Tony Awards Tournament: Best Musical 2010 TO 2019 (Part 3)

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

Ben Levi Ross (first touring company of Dear Evan Hansen); Syesha Mercado & Ben Platt (Chicago company of 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

Miguel Cervantes (Chicago company of Hamilton); Sasson Gabai & Chilina Kennedy (National tour of 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.

Advancing: Hamilton

Million Dollar Quarter vs. Fun Home

Gavin Rohrer, Bill Scott Sheets, Kavan Hashemian & Adam Wesley Brown (Paramount Theater’s production of Million Dollar Quartet); Rob Lindley & Stella Rose Hoyt (Victory Gardens production of 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

Audra McDonald and cast (Broadway); First touring company of Come From Away, which featured Chicago actor James Earl Jones II

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.

Tony Awards Tournament: Best Musical 2010 TO 2019 (Part 3)

Tony Awards Tournament: Best Musical 2010 to 2019 (Part 2)

In this post I am going to declare the winners for the remaining four first-round pairings. My previous post explains the methodology I used to choose these 16 musicals as candidates for the best Tony-nominated musical of the 2010-2019 decade. If you would like to hear me explain my choices for each pairing, check out this video.

Pairing 5: Rock and Roll History

Memphis vs. Million Dollar Quarter

Chad Kimball & Montego Glover; Levi Kreis, Robert Britton Lyons, Eddie Clendening & Lance Guest

About nine years have passed since I saw Memphis (2010) on Broadway. I remember enjoying it and thinking that Chad Kimball was excellent as Huey Calhoun, a white DJ in the early 1950’s who plays rock music sung by African-American artists for white audiences (Memphis is a clear example of the white-savior trope). I also remember seeing the Tony nominations for 2010 and thinking, “Wow! 2010 is a weak year for original musicals.” In contrast, I’ve seen Million Dollar Quartet (2010) four times–three during its historic six-year run at the Apollo Theater, where Million Dollar Quartet became the longest-running musical in Chicago history. The Johnny Cash rendition of “Sixteen Tons” alone is worth the price of admission, and the book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux is another bonus.

Advancing: Million Dollar Quartet

Children Take the Lead

Fun Home vs. Matilda the Musical

Beth Malone & Sydney Lucas; the young cast of Matilda performing “Revolting Children”

Maybe referring to Small Alison as “the lead” of Fun Home (2015) is a stretch, but my first exposure to this brilliant musical was watching Sydney Lucas perform “Ring of Keys” at the Tony awards. I was mesmerized both by the performance and by the lyrics, which express her feelings upon seeing an “old school butch” woman for the first time. “Raincoat of Love” is another memorable recollection song, in this case reflecting Alison’s wish that she could live in a 70’s-style sitcom family far from the reality of her father’s difficult mood swings. Matilda the Musical (2013) offers an equally compelling take on childhood perspectives although it is less based in realism. This musical won me over early in Act 1 with “School Song,” in which Big Kids express the terrors of school by working through the alphabet. The children in Matilda prove that they can find power by banding together against those who want to push them down. Both musicals are insightful literary adaptations, but Fun Home is the more emotionally gripping.

Advancing: Fun Home

Billy Porter Musicals

Kinky Boots vs. Shuffle Along

Stark Sands & Billy Porter; Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell & Billy Porter

Everyone I know who has seen Kinky Boots (2013) loves it, including people who are not usually theater lovers. Yet, I struggled to find anything that I liked in this musical other than Billy Porter’s Tony-winning performance as Lola. I never quite bought into the premise that Charlie Price could save his town by focusing on the niche market of high-heeled boots, but audiences cheered for every overly-sequined article of footwear during Kinky Boots‘ six-year run on Broadway. Shuffle Along (2016), on the other hand, was sadly not a hit. Starring the amazing talents of Audra McDonald, Brian Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter, Shuffle Along recounts the story of a ground-breaking all-black vaudeville production that was a surprise New York hit in 1921. Highlights include the jazz score and the intriguing behind-the-scenes conflicts.

