TONY WINNERS: JERSEY BOY and runner up DROWSY CHAPERONE:
What happened to the American Musical?
By Jeannie Lieberman
This year TONY voters faced a delightful dilemma in their decision for Best New Musical. A choice between two extremely enjoyable shows, each with a fascinating back story.
The Drowsy Chaperone is the underdog Americans love. A come from behind late entry that started as a wedding gift, a musical skit created by Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison, Don McKellar and others to celebrate the wedding of Bob Martin and Janet van de Graaf, their friends in the Toronto comedy and theatre community They wrote a spoof of a '20s show, The Drowsy Chaperone, with characters named Bob and Janet. The idea was so good it was expanded into a full, commercial evening, with a choice leading role added for Martin, who plays a man who escapes his loneliness by listening to old musicals which come to life in his imagination transforming his meager apartment into a Broadway stage. The endearing Bob Martin's character had instant rapport with the musical loving voters.
The Drowsy Chaperone, the only nominated Best Musical this year that is not based on history or existing source material (like a book or film) was rewarded for its ambition to be fresh: Bob Martin and Don McKellar won the Best Book, and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison won for Best Original Score (they share music and lyric credit). Beth Leavel, who plays the delicious, and often drunk, title character in The Drowsy Chaperone snagged the Tony for Best Featured Actress. Gregg Barnes won for Best Costumes and David Gallo for Best Sets. The show also featured such recognizable names as Sutton Foster, playing the same flapper era heroine as her Tony Award winning Thoroughly Modern Millie, The show is delightfully populated by vaudevillian schtick-sters of that time, Georgia Engel, Eddie Korbach, Danny Burstein.
The hands down front-runner for Best Musical was the unlikely, but extremely likable Jersey Boys, the pop-hit-filled backstage tale of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. A high end representative of the much maligned Jukebox or Catalog musical genre, it's thin story line followed the autobiographical story of 4 New Jersey blue collar guys who rise from street corners to international fame as the pop sensation of the '60's, and their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, punctuated by 34 immaculately delivered songs uncannily recreating the unique four part harmonic sound of the group: including "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," and "Walk Like a Man." "Dawn," and "Rag Doll," as well as Mr. Valli's big comeback hit "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." Additional panache was provided by the offstage presence of the three living members of the Four Seasons, who "actually lived the story we told."
The show won only 3 Tonys, one design award and two for acting: Playing falsetto famous Frankie Valli, John Lloyd Young won the Tony for Best Actor in a musical (over tough contenders Harry Connick,Jr. playing jazz piano in a nightclub, as the cast struts around him, as one of the season's musical highs, and Michael Cerveris). In a surprise upset Christian Hoff won (over favorite Jim Dale) for his tough, mob-linked Tommy DeVito. "God bless Broadway!" an emotional Mr. Hoff said onstage. Much credit for the show's success must go to Howell Binkley for his flashy concert Lighting Design, a unique concept for Broadway that pulsated with theatergoers unaccustomed to that world.
John Lloyd Young
So how does a musical with Best Book and Best Score, Best Costumes and Best Set design lose Best Musical to a jukebox musical, with Tonys only for acting and lighting, without original music or orchestrations, no notable costumes, choreography or sets and only a thin storyline?
This year's Tony Awards revealed the alarming state of our world-renowned original art form, the American Musical, noticeably the lack of originality and creativity. The recent lazy trend towards Jukebox musicals is as deleterious to the art form as Reality TV is to television. The Tony Award for Best Choreography went, not to an original new musical, but to a revival, Pajama Game (and winner Kathleen Marshall thanked everyone but Bob Fosse, who set the style she faithfully recaptured). Best Orchestration went to the revival of Sweeney Todd, in which Sarah Travis won for minimalizing a pre-existing score (of the four nominees there was only one original musical score, Drowsy Chaperone, orchestrated by Larry Blank). Perhaps these awards, including, perhaps, direction, costume design and sets, should be limited to new musicals in which everything is created from scratch.
Even Drowsy Chaperone was a once removed musical within a play, a look back spoof of the 20's musicals, and not a new concept at all. By contrast, look at last year's contenders, Spamalot and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, both new musicals!
Another consideration one is loath to recognize is the commercial value. The Tonys are nominated and voted on by those in the theater industry, many with their own shows in the running. Over one quarter of the votes are from regional theater owners looking for shows that will tour successfully and economically. Jersey Boys, with the recognizable name of Frankie Valli, small cast and sets, will travel and draw better than Drowsy, with an unfortunate name and complicated sets. The feel good musical revival of Pajama Game will similarly do better than the dark, dissonant Sweeney Todd and bizarre Three Penny Opera.
Note to producers: The underrated, thoroughly enjoyable Wedding Singer, and emotionally and musically satisfying Color Purple would make great road shows!
....enjoy the theater............