Today we are continuing to the semifinals of the tournament to decide the best Tony-nominated musical of the 2010-2019 decade. I explained the methodology for choosing these musicals in part 1 of this series. These are the pairings for the semifinals. If you would like to see me explain my choices, here is a video.
Dear Evan Hansen vs. The Book of Mormon
One notable connection between these two musicals is Ben Platt, who I saw originate the role of Prior Cunningham in Chicago long before he played Evan Hansen. If given the choice between the two soundtracks, I would choose The Book of Mormon because Prior Cunningham’s witless outbursts are always funny no matter how many times I listen. Some of the songs in Dear Evan Hansen propel the plot but are forgettable in terms of melody. “To Break in a Glove” or “So Big / So Small” (both songs sung by parents about their children) are two examples. Considering how much I laugh listening to a song like “You and Me but Mostly Me” (not even one of the most acclaimed songs from Book of Mormon), I’m tempted to choose Book of Mormon. However, the greatest strength of Dear Evan Hansen is the message it communicates to its devoted teenage following. Most movies and musicals about teenagers imply that high school is the center of a person’s life (think Grease or Mean Girls or any John Hughes movie). Dear Evan Hansen communicates a message that is much more true and much more important: we move on from high school. The mistakes we make in high school do not define our lives. I am choosing Dear Evan Hansen because I know that this message, so skillfully presented by book writer Steven Levenson, has helped thousands of teenagers navigate through difficult experiences.
Advancing: Dear Evan Hansen
Hamilton vs. The Band’s Visit
Hamilton and The Band’s Visit are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of pacing. Consider “Satisfied” and “Omar Sharif” — both songs that deal with accepting the regrets of life. In “Satisfied”, Angelica Schuyler moves through lightning-fast lyrics, telling and retelling the same story of how she loved Alexander but chose to pass his affections onto her sister Eliza. The talented singers who take on the role of Angelica hardly take a breath in the first four minutes of the song. “Omar Sharif” is an equally breath-taking creation. Dina reflects how perfect and musical the world can seem when a person escapes into the movies. The lyrics are not fast — they are slow and melodic to the point that any note could stop time and the audience would cheer for more. Thus are the two shows. Hamilton covers decades. The Band’s Visit exists in one night. Hamilton is about characters rising and falling in a perpetual cycle. The Band’s Visit is about characters trapped in time. Both shows are beautiful and perfect for communicating their respective messages, but Hamilton moves to the next round because there is much more to see with all of its complex moving parts.
Million Dollar Quarter vs. Fun Home
One of my favorite moments in the narrative of Million Dollar Quarter occurs when Sam Phillips has just accepted that his top talent will move from Sun Records to bigger labels. He says, “I just wish, ever’one of those boys woulda’ had…a little more happiness in their lives.” The highly fictionalized book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux transcends most jukebox musicals by not merely pasting together songs but by making parallels between the career trajectories of the four rockers and the history of rock and roll. When Jerry Lee throws himself into “Great Balls of Fire” and declares that this will be the next hit for Sun Records, we see that rock music is constantly transforming. Fun Home also tells the story of transformation albeit at a more personal level. When Small Alison and her brothers sing “Come to the Fun Home,” (see a live performance) they are celebrating childhood, rhyming words like “satisfied” and “formaldehyde” while inventing an advertisement for their father’s funeral home. By the time we have reached “Flying Away”, Alison has accepted that her family life was not perfect, but she did find some moments of “perfect balance” despite her father’s depression and repressed homosexuality. Million Dollar Quartet provides great music and great rock and roll history, but Fun Home is a more deeply compelling story of accepting ourselves and our loved ones.
Advancing: Fun Home
Shuffle Along vs. Come From Away
I greatly enjoyed Shuffle Along and I hope that it eventually sees some regional revivals. One of the differences between theater in Chicago and Broadway is Chicago theater companies (most of which are non-profit) do not need to have the same level of star power to sell tickets. This was relevant to Shuffle Along because the musical’s producers predicted that they would run at a financial loss once Audra McDonald exited due to pregnancy. Additionally, the producers never made a cast album, which probably dooms Shuffle Along to the likes of a footnote of the 2016 season. That being said, this particular pairing is a mismatch. Come from Away may have started as a small, word-of-mouth musical, but by its Broadway debut it had a musical score in which at least half of the songs can bring tears to our eyes. The experiences of the travelers remind us of the confusion and fear we felt while trying to discern the facts from the fiction in the wake of the World Trade Center towers falling. The outpouring of compassion from the citizens of Gander reminds us of the moments where September 11 managed to engender a sense of community among strangers. On top of that, what better way to release tension that a rousing song about people kissing a codfish (see a live performance of “Screech In”).
Advancing: Come From Away
This round featured some challenging pairings, but check back soon to see which two of these four shows will make it to the final round.