Well, this is it kids. The Tonys are upon us. Tomorrow is the cocktail party where all the special awards are distributed (granted? bestowed?) and Sunday is the big dance. As we prepare our overexcited selves for the show, we’re also preemptively bracing for potential heartbreak and disappointment. And reminding ourselves that Tony Awards aren’t everything (hah!) by compiling a list of badass musicals that are no less badass for having missed out on The Tonys’ top prize.
Sunday in the Park with George
Stephen Sondheim has won himself a veritable truckload of Tonys, we know. But Sunday in the Park with George, his opus about the creation of art and the struggle of building a meaningful life — as an artist, and as a human — never won best musical and that breaks our artistic souls into tiny little pieces. Sure, La Cage aux Folles is fun and it says some real nice things and we love us some Harvey Fierstein round these parts, but… it defeated Sunday in the Park, a work of art steeped in genuine heartache and longing? What? At the end of the day Sondheim laughed his way back to the extremely large townhouse he owns with a Pulitzer for Sunday in the Park, so all was not lost in the world but if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to go listen to “Finishing the Hat” and weep again anyway.
Into the Woods
Want some actual comedy in your day? Just try imagining what Stephen Sondheim’s face must have looked like in the moment he heard that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera had bested Into the Woods at the 1988 Tony Awards. Hilar, right? Of course, we’d all laugh more if it were made up, and Into the Woods had actually won itself that Tony, because seriously… How is it even possible that all those synthesizers and Sarah Brightman’s click-track defeated the intricate, wry, dark, masterpiece laced with the longing and desperation of modern life that is Into the Woods? But we digress. Because again, that mental image — somewhere between shock, horror, hatred and constipation — is fucking priceless and we cherish it. Even if we’re still kind of bullshit that ALW won.
Ok, so we admit that we were barely old enough to watch MTV in 1991, but we wish that someone, anyone, would explain The Will Rogers Follies to us. Because frankly, nothing seems to justify two hours of chorus girls with humongous pom-poms on their boobs. Nothing. We’re sure the dancing was great, and Keith Carradine was winning in his handsome/unhandsome way, and we totally get that the score was written by BROADWAY LEGENDS, but in 2013, we’d rather see Miss Saigon any day of the week and twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays. (Take note, Cameron Mackintosh.) We get that its Broadway transfer was mired in controversy, and it was written by a lyricist whose first language was not English, and it shows. (You can buy me a beer.) But nothing tears our still-beating hearts from our chests like that moment where Kim and Chris are searching for each other as South Vietnam teeters on political collapse. The helicopter? Well, that was necessary just to drive the point home. The proof is sort of in the pudding with this one, though, at least in terms of the show’s resilience over time. The Will Rogers Follies, even with its Tony win, played for 981 performances. Miss Saigon played 4,092.
Jelly’s Last Jam
So, here’s an original idea, you guys. Let’s write a new musical, with a brand new book, and populate it entirely with kicky Gershwin tunes. It’s a guaranteed winner, right? Right? Well, it was back in the dark ages otherwise known as 1992, because Crazy for You rode that train all the way to the Best Musical Tony. We can’t hate on it too much, because come on, it starred Ariel. But looking back, it’s hard to figure how more serious fare like Jelly’s Last Jam lost out. Directed by George C. Wolfe and starring both a baby Savion Glover and a very grownup Gregory Hines dancing their faces off — and Tonya Pinkins in a Tony-winning supporting role — it seems like a Best Musical no-brainer. Alas, those were different times, when Ariel had more clout…
Remember that time that these two guys wrote this really strange, brainy, ironic musical about people living in a society where you have to pay to pee — but it was actually a musical about musicals? Oh, we do. We especially remember when it lost the Best Musical trophy to Thoroughly Modern Millie, a show that looked like it barfed all over itself and only missed the narrow spot where Sutton Foster and Gavin Creel were standing being awesome. The Millie win was a bit of a heartbreaker for us, particularly because it seemed like Broadway had such a chance to make a bold statement about what a great musical could be. Plus, we will never — never — get over the Urinetown gag with pregnant Megan Lawrence and the leg brace. Never.
The Light in the Piazza/Dirty Rotten Soundrels
So, you have three choices. You can choose a searing, literate, weepingly emotional, sweepingly melodic portrait of a young woman finding herself in Italy with shirtless Matthew Morrison. Or you can choose a whizbang, mile-a-minute show about two con men bluffing their way through Europe with Norbert Leo Butz giving the most flawless comedic performance in memory. Or you can choose an overblown adaptation of a Monty Python movie that’s more or less… exactly like the movie, only with more songs you can’t remember. Well… the Tony voters will take door number three…
Next to Normal
We’ve got it. Children are like, totes adorable, and it’s really cool to see a show in which some adult has clearly managed to wrangle a passel of them — most of us can barely get one to behave! — into doing amazing things like dancing and singing in harmony. And in fairness to Billy Elliot, in a struggling economic climate, it did tell a very relevant story of perseverance and hope. But stacked up against Next to Normal, a show that musicalized a family’s very private struggle with mental illness, and made going to the theater a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, full-body experience, set firmly in modern times? We just felt a little crushed that Billy Elliot took home the top Tony. But hey. At least the Pulitzer Prize committee was Team Next to Normal, right?
WTF, universe, WTF. You have the opportunity to award new composers — who happen to be both very famous and very smitten with the Broadway — for a piece of extremely relevant, groundbreaking theater that speaks to an entirely new generation, and you choose what? The pastiche-y musical that whitewashes history? Failure! And while we understand that voters perhaps felt the need to lash out against the profusion of jukebox musicals in this world, we just really feel like American Idiot was not the show to punish. Because that Punk Rock Opera was conceived and constructed to tell a story from its very first note to its very last gasp, and the fact that it topped the pop charts doesn’t change that. We’ll forever be sad that this gem — which spoke so directly to the experience of living in our generation that it was often difficult to watch — never won the Tonys it deserved. But we’ll tell ourselves it was ahead of its time and comfort ourselves with the fact that Billie Joe Armstrong continues to write showtunes, so he may win his Tony yet.