The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1961

The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 1961

Dear Readers:

I am sorry that I had to take a week off. Illness got a hold of me these last few weeks and I was simply exhausted and could barely keep up with my paid writing gigs, let alone try to write anything for myself or the blog. I am excited to get back to writing the Best Musical Tony Award Debate, a series that I have found such joy in building and sharing. So, without further adieu, let me get back to the program my taking a look at 1961. 

1961 was an interesting year in Tony history for a couple of reasons. First, it was a year where there were only three Best Musical nominees instead of four, and second because there were plenty of shows that could have filled a fourth category, but were left out of the running. The nominees that year were Bye Bye BirdeDo Re Mi, and Irma La Douce, with Bye Bye Birdie ultimately taking home the Best Musical prize. For this week’s installment, I am going to do things a little differently. After looking at the three nominees, I want to take a minute to examine a couple of shows that should have qualified, but somehow didn’t make the final cut. 

 Bye Bye Birdie was a refreshingly new musical comedy, one of the few Broadway musicals that was not adapted from some other source. It had a youthful exuberance, one of musical comedy’s best scores to date (by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams), a deliciously satirical book by Michael Stewart that took a deft look at the generation gap and the emerging phenomenon of Rock n’ Roll. Parodying the hysteria surrounding Elvis Presley’s drafting into the U.S. Army and his teenage fans who were distraught over the news, Bye Bye Birdie was a big step toward the American musicals’ embrace of Rock n’ Roll as a legitimate style for storytelling. No, it did not have a rock score, but it did incorporate three musical numbers that were a pastiche of the Elvis style, opening the door for future shows to employ the form. By the end of the decade, we would see the musical Hair on Broadway, a musical that fully explored the Rock n’ Roll form. Bye Bye Birdie also facilitated the rise of director-choreographer extraordinaire Gower Champion who kept the show breezy, kinetic and staged in a fashion that felt contemporary, moving out of that Rodgers and Hammerstein style that had been de rigueur for the last decade and a half. The musical also featured brilliant comedic turns by Chita Rivera, Dick Van Dyke, Dick Gautier, Paul Lynde, and Kay Medford.  

Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker in  Do Re Mi

Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi

Do Re Mi is a hard musical to describe. The score by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green features a few gems among a mostly pleasant, if forgettable, score. None of team’s best work could be found here. The ambling book by Garson Kanin, follows Hubie Crum, a ne’er do well who is always trying to find a get rich scheme. With three of his pals, Hubie goes into the jukebox business which he plans on selling to a record producer. That’s about as exciting as it got. To add to the drama, Hubie’s ever-suffering wife bemoans her husband’s hijinks, which always failed. True to form, his latest jukebox plan goes awry and Hubie slinks home to his loving wife. The book for Do Re Mi may be it’s biggest issue. It never seems to know what direction to take and spend much of its time spinning its wheels and it never built toward anything of substance. What made the show special was its cast, which was packed full of wonderful character performers such as Phil Silvers, Nancy Walker, David Burns, Al Lewis, and a young Nancy Dussault. The musical had one breakout hit song, the truly enchanting “Make Someone Happy.” 

A more unique musical amongst the nominees was Irma La Douce, which came to Broadway via Paris (where it premiered in 1956) and the West End. The musical is one of the few French musicals to find any success on Broadway, with music by Marguerite Monnot and book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort. The music is quite lovely, and easily the most praiseworthy aspect of the musical’s construction. The story follows the title character, a prostitute who is both beautiful and charming. A law student falls in love with Irma and becomes jealous of her many clients. He begins disguising himself as a rich older man who wants her solely as his own, but in order to maintain the illusion that he is wealthy, takes a bunch of side jobs to afford her services. When it becomes too impossible to keep up the charade, he kills off his alter ego, and then ends up going to prison for the fictitious character’s murder. Ultimately, he escapes, proves his innocence, and is reunited with Irma. The plot was relatively clever in musical theatre terms, just a bit off-beat and wacky in that European style that sometime eludes American audiences. Irma La Douce had a cast led by Keith Michell, Elizabeth Seal, Clive Revill, Stuart Damon, and Fred Gwynne. 

