Remembering the Surprises of the 2004 Tonys: What Does Avenue Q's Win Predict For Sunday?

Tony Awards   Remembering the Surprises of the 2004 Tonys: What Does Avenue Q's Win Predict For Sunday? As theatregoers prepare for this year's Tony Awards, Playbill.com looks back at one of the most surprising Tony races in history; almost no one could guess how it would turn out, nor the lengths the shows would go to for Tony glory.
The <i>Avenue Q</i> original Broadway cast
The Avenue Q original Broadway cast Photo by Carol Rosegg

This Tony Award season, it almost goes without saying, is pretty exciting. Whereas some seasons theatre lovers can nearly guess the winners of the major awards before the nominations are even announced, this season has several categories so packed with excellent contenders that it's almost impossible to predict how things will go Tony night.

While waiting for this year's awards ceremony, Playbill.com looks back at one of the most surprising and competitive Tony races in recent memory, that of the 2003-04 season. Wicked faced off against Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change and The Boy From Oz for Best Musical. Shows expected to be big hits closed prematurely. Smaller shows proved they could have a fighting chance against productions with budgets over four times higher than their own. Almost no one correctly predicted how the Tony Awards would end up that year, nor could anyone have predicted how far one show would go in their campaign to take home a Tony medallion.

The 2004 Tony nominees for Best Musical
The 2004 Tony nominees for Best Musical

The 2003-04 season was unusual in that of the four musicals nominated for Best Musical, three were open by mid-November. (By way of comparison, the earliest-opening show nominated for Best Musical this season is An American in Paris, and it opened in mid-April.) Opening in the fall means the shows have to get through the winter months, historically the worst for Broadway ticket sales. Trying to make a brand-new show a hit can be difficult when people are loath to leave their warm apartments.

Boy George in <i>Taboo</i>
Boy George in Taboo Photo by Joan Marcus

Taboo, one of the most expensive musicals of the season, enjoyed healthy buzz before beginning performances on Broadway thanks to a prior London engagement featuring a critically-lauded star turn by the then-unknown Euan Morton. Once the production arrived in New York, however, things turned grim. The show faced a mountain of negative press, much of which focused on first-time producer Rosie O'Donnell's lack of experience and extracurricular legal troubles (she was in the middle of suing her former magazine publisher for breach of contract). Combined with the challenges of reduced audience attendance in winter, Taboo was forced to close after just four months on Broadway. After having been initially expected to be a major contender for Best Musical at that year's Tony Awards, Taboo's closure became the season's first Tony surprise. Conversely, the biggest hit of 2003-04 was Stephen Schwartz's musical adaptation of the prequel to "The Wizard of Oz," Wicked. It may seem inevitable in hindsight, but when Wicked first arrived on Broadway its prospects were far from clear. The show received negative press during its pre-Broadway try-out in San Francisco. Before taking the show to Broadway, the creative team worked on improving the show and particularly the character of Elphaba, but it nevertheless opened to mostly negative reviews in New York.

Needless to say, Wicked is a great example of a show that was able to move beyond negative reviews. The production sailed through the difficult winter months with full houses and a steadily growing advance sale. The show seemed to really strike a chord with younger audience members, who were identifying with the main characters and underdog themes. Wicked became, for many, the clear front-runner to take the Best Musical Tony Award.

Idina Menzel in <i>Wicked</i>
Idina Menzel in Wicked Photo by Joan Marcus

Meanwhile, Avenue Q had opened on Broadway in July of 2003 after a successful Off-Broadway run. Where Wicked was big, Avenue Q was small. Where Wicked became an accessible hit with families, Avenue Q was so edgy that its cast recording carried a parental advisory sticker on it. Avenue Q was received considerably better than Wicked critically, but many questioned whether the show would find a robust audience on Broadway. There had never really been anything like Avenue Q on Broadway before, so many people wondered how and if the musical would find its audience.

When it came time for Tony nominations, Wicked and Avenue Q found themselves sharing the Best Musical category with The Boy From Oz and Caroline, or Change. The Boy from Oz had been commercially successful, but few thought it had any real chances at winning the Tony. Its popularity was largely due to the performance being given by its leading man, Hugh Jackman; the show itself was largely panned by critics. In fact, the interest was so focused on Jackman that when he decided to take a two-week vacation during the run, producers chose to temporarily close the show rather than perform it without its star.

Hugh Jackman in <i>The Boy From Oz</i>
Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz

Caroline, on the other hand, had played a well-received run downtown at the Public Theater the previous winter. It came to Broadway knowingly as a hard sell; the piece was unconventional and non-commercial, if respected for its artistic achievements. Producers hoped positive word of mouth and its reputation for successfully pushing the boundaries of the artform would allow it to find an audience on Broadway.