Advancing: Shuffle Along

The Aftermath of War

An American in Paris vs. Come From Away

Robert Fairchild & Leanne Cope; the cast of Come From Away

I’m always concerned when I walk into a show with high expectations. With Come From Away (2017), I already loved the songs “Welcome to the Rock” and “Me and the Sky.” Factor in recommendations from friends and family, which were beyond glowing. Thankfully, Come from Away is the rare show that manages to exceed the highest of expectations. The tight, emotional storytelling is a perfect tribute for the events of 9-11 and the Newfoundland communities who supported stranded airline passengers. My expectations for An American in Paris (2015) were not nearly so high, but I was quickly captivated by the story line of four people trying to rebuild their lives in a post-WWII Paris, and (of course) the dancing is spectacular. An American in Paris is a winner, but Come From Away has much more to offer audiences looking for something more modern than Gershwin.

Advancing: Come from Away

That concludes round 1. Make sure to check back soon to see who wins in the semifinals. Please leave a comment to express your opinions about any of the musicals featured in this tournament.

Tony Awards Tournament: Best Musical 2010 to 2019 (Part 2)

Tony Awards Tournament: Best Musical 2010 to 2019 (part 1)

The Tony awards, originally scheduled for June 7, are delayed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 crisis. You can still check the potential nominees for Best Musical and Best Play (original and revival) at tonyawards.com.

YouTuber Katherine Steele created a March Madness-style Broadway musical tournament titled Which Broadway Show is the Best?, which I recommend watching. Fair warning that Katherine’s energy will make you feel lethargic by comparison. I decided to create my own tournament to determine my pick for the best musical of the 2010’s decade. I will be presenting this tournament over four posts, with each post featuring four pairings. For those who prefer a verbal run down of my choices, I created a video. Check out the video here.

The Methodology

I started by including the Best Musical winner from each year from 2010-2019. Unfortunately, a glowing omission exists because I have not yet seen Hadestown, so the 2019 Best Musial winner is not in the tournament. However, the other nine Tony winners from the decade are included along with seven wildcards–my seven favorite nominees that did not win Best Musical in their respective years.

The Bracket

Consider playing at home before reading my pics. The first-round pairings are based on a commonality between the two shows. If you have not seen one of the musicals, you can give its competitor a bye for the round. Also, I included links to each show’s performance at its respective Tony Awards ceremony, so you can see a small piece of each for yourself.

Pairing 1: Set in High School

Dear Evan Hanson vs. The Prom

Ben Platt; Caitlin Kinnunen & Brooks Ashmanskas

Of the shows on this list, The Prom (2019) is the musical comedy that made me laugh the most (more so than even Book of Mormon). Four down-on-their-luck Broadway actors attempt to regain relevance by traveling to a rural Indiana town to create publicity regarding a Lesbian teen being told she can not attend the Prom with girlfriend. The result is a classic “Don’t help me” scenario that also tastefully addresses the central social issue. I will be watching the Netflix movie version starring Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman on the night it premiers (slated for this fall). However, Dear Evan Hanson (2017) reaches a new pinnacle for expressing the modern teenage mindset. The song “Waving Through a Window” is an ode to the fear of not existing in an era consumed by social media.

Advancing: Dear Evan Hanson

Pairing 2: The Comedies

The Book of Mormon vs. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Andrew Rannells; Lisa O’Hare, Bryce Pinkham & Lauren Worsham

How memorable are the songs in The Book of Mormon (2011)? I will never again meet someone named Arnold without the song “Making Things Up Again” running through my head. I now think of Joseph Smith as the “All-American Prophet.” And, thanks to “I Believe,” I have learned that the year I was born happened to be the year that “God changed his mind about black people.” A Gentleman’s Guide… (2014) also has its funny moments. Lord Montague D’Ysquith Navarro, realizing that he is the ninth heir to the Earldom of Highurst, takes out the other eight heirs on his path to inherited fortune. The highlight of the Broadway production was Jefferson Mays performing one ridiculous D’Ysquith after another on their path to death. The low point was the music. The writers decided that upper-crust Brits must always sign in piercing falsettos to the point that A Gentleman Guide… is easily the most tedious viewing experience in this tournament.

