Company, Les Mis and More: Which Musicals Got No Love From the Critics But Took Home the Tony?

News   Company, Les Mis and More: Which Musicals Got No Love From the Critics But Took Home the Tony? Following the June 7 Tony Awards broadcast, Playbill.com looks at productions that were not loved by critics but went on to win Broadway's biggest honors.

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The Tony Awards continue to be an important night for the plays and musicals that open on Broadway in any particular season. For some of these shows that win multiple statues, it is an assurance that the critics got it right and recommended quality entertainment to a paying audience. For other shows, the prizes are surprises. Tony voters cast their ballots to validate or vindicate productions where the critics have, in their estimation, gotten it wrong. This year's oft-nominated Something Rotten! was poised to be one of those musicals that thumbed its nose at the critics, but alas, in a very competitive year, it was not meant to be. It went home with a singular Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Christian Borle). Every once and a while, however, a musical that has been maligned or misunderstood by critics, goes home with a handful of Tonys.

Christian Borle in <i>Something Rotten!</i>
Christian Borle in Something Rotten! Photo by Joan Marcus

Hallelujah, Baby!, by Jule Styne (music), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book) opened in 1967 and it wasn't exactly a critics' darling. The story attempted to chronicle the struggle of African-Americans in the first half of the 20th century, but it struggled to find cohesion, a through line, or to appeal to audiences. It also opened in a lackluster year where the race for Best Musical was a tepid one. Its competition at the 1968 Tony Awards included The Happy Time; How, Now, Dow Jones; and Illya Darling, none of which are particularly well-remembered today.

Hallelujah, Baby! holds the distinction of being the only theatrical work to win the Best Musical prize after the show in question closed. It also garnered wins for Best Actress (Leslie Uggams), Best Featured Actress (Lillian Hayman), Best Score and Best Producer, making it very successful at the awards show. This despite a review from Walter Kerr in the New York Times that alluded to a fragmented musical with good intentions that "is a course in Civics One when everyone else in the world has already gotten to Civics Six." Though it did not remain open long enough to reap the benefits of its multiple Tony wins, Tony voters found substance and musicality in Hallelujah, Baby! and rewarded it accordingly.

In the year 2015, no one bats an eye at the thought of a Stephen Sondheim musical taking home a bouquet of Tonys. In 1970, however, Company was something fresh, new and unlike anything critics or audiences had ever seen before. In fact, many papers (including the all-important New York Times) spelled certain doom (or at least conveyed strong reticence) for the non-linear piece that delved into the more unpleasant aspects of marriage. Tony voters saw more than that, interpreting Company as a deft commentary on human connection and the sacrifices we make to have it. Company went home with awards for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Music, Best Lyrics, Best Direction and Best Scenic Design, but more importantly, Sondheim, director Hal Prince, and their collaborators were validated for their next step in the evolution of musical theatre. This recognition opened the doors for a decade of works that stretched musical theatre in form and content with startling results such as Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd in 1979.

Larry Kert and the cast of <i>Company</i>
Larry Kert and the cast of Company

1985 was a year where critics didn't care for much of anything that opened on Broadway, and it was true that there were very few successful offerings that year. Things were so bleak, in fact, that the Best Actress and Best Actor in a musical categories were eliminated altogether at that years Tony Awards. Despite less than enthusiastic reviews from critics, one musical emerged the big Tony victor of the season. Big River, a musical based on the "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain," saw a major boost in its box office after securing a win for Best Musical, besting Leader of the Pack, Quilters, and Grind. Wins for Best Book, Best Score, Best Director (Des McAnuff), Best Scenic Design and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Ron Richardson) also secured the musical's success, propelling it to a run of 1,005 performances. Perhaps it was the family-friendly nature or the earnest cleverness with which it retold a classic story that helped audiences and Tony voters to see Big River as more than the "amiable, tuneful, and almost entirely uninvolving" piece that Douglas Watt of The New York Daily News accused of "the unpardonable sin of being dull."

In 1987, a little show from Great Britain blew across the ocean and landed in the Broadway Theatre, settling down for one of the lengthiest runs of any musical in history. What makes its success so startling is that the London production had been panned by critics, and their New York counterparts didn't exactly receive it with open arms (though they were a little kinder). The musical was Les Miserables, and it ended up taking Broadway and the Tony Awards by storm, walking away with eight statuettes including one for Best Musical for the epic staging of the Victor Hugo novel about faith, love and war. Howard Kissel in the New York Daily News called the score "drivel" and Clive Barnes of the New York Daily Post chose to label it "monotonous" and dismissed the show as a whole as "instantly disposable trash." Les Miserables won the Tony that year for Best Score, as well as Best Book, Best Featured Actress (Frances Ruffelle), Best Featured Actor (Michael Maguire), Best Direction (Trevor Nunn and John Caird), Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design. Not too shabby for a musical that was deemed by many to be overly long, tedious and melodramatic. Les Miserables has been revived twice since its original inception and was made into a tremendously successful feature film. Clearly critics do not always reflect the pulse of the audience.

John Dewar, Paul Harman, Frances Ruffelle, Colm Wilkinson, Randy Graff, David Bryant and Judy Kuhn in the original Broadway cast of <i>Les Miz</i>
John Dewar, Paul Harman, Frances Ruffelle, Colm Wilkinson, Randy Graff, David Bryant and Judy Kuhn in the original Broadway cast of Les Miz Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench

It is really hard to produce an unlikely musical about one of the most well-known maritime disasters of all-time, and not expect that, if even one element of the show is out of place, critics won't immediately begin conjuring analogies about boats sinking. That is exactly what happened when the Maury Yeston/Peter Stone musical Titanic aimed to set sail on Broadway in 1997. Plagued by troubles with moving scenery during previews (and sometimes after the show opened), Titanic had already stirred up some bad press courtesy of that venomous word-of-mouth that sometimes precedes shows that are about to open. Critics' reviews didn't do much to help its buoyancy. Ben Brantley in The New York Times called the show "a perversely cool work, cerebral without being particularly imaginative or insightful." Howard Kissel in the New York Daily News bemoaned, "What's sad about Titanic is that it shows flashes of what it could have been." In the end, however, Titanic remained afloat for 804 performances, much of this longevity due to its multiple Tony wins including Best Book, Best Score, Best Scenic Design, Best Orchestrations and that life boat to a sinking production, Best Musical. Over time, critics have come around on this piece, finding considerable value in its haunting score.

David Garrison, Michael Cerveris and John Cunningham in <i>Titanic</i>
David Garrison, Michael Cerveris and John Cunningham in Titanic Photo by Joan Marcus

And In recent years, one musical stands out in as having overcome the critics and found success on Tony night. Opening in the fall of 2009, Memphis was cooly received by critics. Charles Isherwood in The New York Times wrote, "This slick but formulaic entertainment, written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, barely generates enough heat to warp a vinyl record, despite the vigorous efforts of a talented, hard-charging cast. While the all-important music competently simulates a wide range of period rock, gospel and rhythm and blues, the crucial ingredient — authentic soul — is missing in action." Memphis was loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a white disc jockey in the 1950s, who was one of the first to revere, promote and play black music on the air. Memphis endured until the Tony Awards and managed to win the Best Musical prize, as well as Best Book, Best Score, and Best Orchestrations. The Tony telecast performance of electric "Listen to the Beat" made an excellent case for the show, boosting ticket sales and ensuring a run of 1,165 performances. The musical and its producers seemed to take its own advice and didn't "let anyone steal" its "rock and roll."

Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."

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