Thus the stage was set for quite a Best Musical Tony race. Many thought Wicked had it in the bag; it was a show that audiences responded to enthusiastically and it had massive commercial appeal. It was clear by Tony time that Wicked wasn't going anywhere and that it would tour the country as well. With a large amount of Tony voters associated with touring venues throughout the country, this was and is an important part of winning Best Musical: the thought being that a major Tony winner will attract larger audiences on the road.

It also didn't hurt that Wicked had become somewhat of an awards steamroller; it had already won Best Musical at the Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Awards by the time the Tony Awards rolled around. But the producers of Avenue Q weren't going down without a fight. They had a show that had also proven itself popular with audiences, and they knew a Best Musical win on Tony night could take them over the top. They launched one of the most aggressive Tony campaigns ever seen, best exemplified by a song that writers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx wrote especially for the campaign: "Vote Your Heart." The number centered around Rod and his trouble in deciding who to vote for in a Rotary Club election. The candidates he had to choose from were all thinly veiled metaphors for Avenue Q's competition: an old friend from college (Caroline, or Change), a wealthy guy who might be able to offer destination vacations in return for his vote (Wicked) and an especially attractive man (The Boy From Oz). The other Avenue Q characters urge Rod in song to "Vote Your Heart," a phrase that was emblazoned on buttons distributed to theatre professionals and Tony voters along with a promotional CD recording of the song itself. Compared to most shows' Tony campaigns, which consist of cast recordings being sent to voters and a healthy advertising plan, Avenue Q had gone above and beyond in an unprecedented way.

When Tony night finally arrived, Avenue Q's campaign proved to be more successful than anyone could have imagined; both Avenue Q and Wicked took home three Tony medallions, but Avenue Q walked away with the all-important trifecta of Best Book, Best Score and Best Musical. It's notable to point out that Avenue Q's creative team was made up largely of untested newcomers, and they had beaten out Wicked's team of legendary pros.

Wicked managed to pull its own Tony upset when Idina Menzel took Best Actress, an award that had been favored to go to Caroline, or Change's leading lady, Tonya Pinkins. Wicked also won Tonys for its costumes and scenic design.

After all was said and done, Wicked was not in need of a Best Musical Tony to become a hit; it is still running today and has become a bonafide international phenomenon. It's currently the 11th longest-running musical on Broadway and consistently remains one of Broadway's highest-grossing shows, even 11 years after opening night.

Avenue Q leveraged its success at the Tony Awards into London, Las Vegas and national touring productions. The Broadway production ran a healthy six years before moving Off-Broadway to New World Stages, where it continues to run today. No one can say what Avenue Q's fate might have been had it not won Best Musical at the 2004 Tonys, but it definitely didn't hurt!

Chandra Wilson, Tonya Pinkins and Anika Noni Rose in <i>Caroline, or Change</i>
Chandra Wilson, Tonya Pinkins and Anika Noni Rose in Caroline, or Change Photo by Michael Daniel

Caroline, or Change earned a Featured Actress Tony Award for Anika Noni Rose, then relatively unknown. Unfortunately, it wasn't able to make it much past the summer months, closing August 29. The Boy From Oz received a Best Actor award for Hugh Jackman, but closed, as expected, at the completion of his contract in September. The 2003-04 Broadway season serves as a reminder that one never quite knows how the votes will fall on Tony night. This year could easily be just as surprising. Caroline, or Change composer Jeanine Tesori is back on Broadway with another untraditional and critically-lauded musical, Fun Home, which, like Caroline, also transferred to Broadway following a successful run at the Public. Though this musical about homosexuality, suicide and strained parental relationships might seem like a hard sell commercially, the show seems to have found its audience; Fun Home is regularly playing to sold-out audiences and has been getting a healthy dose of attention in various media outlets as well. It has built the kind of momentum that could well make it a big winner this weekend.

It appears, however, that most pundits are expecting Best Musical to go to An American in Paris, and not without reason; based on a much-loved movie-musical of the same name, An American in Paris delivers stunning visuals, gorgeous dancing and a tuneful score filled with beloved Gershwin tunes. It received excellent reviews from critics and audiences have been loving it.

Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in <i>An American In Paris</i>
Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in An American In Paris Photo by Matthew Murphy

There's also Something Rotten!, which has been cracking audiences up with its hilarious and often edgy material, a simultaneous satire on and love letter to the genre of musical theatre. With a writing team that are all making their Broadway debuts, one can't help but think of Avenue Q and wonder if Something Rotten! might also sneak in and take home the night's final award.

Fortunately, seasons like our current one and that of 2003-04 provide the most exciting Tony Awards to watch by far; not that it's not also exciting when The Producers walks away with a record-breaking 12 awards, but no one was shocked when they opened the Best Musical envelope in 2001. This year's awards, however — just like 2004's — may well keep us guessing until the very end.

(Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.)

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