Advancing: The Book of Mormon

Pairing 3: Distance History

Hamilton vs. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Lin-Manuel Miranda; John Grobin and cast

Natasha, Pierre… (2017) and their comet received 12 well-deserved Tony nominations in 2017 (the best Broadway season of the decade). The show ran for nearly a year on Broadway despite having to compete for audiences against powerhouses like Hamilton, Dear Evan Hanson, and Come From Away. Not bad for an adaptation of a 70-page section from War and Peace focusing on a character having an existential crisis, but sadly this deeply moving musical by Dave Malloy has not seen a major production since closing on Broadway. The opulent “Prologue” and the rhythmic “Letters” are two highlights of the score. Natasha, Pierre… might deserve more love, but Hamilton (2016) is the theatrical phenomenon of a generation. With too many strengths to count, one of my favorite aspects of Hamilton is the evolving dichotomy between Hamilton who is “Not giving away my shot” and Burr who continues to “Wait for It.”

Advancing: Hamilton

Pairing 4: Human Connection

Once vs. The Band’s Visit

Steve Kazee and cast; Katrina Lenk & Tony Shalhoub

Neither Once (2012) nor The Band’s Visit (2018) is the ideal choice for someone looking for light entertainment. Both musicals are about heart-broken people yearning to find meaningful connections and struggling in the pursuit. Once, set in Ireland, explores the relationship between “Guy,” whose girlfriend has moved to America, and “Girl,” a Czech immigrant whose husband is still in her native country. The Band’s Visit, set in Israel, follows members of a the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra marooned for the night in the painfully uneventful desert town of Bet Hatikva. Both musicals are extraordinary and Once takes an early lead based on its powerful anthem “Falling Slowly” and the choreography performed while the actors sing and play their instruments. Yet, The Band’s Visit counters midway with Dina’s haunting memoir song “Omar Serif” and ends with the more enduring glimmer of hope when the entire cast joins Telephone Guy in “Answer Me.”

Advancing: The Band’s Visit (by a slim margin)

I hope you enjoyed the first four pairings. Check back soon for the remainder of round 1. Here are the pairings.

  • Memphis vs. Million Dollar Quartet (Rock and Roll History)
  • Matilda the Musical vs. Fun Home (Children Take the Lead)
  • Kinky Boots vs. Shuffle Along (Bill Porter)
  • An American in Paris vs. Come From Away (The Aftermath of War)

Is you agree or disagree with any of my choices, please weigh in with a post.

Tony Awards Tournament: Best Musical 2010 to 2019 (part 1)

Song of Spider-man by Glen Berger (a book review)

In the book Which Lie Did I Tell, famed screenwriter William Goldman explains a concept with applications beyond the movie business. To paraphrase, Goldman stated in reference to two films released in 1997: Of course everyone in America wanted to see a four-hour love story about the sinking of the Titanic, and no one wanted to see Kevin Costner play a singing post-apocalyptic mailman… in hindsight. The truth is, until they open, no one knows which movies people will want to see.

Spider-man_2

Applying Goldman’s idea to the musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, most Broadway fans probably accept as fact that a musical about Spiderman with complex stunts and dangerous sets was doomed to failure… in hindsight. Glen Berger’s book Song of the Spider-man: the Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History walks readers through this musical from inception to closure, and while the outcome was never in doubt, I was surprised by the number of times I thought to myself, “This might have actually worked.”

Spiderman_3
Bono, Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and The Edge

Glen Berger spent six years co-writing the book for Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark along with famed director Julie Taymor. Various artists and producers would enter and exit the fray, but Taymor, Berger, Bono, and The Edge formed the creative nucleus—a distinction that each may or may not appreciate six years after Spiderman’s closing. One of the pleasures of the book is Berger’s point of view as the artist struggling to support a family of five while glimpsing into the lives of his more eccentric co-creatives.  Here is one of my favorite lines:

“Jim Morrison of the Doors stayed in this apartment,” said Bono as he stood on the balcony in his bathrobe. The lads were eager to assess the songs from workshop—“Let’s listen to them, and then beat them up,” said Bono, who apparently was going to stay in his bathrobe for the meeting” (64).

