On Tuesday the American Theatre Wing announced the 2008 Tony Awards nominees. The Tonys are the highest honors given to Broadway shows and performers — they’re basically the Oscars for the movies’ less powerful but more pretentious older sibling — and the battle for professional acknowledgment can be a contentious one, especially among moneymaking musical extravaganzas. Tourists will see shows that seem fun regardless of accolades, of course (e.g., certain Disney productions), but having “Best Musical” on a marquee holds out the promise of increased ticket sales while also providing the best bragging rights around.
This year’s battle for Best Musical has been an interesting one. In years past there was an obvious winner, one new show that appealed to all the major demographics: gays, tweens, theatre students, American tourists, foreign tourists, and older New Yorkers who can actually afford to see Broadway plays. I’m talking about musicals whose cast recordings are sold all over the world and whose songs become the trendy ones sung at auditions. Last year the award went to Spring Awakening, the year before that it was Jersey Boys, in 2005 it was Spamalot, and in ’04 Avenue Q heroically beat out Wicked. These are collectively adored musicals that have taken their rightful place among the decade’s best.
But this year the winner isn’t so obvious. The four shows up for Best Musical are all completely different and pretty innovative in individual ways, especially when it comes to their music. The two most impressive nominees in that capacity are Passing Strange and In the Heights, both of which began as off-Broadway endeavors with little budgets and big hearts before they were picked up for Broadway runs last fall.
Passing Strange is the mostly autobiographical story of Stew, the show’s narrator as well as the frontman of the Negro Problem, the band that’s onstage during the play. Passing Strange is unique compared to traditional Broadway musicals; in fact it’s really more of a rock show than a musical, but it never sells out with an obvious “money” song to appease audience members looking for something familiar or comfortable.
In the Heights tells a story about growing up in Washington Heights, a racially diverse and relatively poor neighborhood in upper Manhattan. Much of the music has a hip-hop influence and urban feel; In the Heights incorporates a genre of music never before heard on a Broadway stage and hints at what’s possible for musical theatre in the years to come. It takes a musical risk for the sake of accurate storytelling — these kids don’t live on Park Avenue, after all — although it should be noted that it contains some songs that register as more traditional musical-theatre fare, giving the show potential staying power at the box office.
I was under the impression that Cry-Baby, based on the 1990 John Waters film of the same name, wasn’t critically well received, so I was a bit surprised when I found out it was nominated for Best Musical. It features songs by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, who, like Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik, adapts his pop-rock sensibilities to the stage. Cry-Baby is somewhat successful since Schlesinger can write a catchy hook, but because I’m a big fan of Fountains of Wayne, I expected the songs to resonate a little more.
Xanadu, the stage version of the 1980 big-screen bomb starring Olivia Newton-John, is also up for Best Musical, though not for Best Score. It might just be campy enough to win the biggest Tony of them all, but since the music isn’t what makes this show so endearing, it’s not going to transform the musical-theatre landscape, and it’s hard to justify its inclusion in the same category as Passing Strange and In the Heights, both of which take musical risks for the sake of art and deserve respect for their innovative and thematically appropriate scores. They epitomize how incorporating music that’s relevant to the story being told elevates the theatrical experience — a play about urban life should include urban music, and a play featuring a full rock band should rock. By challenging conventions while maintaining their integrity, both shows set the bar for what modern musical theatre can be.
Find out which shows come out on top when the Tony Awards air Sunday, June 15, at 8 PM on CBS.