Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Was It a Bad Year for Original Musicals?

I was originally going to write a post about how bad the recently concluded Broadway season was for original musicals.  Eight new productions were introduced to theatergoers beginning in August 2012.  A few of them closed within weeks of opening, while others hung on for a couple of months.  Only three of the original eight were still open as of the first week of April 2013.  On a positive note those three--Kinky Boots, Matilda, and Motown – the Musical--are certifiable hits.  Kinky Boots and Matilda are also up for a slew of Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

I initially thought previous years had to have been so much better.  Well, I was wrong.  Looking at this season as a whole it is about par for the course—two sizeable hits with multiple Tony Award nominations.  Using a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical as the barometer one could make an argument that the 2012-2013 season, even with all the early closures, has been a good one.  Really.  Sifting through the Tony Award database brings up many examples of years with only one notable production.  Two would have been a blessing.  For example, the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1985-1986 was The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  A solid show with an outstanding cast and admirable score.  The competition that year—Bob Fosse’s Big Deal (heard of it?), Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance (notable for Bernadette Peter’s first Best Actress Tony), and Tango Argentino.  Not exactly a first-rate grouping.  How about 1989?  Jerome Robbins’ Broadway was the winner for Best Musical that year.  It had to outduel such stellar shows as Black and Blue and Starmites.  Starmites was nominated pretty much because, well because, there weren’t any other choices.  The show closed after a paltry 60 performances.  At least Black and Blue, a musical revue, ran for a respectable 829 performances, but hardly a Best Musical nominee in most any other year.  Further proof that this season wasn’t so bad?  How about 2007-2008?  In the Heights was the show of the year.  Its stiff competition?  Would you believe Cry-Baby (awful), Passing Strange (off-beat), and Xanadu (campy).  

However, the worst year ever for original Broadway musicals was the 1994-1995 Broadway season.  There were a total of two shows nominated for Best Musical that year.  Two!  Sunset Boulevard was the winning selection.  The only other musical?  Smokey Joe’s Café.  That was it.  Not even some low-brow or schlocky show was nominated because…there were no others produced that season!  Now, one could argue that Smokey Joe’s Café was very deserving of a Best Musical nomination.  It eventually became the longest running musical revue in Broadway history with just over 2,000 performances.  But, even with agreeing to this assumption, again, there were only two musicals even nominated.  It was so bad that season that the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical went to Sunset Boulevard by default because there were no other original book musicals that year.

So, once more, as I look at this season I can still whine about the quality and quantity of original musicals, but compared to some years this season looks quite good.  On Sunday, June 9th, when the Tony Awards are handed out it will be a battle between Kinky Boots and Matilda for Best Musical as well as most of the other top honors (for the record the other two Best Musical nominees, long dormant, are Bring It On – The Musical and A Christmas Story – The Musical).  Nearly all of the remaining original musicals, while having received a Tony nod here and there, will come up empty.  The major musical revivals—Pippin, Cinderella, and They Mystery of Edwin Drood—will probably pick up the balance of the musical awards. 

Next season?  At this point, it doesn’t look like a return to the banner years of the early to mid-1960’s.  One could argue that period was the golden years of original Broadway musicals.  In the 1959-1960 season the Best Musical nominees were The Sound of Music, Fiorello!, Gypsy, Once Upon a Mattress, and Take Me Along.  The choices during 1963-1964 included Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and She Loves Me.  And in 1965-1966 there were Man of La Mancha, Mame and Sweet Charity.  To paraphrase Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man,” hope does always spring eternal.  Especially on Broadway.

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