The book is filled with many insights.  Here are a few of the take-aways that particularly stood out to me:

Spiderman‘s conflicts were rooted in The Lion King’s success

Following her success with The Lion King, Taymor was given carte blanche over Spiderman, but Spiderman proved to be a very different challenge. Most significantly, the directive regarding audience for The Lion King was much clearer—family-friendly show with more adult appeal than Beauty and the Beast.  With Spiderman, Taymor became excited by the project when she thought of using elements of Greek tragedy. She envisioned Arachne, mother of spiders, as her main antagonist and created a Greek chorus of four teens called the Geeks. Her story sounds interesting to someone like me (who knows more about theater history than comics), but audiences were confused by Arachne, hated the Geeks, and wanted more of the Green Goblin. Taymor’s record of success led to creative battles pitting her vision against audience feedback.

Spiderman_4
Natalie Mendoza was originally cast as Arachne, but she left during previews due to an injury. By opening night T.V. Carpio was playing the role. The Geeks were cut during the revision.

Bigger is not necessarily better on Broadway

Before I criticize some of Spiderman’s funding decisions, let’s explore the counter-argument by noting the current inhabitant of the same theater: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Both shows raked up significant budgets by redesigning the theater and adding impressive effects. With Spiderman, the initial budget (which ranges from $65 to $82 million depending on the source) became the story, and no one blinked when Harry Potter started with an investment of at least $65 million. That being said, financial considerations are a consistent topic in Berger’s book, and it helped me to understand why Broadway is plagued by so many jukebox musicals and movie adaptations. Producers will gamble on a show knowing an audience exists for either its songs or for its story. The death-defying effects in Spiderman are fantastic (check out a video clip), but they also led to crippling on-going costs. Smaller-scale original shows like Come From Away, Hadestown and Six do not need to recoup these types of costs every week and therefore are a safer bet for producers.

Spiderman_5
Actors flew over the audience at upwards of 50 miles per hour as Spiderman and the Green Goblin fought. However, the most significant injuries involved the on-stage platform that would deliver actors and scenery to the stage. When the moving platform was above or below stage level, the 15-foot hole mid-stage became an unanticipated danger.

Spiderman’s great mistake was it was not reproducible

From Spiderman’s first preview on November 28, 2013, to its closure on January 4, 2014, almost two million people saw it. It grossed about $203 million over its total run although the investors still lost an estimated $60 million. Many Broadway shows like the original Guys and Dolls have opened and closed in less time and been considered hits, but those shows continued in regional productions. Take Suessical, for example. It lost about $10 million on Broadway in 2001 but reinvented itself and become a children’s theater staple. Spiderman is unique, however, because it has almost certainly experienced a finalizing death blow due to its legacy of being too expensive and too dangerous to produce.

Spiderman_6
Spiderman played for a total of 1,268 performances.

A closed show need not be forgotten

Song of Spider-man is an engrossing exploration of the good intentions behind a doomed show. As I read the book, I recalled a documentary along the same lines, which I also strongly recommend. In Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened, the original actors from Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along look back at how a sure-fire hit closed just 16 performances after the opening. Combining rediscovered footage from 1981 with interviews from 2016, director Lonny Price explores both how the optimism of young actors can be disparaged and how those same actors progressed to remember their ill-fated Broadway debuts with nostalgia. Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened is available on Netflix and itunes.

Spiderman_7

Song of Spider-man by Glen Berger (a book review)

An American in Paris—Drury Lane (3/12/20)

Before Thursday, March 12, I had not comprehended the extent to which COVID-19 is an unprecedented event in our lifetimes.  The reality, not surprisingly, hit me while I sat in a theater—specifically the Drury Lane Oakbrook. Prior to the show, two Drury Lane executives addressed the audience and tearfully announced that we were witnessing the last production of An American in Paris. This large-scale musical would be closing early in accordance with Governor Prizker’s executive order.

