When looking at Broadway musicals, the first marker of success we often look to is whether or not it won the Best Musical Tony Award. In many instances, this is a pretty good place to start. The Best Musical winner's circle includes such legends of the genre as South Pacific, Company, The Phantom of the Opera and Rent, to name just a few.
However through the years there have been just as many (if not more) prominent shows that did not win Best Musical, many of which that went on to enjoy greater success than the productions they lost out to either in the original run or in subsequent revivals. Let's take a look at the best of the Best Musicals who didn't win and explore why they may not have taken home the trophy.
Peter Pan has been a popular story with children and adults ever since it was written by J.M. Barrie in 1904. Though there have been several musical adaptations, the most successful has been the one with a score by Moose Charlap, Carolyn Leigh, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which premiered on Broadway in 1955. The original Broadway run was brief at just about four months, but it found unprecedented success on television. Original star Mary Martin recreated her stage role in no less than three live television broadcasts, the final of which was captured on film and replayed countless times in the years following. The popularity of the show through these broadcasts led to regional productions, national tours and five Broadway revivals, though three out of the five were limited holiday engagements. In a return to its television successes, NBC broadcast a brand-new live television production in 2014 that starred Allison Williams and Christopher Walken and earned impressive ratings.
You can read more about the history of Peter Pan onstage in "A Century of the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up." However, in 1955, Peter Pan lost the Best Musical Tony Award to Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' The Pajama Game. Pajama Game ended up playing a two-year 1063-performance run. Since then, the work has enjoyed a movie adaptation (in 1957) and two Broadway revivals, in 1973 and 2006 (the latter starring Kelli O'Hara and Harry Connick, Jr.). You could hardly call it unsuccessful, but one also thinks if the public was quizzed at large, you'd find that more people are familiar with Peter Pan than with The Pajama Game.
Peter Pan may have lost for something as simple as not being open during the Tony Award voting period, but it's more likely that voters responded to Pajama Game's more adult subject matter. Peter Pan was and is a huge success with families and especially with children, but Pajama Game's satirical look at labor disputes and unions was certainly more timely during the Second Red Scare of the 1950s.
West Side Story
It's hard to deny the artistic and popular success of Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's landmark 1957 musical West Side Story; It has received three successful Broadway revivals (in 1960, 1980 and most recently in 2009 starring Matt Cavenaugh and Karen Olivo) and a much-loved film adaptation. West Side Story is one of those shows that even non-theatre geeks know and love; it's a popular and frequent selection at regional theatres as well as high schools, many of whom also use it in the classroom to teach Romeo and Juliet.
Head over to Playbill Vault where you can flip through West Side Story's 1957 opening night Playbill!
However, it's also hard to deny the continued popularity of Meredith Willson's The Music Man, which beat out West Side Story for Best Musical at the Tony Awards in 1957. After a three-and-a-half year run on Broadway, the show went on to have two Broadway revivals (starring Dick Van Dyke in 1980 and Craig Bierko in 2000) and two movie adaptations as well. We may even have a third screen adaptation to look forward to, as producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have talked about the show being a top candidate for live television broadcast. And for as popular as West Side Story is with regional theatres and high schools, Music Man continues to be even more so.
I think in comparing these two musicals, most people would say that West Side Story is the greater artistic success. The Music Man may have beaten it out in 1957 because it was more commercial, but it certainly didn't hurt that it's an extremely well-written and clever piece of theatre itself. Music Man also had the benefit of speaking to the cultural sensibilities of the time. After World War II and particularly in the 1950s, we saw a lot of glorification of small-town America and simple living. On TV we had "Leave It to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best," and in musical theatre we had The Music Man.
Chicago easily presents one of the greatest examples of a production that didn't win Best Musical but went on to big-time success. The original production ran for two years and 936 performances, but was largely forgotten until City Center Encores! presented a concert version nearly 20 years later in 1996. This production, originally starring Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking, quickly transferred to a commercial Broadway run and has been there ever since. Its current run of almost 19 years and over 7,000 performances dwarfs the record of the original run. It also exceeds the run of the original production of A Chorus Line, the musical which beat out Chicago for Best Musical at the 1976 Tony Awards — and A Chorus Line is famous for being one of the first long-running Broadway juggernauts. Of course, this isn't to say that A Chorus Line isn't still beloved today; it received a Broadway revival in 2006 and has almost always been touring the country since its premiere on Broadway. It's also frequently produced at regional theatres and in summer stock.
So why did Chicago lose Best Musical? As popular as Chicago is now, the original run received mixed reviews; writing in the New York Times, Clive Barnes praised the individual performances but not the writing of the show itself. Perhaps in 1976's post-Watergate atmosphere, the public was not as game for such a cynical look at American culture. More importantly, Chicago was drowned out by the undeniable popular success and artistic achievement that was A Chorus Line. Chorus Line had opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater a month before Chicago arrived in New York, and it moved to Broadway with lots of buzz and anticipation just three months later. Chicago couldn't beat that kind of a story. (If you're having a deja vu moment, it's because Hamilton seems to be poised to transfer to Broadway under very similar circumstances this summer.)
Playbill Vault recently added a complete cover-to-cover Playbill from the original run of Chicago.
There are definitely a faction of people that carry a grudge about certain musicals losing the Tony Award, and you can understand why; a major win on Tony night can lead to a longer run on Broadway, national tours and even movie adaptations. We can take consolation, however, in the fact that these musicals (and several others like them) prove that losing Best Musical at the Tony Awards doesn't mean everything's over, nor does it mean that show isn't excellent. At the end of the day, a good show is a good show and audiences will want to see them.
(Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.)