So, those are the three nominees for Best Musical in 1961. Here is how each fared in terms of performance runs: 

Bye Bye Birdie: 607 performances
Do Re Mi: 400 performances
Irma La Douce: 524 performances

Interesting that none of the three was a runaway hit, thoughBye Bye Birdie did run the longest of the three. I do not wish to assert, however, that Bye Bye Birdie was merely a default option as the Best Musical winner. Bye Bye Birdie was revolutionary in its day, a tightly written musical comedy that produced an iconic score. The show proved enduring, enjoying a shelf life that propelled it to being one of the most popularly revived musicals for decades, particularly in high schools where its message and music resonated and the relative ease in regards to production needs made it a staple of high school directors. Anyone who would dismiss the show’s relevance today clearly hasn’t checked out TMZ and witnessed our cultural obsession with celebrity. Bye Bye Birdie is still done and is deserving of a Broadway revival that doesn’t try to reinvent it (the Roundabout revival a decade ago was a huge misfire for not trusting what inherently works about the show). Do Re Mi and Irma La Douce has shown no such staying power. Bye Bye Birdie was the rightful winner. 

Still, there were three other musical of 1960-1961 season that were deserving of filling another slot (or two) in the Best Musical category. So why weren’t they? Here are the three I’m referring to and the number of performances that each ran: 

Camelot: 873 performances
The Unsinkable Molly Brown: 532 performances
Tenderloin: 216 performances

 Obviously, we all assume that Camelot is the beloved musical that was given to us by the ingenious composing team that gave us Brigadoon and My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe. What we tend to forget is that audiences were generally disappointed by Camelot due to its interminable length (it clocked-in well over three-hours) and its ponderous book. Lerner and Loewe’s score is glorious, exquisite really, but every single time a song came to an end, the show came to halt. It is a fallacy that the association with JFK’s presidency gave the show a ticket boost. He was a fan of the musical, but the legendary connection between the musical’s title song and his legacy was not asserted until days after Kennedy’s burial. His widow Jackie mentioned the parallels in an interview with Life Magazine. The show’s box office turn around really came when an ample portion of it was aired on The Ed Sullivan Show, giving the musical national attention. 

The Unsinkable Molly Brown, with a robust score by Meredith Willson and a serviceable, if uninspired, book by Richard Morris, was a fictionalized account of Margaret Brown, a wealthy socialite who came from humble beginnings. The production was a terrific star vehicle for Tammy Grimes who played the boisterous, tomboyish Molly. It was also made into a hit film starring Debbie Reynolds and the show is occasionally revived today (though not as often as it should). Was The Unsinkable Molly Brown too harshly judged as the not so spectacular follow up to Willson’s masterpiece The Music Man?  It certainly had enough things going for it that it could have been a fourth nominee for Best Musical. 

The third option would be Tenderloin, the Bock and Harnick follow-up to their Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello! a year earlier. The book was by the usually reliable George Abbott. It’s a harder case to make for this one, though Tenderloin has an underappreciated score, it suffers from feeling too much Fiorello! Like its predecessor, Tenderloin is about corrupt NYC politics, set in the 1890s in the red-light district on Manhattan. In this story, a social reforming minister s trying to clean-up the unsavory neighborhood. Despite the feeling of reheated Fiorello! leftovers, Tenderloin was far more compelling than what could be found in Do-Re-Mi

In hindsight, I assert that the Best Musical nominees probably should have been Bye Bye Birdie, Irma La DouceCamelot, and Tenderloin. Regardless of the players, “Birdie” still comes out on top. 

The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 2005

The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 2005

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Tony Talk: Assessing the Best Musical and Best Play Tony Nominations