American in Paris_2
Will Skrip (as Henri) at the end of “(I’ll Build a) Stairway to Paradise”

Continue reading “An American in Paris—Drury Lane (3/12/20)”

An American in Paris—Drury Lane (3/12/20)

A Tribute to the Less-than-Enjoyable Theater Experience

The way I remember it, I am eight years old and playing Nintendo one Saturday morning when my father walks down the basement stairs to tell me about the play he and my mother saw the previous evening. He refers to the title as Say Yes, Pablo and notes that the play was supposed to be about Pablo Picasso but it was not really about anything, and in the place of normal dialogue there was a lot of chanting. He also said that 25 minutes into the show the first audience members exited out the back door, and the steady flow of unhappy patrons kept that back door open until the end.

Say Yes, Pablo holds a special meaing in our family. When we see a play that we really dislike, we say, “Well, at least it was better than Say Yes, Pablo.”

Continue reading “A Tribute to the Less-than-Enjoyable Theater Experience”

A Tribute to the Less-than-Enjoyable Theater Experience

Year in Review—2019’s Best Non-musicals

#1. All Quiet on the Western Front (Red Tape)

All Quiet on the Western Front_2
The gender-blind cast of All Quiet on the Western Front

The script by Matt Foss is a tribute to Erich Maria Remargue’s novel—a no-holds-barred criticism of war as seen through the eyes of WW1 soldiers, who have accepted that their survival means nothing to the unseen figures calling the shots. Elena Victoria Feliz as Paul moves through the most inventive staging of the year—war is played out on top of old pianos, and colored powders communicate the impact of bombs and bullets.

Continue reading “Year in Review—2019’s Best Non-musicals”

Year in Review—2019’s Best Non-musicals

Year in Review—2019’s Best Musicals

#1. Six (Chicago Shakespeare)

Six_Chicago Shakes
Abby Mueller, Samantha Pauly, Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Brittney Mack & Anna Uzele (each will be reprising her role on Broadway starting February 13)

I was skeptical about a rock musical starring the wives of Henry VIII until I learned that my friend’s teenage daughters were already devoted fans. Six (like Hamilton before it) is a testament to the power of using reimagined history to tell a story that reflects our contemporary world. Every song is a winner—particularly “Don’t Lose Ur Head” and “All You Wanna Do”—in this fun, inventive musical with a powerful feminist conclusion.

Continue reading “Year in Review—2019’s Best Musicals”

Year in Review—2019’s Best Musicals

NEW YORK SHOWS — 12/21/19 & 12/22/19

Greater Clements

Haley Sakamoto (Kel) and Edmund Donovan (Joe)

Samuel Hunter sits among my favorite playwrights based on the strength of The Whale and Pocatello. One can make a sure bet that a Hunter play will build to a mesmerizing, semi-tragic climax as characters push themselves beyond their own limitations.

Continue reading “NEW YORK SHOWS — 12/21/19 & 12/22/19”

NEW YORK SHOWS — 12/21/19 & 12/22/19

The Niceties—Writer’s Theater (11/27/19 & 12/1/19)

The Niceties is a dramatic tennis match of ideas with two characters scoring points in their increasingly intense back-and-forth exchanges.

Janine (Mary Beth Fisher)—a respected history professor teaching an upper-level course on revolutions—begins by offering criticisms to Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakari) regarding her 20-page thesis essay.  The ensuing discussion is fraught with conflicts framed by both race and the generation gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials.  Before the play’s start, a Writer’s Theater Associate encouraged the audience to consider both points of view—particularly when we felt a strong allegiance to one character’s perspective.  In that spirit, I am going to present my reactions to The Niceties by referencing the more convincing points scores by both Janine and Zoe.

Ayanna Bria Bakari & Mary Beth Fisher

Continue reading “The Niceties—Writer’s Theater (11/27/19 & 12/1/19)”

The Niceties—Writer’s Theater (11/27/19 & 12/1/19)