz ran and made money (despite its run of under a year). When Jackman’s time with the show expired, no effort was made to replace him. He was the show, the producers knew that, and without him, it just would not have been the same.
A show that both challenged and intrigued, Caroline, or Change was arguably the biggest dark horse of the nominees, but also the most riveting of the quartet. Set in 1963, Louisiana, the musical followed Caroline, a black maid who works for the Gellman’s, a Jewish family, Caroline shares a particular friendship with Noah Gellman, the little boy of the household. Caroline, or Change delved into racist and anti-Semitic attitudes of the time, as well as the disparity between wealth and poverty. In a clever turn, inanimate objects such as the radio, the washing machine, the dryer, the moon, and the bus were anthropomorphized, brought to life, offering commentary on the action. Jeanine Tesori wrote the music and Tony Kushner provided the book and lyrics, and actress Tonya Pinkins gave a career-defining performance in the title role.
Finally, we have the long-running, iconic musical Wicked, with a score by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman. Based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel of the same name, Wicked drew on the beloved characters of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, offering a new perspective that turned the “Wicked Witch of the West” from a villain into a heroine named Elphaba. Concentrating on her complicated relationship with her school roommate Galinda, evolving from enemies to sister-like devotion, only to be torn apart by differing ideologies,Wicked was a jolt of female empowerment. Indeed, the show has particularly resonated among women, offering Broadway two complex female characters, each embracing their own strength and abilities. Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth played Elphaba and Galinda (Glinda) respectfully, both delivering indelible performances. The show continues to run today, over 15-years-later, and in broad strokes has proven both a tourist attraction and a beloved musical for many.
So, there we have it. Those are the nominees, with a general idea of why each deserved to be nominated for Best Musical. And make no bones about it, this was one of the rare seasons where all four nominees did indeed deserve to be recognized. So, let us see how long each of them ran:
Avenue Q: 2,534 performances
The Boy From Oz: 365 performances
Caroline, Or Change: 136 performances
Wicked: surpassed 6,400 performances and still running
Now the debate:
Of the four nominees, the one that I think we can eliminate first is The Boy From Oz. As I mentioned earlier, Hugh Jackman’s performance was the raison d’etre for the show. Without him, maybe another star could have stepped-in and made it work, but even the producers weren’t going to roll the dice on that possibility. With Jackman, the show sparkled and came to life, the music was electrified. He was carrying the material, gloriously so, but The Boy From Oz required him.
The next title is going to be a far-more controversial elimination on my part and that is Wicked. I realize that many of you worship the show and feel that its decade-and-a-half run should automatically redeem its robbery of the Best Musical Tony. The Stephen Schwartz score has a few excellent songs such as “The Wizard and I”, “Popular”, “Defying Gravity” and “For Good”, but just as many feel trite and without depth of character. Wicked’s real challenge, though, is it’s book, which starts out promising, sometimes compelling, but spirals out of control in the second act where it tries too hard to cleverly parallel L. Frank Baum’s book. It ends up feeling both pat and contrived, and if you think about it, the time line and logic just do not always make sense. There is, however, so much to love about Wicked: its message, its opportunity for show-stopping performances, the way it excites a crowd. It is a hard one for me to eliminate. I, myself, have seen it seven times and continue to find portions of the show exhilarating, but the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.
This leaves us with Avenue Qand Caroline, or Change, and this is where it becomes much harder to debate. Avenue Q was the “Little Engine That Could”, while Caroline, or Change was the “Little Engine that Couldn’t”, at least in terms of sticking around for the long term. Was there just not an audience for Caroline, or Change?Was it promoted poorly? Did Avenue Q’s promise of something ribald and off-color get people in the seats? Caroline, or Change is really the most intriguing musical in this batch, expertly written, and in a better world, where the mass audiences willingly challenged themselves to thought-provoking theatre, it would probably have won Best Musical. Avenue Q,however, is its own, well-written piece and certainly more accessible to the throngs than Caroline, or Change. It’s music is infectious, speaks to us personally, and warmed us over with joy. It felt fresh and original, subversive and uplifting.
My head says Caroline, or Changeis the Best Musical of 2004. My heart says Avenue Q was the right choice. I tend to listen to my heart when making up my mind. Go figure…