The Best Musical Tony Award Debate: 2005
The 2005 Tony Awards represented a season where all four Best Musical nominees could have easily walked away with the Best Musical prize, each show offering something very different and special. It will make for a great debate. The nominees that season were Monty Python’s Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Light in the Piazza, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, so you can see how this would be a contentious season. I’m also going to say in advance of discussion that I definitely have my favorite amongst these shows and I will try to remain unbiased.
Monty Python’s Spamalot was an eagerly anticipated show before it even arrived on Broadway, having been based on one of the most revered film comedies of all time: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. With Eric Idle providing the book and score (collaborating with John du Prez on the music), with Mike Nichols helming the production. Spamalot was one relentless laugh riot, telling the story of King Arthur and his entourage searching for the elusive Holy Grail. Anachronistic and tongue-in-cheek with its humor, Spamalot was a worthy musical adaptation of the film, embracing the laughs and riding them to overcome a thin and ambling plot. With a cast that included Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce, Sara Ramirez, Michael McGrath and Christopher Sieber, the show worked as a delightful comedy that won the Best Musical Tony.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels also drew its inspiration from a celebrated film comedy, though it’s approach was a touch edgier and it’s humor much more biting. The key to truly enjoying the show, however, is not knowing the twist ending that delivers a comedic punch. David Yazbek’s score is deliciously droll and just a touch wicked, the perfect storm of jazzy music and wry lyrics. Jeffrey Lane’s book is fast-paced and deepens the character development that is not a strong point of the film. The story of two grifters in the French Riviera, both attempting to scam the same wealthy socialite out of her money, proved to be a slam-bang property for musical treatment. Dirty Rotten Scoundrelsalso starred a winning cast led by John Lithgow, Norbert Leo Butz, Sherie Renee Scott, Joanna Gleason, Gregory Jbara and Sarah Gettelfinger. Jack O’Brien directed and Jerry Mitchell choreographed.
A deeply emotional and reflective musical came in the form of The Light in the Piazza, based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer. Playwright Craig Lucas found just the right touch and subtlety in telling the story of a 1950s, middle-aged southern housewife who takes an extended vacation to Italy with her developmentally disabled daughter who falls in love with a young local. Adam Guettel’s score was a potent mélange of soaring beauty, heightened emotion, musical poetry, raw nerve, and it practically painted in strokes of the light referred to in the show’s title. Bartlett Sher, who is seemingly at one with the space at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, did a masterful job weaving the performers in and out of the pockets of light and dark created by Michael Yeargan’s atmospheric scenery and Chistopher Akerlind’s ethereal lighting. Best of all, The Light in the Piazza never settled in, but instead kept you on your toes, a dramatic roller coaster that could twist and turn with such delicate finesse, you had no idea where it would take you until after it had. Top this off with a career-defining performance by Victoria Clark, magnificently supported by Kelli O”Hara and Matthew Morrison, and The Light in the Piazza was truly something unique, a rare bijou among a season of gems.
Last, but definitely not least, was the irreverent but darling The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Brimming with earnest candor and that punch of neurosis for which we have come to expect from composer-lyricist William Finn, not to mention a compelling story from Tony-winning book writer Rachel Sheinkin, the show ventured to tell the story of a handful of oddball but loveable middle schoolers vying for the top prize. The production was directed by James Lapine in the round at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre. Many of the cast members would go on to greater celebrity including Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jose Llana, and Dan Fogler. Spare but spunky, the show, with heart and humor, really captured the awkwardness of adolescence.
The nominees have been addressed; now let us see how long each one ran:
Monty Python’s Spamalot: 1,575 performances
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: 626 performances
The Light in the Piazza: 504 performances
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: 1,136 performances
So, I promised to be forthcoming about my biases, so I am sure you’d like to know which one these four shows I loved the most. I think the answer is going to surprise you. For me, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was then, and remains, one of the most enjoyable pieces of musical theatre I have ever attended, so much so that I saw it on a matinee and after curtain call, went to the box office and bought a ticket for the evening show. It all just worked for me, but it also spoke to my sense of humor and the score reminded me of the old-fashioned musical comedy I reveled in. This feeling, however, does not mean I’d say it was the Best Musical of the season. Another show impressed in far too many ways. It wasn’t necessarily a show I’d have wanted to see twice in an evening (or in a lifetime, for that matter), but it is one that I most assuredly am glad I witnessed once. With all due respect to Spamalot, which is a fine show, my choice for Best Musical of the 2005 season would have to be The Light in the Piazza. It is so dramatically complex, musically rich, and was so perfectly cast, staged, and designed that it was a theatrical experience that was truly rare. Any of these four musicals could have won Best Musical in any other given year, but none could hold a candle to what The Light in the Piazza achieved. So, why didn’t it win Best Musical? For all the reasons that I just noted. It was just too special.