(Originally published March 9, 2015. Minor updates have been made to provide context.)
In late February 2015, producers of the hot Off-Broadway musical Hamilton announced that the show would transfer to Broadway following its acclaimed run at the Public Theater. That was expected. Unexpected was their decision not to bring it to Times Square last spring, so as to be able to compete for the 2015 Tony Awards. (For the record, the Public already had a major horse in the race last year, Fun Home, which earned four 2015 Tony Awards including Best Musical. The two groundbreaking musicals would have been in direct competition.)
Instead, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton opted to bide its time, beginning Broadway previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre July 13, 2015. Critics again raved when it officially opened on Broadway in August of last summer.
Opening a show on Broadway in summer is always a risky move. On the plus side, a production can earn the lion’s share of press attention upon unveiling, as few shows choose to bow in the three months that follow the June Tony Awards. On the minus side, there’s the danger of the show fading from nominators’ memories come spring of the following year, when award nods are handed out. Just as Oscar nominators and voters have a hard time remembering movies that were released many months before, the Tonys tend to reward the shows that are fresh in their memory and still running.
However, history has shown that the odds can be beaten. The annals of the Tonys include some comeback kids who toughed it out for the better part of a year to eventually step onto the Tony stage triumphant. Perhaps the most notable example of this phenomenon comes from the 2003-2004 season when the scrappy Avenue Q—small, subversive, created by a team of unknowns—bested the powerhouse musical Wicked, which had a money director (Joe Mantello), money stars (Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel), money composer (Stephen Schwartz) and a big budget.
Avenue Q’s producers’ campaign to keep their show in voters’ hearts and minds was one of the most wily and comprehensive in Broadway history. Soon after netting several Tony nominations, the show launched an open appeal to Tony voters to “Vote Your Heart” and “Don't Suck, Vote Q.” The John Golden marquee was strewn in banners, and clever, soft-sell skits were enacted to win voters’ affections. The most famous was held at John’s Pizzeria in Times Square, in which road producers and the press were invited to hear a new tune called “Rod’s Dilemma,” in which the puppet Rod was urged by his friends to “vote his heart.”
Overt Tony campaigns were unknown before then. Producers typically did little more than invite voters to see their show, place ads in the papers and mail cast recordings. Avenue Q’s approach was more aggressive and smacked a bit of Oscar campaigns.
It worked. Q scored an upset on Tony night. Nominated for nine Tonys, Wicked won two design awards and Best Actress in a Musical for Menzel. Avenue Q, nominated for six, took home three biggies: Best Musical, Best Score (Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) and Best Book (Jeff Whitty). In the end, the loss hurt Wicked not a jot. The global megamusical runs still on Broadway, grossing well-over $1 million each week. To its credit, the tenacious Q enjoyed a six-year Broadway run, after which producers smartly transferred the show back Off-Broadway, reducing overhead costs and enabling the show to sustain business to this day at New World Stages.
The producers of Avenue Q (which included Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer of Hamilton) need only to have looked at the previous season to know that their shot at the Tony was not as long as one might think. The musical Hairspray opened in August 2002 and was memorable enough to pull down 12 Tony nominations the following spring, winning eight of them, including Best Musical.
In Hairspray’s case, it had no Goliath to slay come spring. It was the Goliath. (Other Best Musical nominees included Amour, A Year With Frog and Toad, which posed no threat, and the no-book, no-score, dance show Movin’ Out.) But it probably didn’t hurt that Hairspray star Harvey Fierstein proved himself a Tony campaigner of incomparable charm and energy.
Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux Folles opened in August 1983 and was indeed an underdog by the time the Tonys came around in the spring of 1984. The traditional musical was expected to fall to the more challenging, critically lauded Sunday in the Park With George, scored by Stephen Sondheim. Sunday went into the Tonys leading with 10 nominations, just one more than La Cage.
But Herman—perhaps helped along by nostalgia-minded, backward-looking Tony voters—scored an upset. In an infamous acceptance speech, Herman said, “This award forever shatters a myth. There’s been a rumor that the simple, hummable show tune is dead on Broadway. Well, it’s alive and well at the Palace.”
La Cage took six of the coveted award categories that night, including Best Score, Best Book (Harvey Fierstein) and Best Direction (Arthur Laurents), while Sunday in the Park was honored for Lighting (Richard Nelson) and Scenic Design (Tony Straiges). Sondheim and James Lapine may have received some solace when their work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama a year later.
Perhaps the most famous musical ever to open in summer and then win the Tony for Best Musical the following spring was A Chorus Line—transferring to Broadway at break-neck speed—opening July 25, 1975, less than two weeks after closing Off-Broadway at the Public Theater.
But, in that instance, the outcome was never in question. When a season contains a seminal show that is both a popular and critical hit, what are you going to give the award to? It won all but one of the categories it was nominated for.
(Its competition at the 1976 Tony Awards was Kander and Ebb’s new musical Chicago, which also gambled on a risky June ’75 opening; and Sondheim, John Weidman and Harold Prince’s experimental Pacific Overtures.)
In the world of plays, Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy opened on Broadway in June 1982 and won the Tony for Best Play in 1983. The competition was stiff, including Angels Fall by Lanford Wilson, Plenty by David Hare and ’Night, Mother by Marsha Norman, which won the Pulitzer Prize that year. The latter two were thought to be the leading contenders.
Fierstein had a hard time even getting his four-hour, three-part play produced. It began life in the Off-Off-Broadway theatre La MaMa LTC. Centered on a homosexual and transvestite named Arnold Beckoff, it was hardly standard Broadway fare. That Hare and Wilson’s plays had closed by the time the Tonys came around could have helped Trilogy’s cause.
But perhaps the most remarkable come-from-behind story in Tony history belongs to Side Man. A Cinderella story if there ever was one, the Warren Leight play began in March 1998 Off-Off-Broadway as a rental in the CSC space in the East Village. It garnered good reviews. That might have been it. But then the play got lucky again and again.
In the late spring, the production was homeless. Then the Roundabout Theatre Company’s planned production of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David revue What the World Needs Now short-circuited, and the nonprofit found itself with a vacancy. Side Man was brought into the Criterion Center, which was then Roundabout’s home. After further critical acclaim, it moved to a commercial Broadway run at the Golden Theatre in the fall, where, owing to some inventive penny-pinching on the part of the producers, and some star casting, it stayed a year. It beat out three British imports—Closer by Patrick Marber, The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh, and a National Theatre mounting of Tennessee Williams’ Not About Nightingales—to win the Tony for Best Play.
So Hamilton, take hope.