The Antoinette Perry Award, or as it is more commonly known, The "Tony" is one of the most coveted honors in the world of theatre. Started in 1947, this prestigious distinction of excellence is named for an actress, director and producer who had been a leader of the American Theatre Wing during World War II. The first ceremony was held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, and winners received scrolls, women gold compacts and men gold money clips and cigarette lighters. Brigadoon, Finian's Rainbow and Street Scene were the first musicals to be recognized with a Tony, although the Best Musical prize would not be established until 1949 when Kiss Me, Kate was bestowed the honor. Every season since, the Best Musical Tony is considered the brass ring that every producer hopes to nab.
Just recently, the nominees for the 2015 Tony Awards were announced, and we, once again, find that the race for the Best Musical prize is a tight one. Fun Home, Something Rotten, An American in Paris and The Visit are facing off in a race that could easily go in any direction, depending on what appeals to voters. Looking back over the years, there have been some contests for the Best Musical prize that have kept everyone guessing right up until the envelope was opened and the winner proclaimed. The honor and publicity that come with a win in this category can usually ensure a healthy, profitable run for a musical, so is it any wonder that we sit perched on Tony night, awaiting the results of this important race?
One contest for Best Musical that, in many minds, must have been a heated race was the year that The Music Man and West Side Story were both considered for the big prize. It was 1958, and The Music Man was rich with Americana, boasted a unique and funny story and featured a book and score all created by a gifted, eclectic musician recalling memories of his childhood: Meredith Willson. West Side Story told a much darker tale about America, but equally as compelling. Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, creators Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins envisioned rival street gangs squaring off to the death in contemporary New York City. Through its inventive use of dance and its unyielding exploration of darker themes, West Side Story evolved and changed theatre forever, and arguably had a greater influence than The Music Man. Considering the era, the trend for entertainment of the 1950s to lean toward wholesome fun, and post-war patriotism stoking the fires of nostalgia, it really should not be a surprise that The Music Man took home the prize. West Side Story was breaking down barriers, but it was not necessarily delving into comfortable themes for the average theatregoer who preferred escapism to a reality check. Both musicals, however, have demonstrated a strong shelf life, continuing to entertain and thrill audiences with frequent productions and the occasional Broadway revival.
In 1973, two musicals, both very stylized and sublimely unique in their individuality, went head to head for the honor of Best Musical. Pippin, featuring a score by Stephen Schwartz, was given the indelible stamp of Bob Fosse direction and choreography, a style that will forever be associated with the show. A Little Night Music reimagined the Ingmar Bergman film "Smiles of the Summer Night," filtered through an elegant, witty score by Stephen Sondheim. This was one of those awards presentations where the voters were clearly divided, with acting awards split between the two shows (with a little love thrown in for George S. Irving in the supporting actor category for Irene). Design awards were also split: Book and score went to A Little Night Music, and directing and choreography went to Pippin. Though Pippin would run longer, A Little Night Music went home with the Best Musical accolade. Pippin was thought to be dated and difficult to revive, but the recent Diane Paulus-helmed circus-inspired production of 2013 disproved that theory. A Little Night Music continues to be produced around the world, but it, too, has only received one Broadway revival in 2009.
In 1982, Dreamgirls was all of the rage, with Michael Bennett's kinetic production and Jennifer Holliday's explosive performance of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" literally forcing audiences out of their seats and into standing ovation elation. Tommy Tune, in the same season, ushered in the sophisticated and stylish Nine with a score by Maury Yeston, based on the Frederico Fellini film "8 ½ ". Each of these nominees took musical theatre into new places, breaking down walls and incorporating inventive staging as a way to heighten storytelling. Both pieces were ambitious, and in any other season, they would have been the likely winner for Best Musical. Nine went home with the award that year, but Dreamgirls ran longer and toured more extensively. Both were made into films, and both have been revived on Broadway once since their original production (Dreamgirls in 1987 and Nine in 2003). In the end, however, the challenges presented in producing both pieces have kept them from receiving frequent productions.
One interesting race (and something of an anomaly) that comes to mind was in 1993 when Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Who's Tommy faced off in the Best Musical category. Theatregoers watched as wins volleyed back and forth between the two musicals, with the Best Score award divided between them evenly in a tie. What makes this contest all the more fascinating is that neither show is what you would consider warm, family-friendly or commercial. The Who's Tommy addressed pedophilia, drug use, murder, abuse and bullying; and Kiss of the Spider Woman, set almost entirely within the confines of a prison, dealt with torture, homosexuality, onstage defecation as a result of poisoning, impending death and delusional escapism as a means for survival. In the end, Kiss of the Spider Woman reigned supreme, and it went on to run for 904 performances. The Who's Tommy held its own, though, staying alive for 899 performances. Even the number of performances for the two was essentially an even split.
In 1998, Ragtime was poised to snatch every prize in almost every category. Its pre-Broadway tryout in Toronto created a buzz that had everyone talking about this Ahrens-Flaherty-McNally musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's epic novel about early twentieth-century America. No one thought that a stage production of the Walt Disney film "The Lion King" was possible, let alone competition for Ragtime. How wrong we all were. Disney played it smart and didn't merely plunk The Lion King down onstage without rethinking and reimagining it. Julie Taymor came in a director, costumer and puppet master, creating an artful, multicultural theatre experience like no one had seen before. She finessed the piece into something truly original and breathtaking. Ragtime won for Best Book and Best Score of a Musical, but The Lion King took home the big prize. The Lion King, 17 years later, continues to sell out to packed houses on Broadway and has traveled the world over. Ragtime has seen one critically lauded Broadway revival (2009) and continues to be a popularly produced title in regional theatres.
Of course I have saved the tightest race in Tony history for last. It was the year that the Best Musical award resulted in a tie. It has only happened once in this category, and the opposing winners could not have been more different. The year was 1960 and it was shaping up to be a competitive one with The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Once Upon a Mattress, Fiorello! and Take Me Along vying for the top prize. Surprisingly, Gypsy was the musical that was shut out of this race, though many theatre critics and enthusiasts today would make a strong argument that it most-deserving of Best Musical. Instead, Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music and Bock and Harnick's Fiorello! would have to share the honor. The Sound of Music, very much in the traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein vein, was indeed an audience favorite with an inspirational score and a family-friendly premise. Fiorello!, on the other hand, was very fresh and new, with a score written by the up-and-coming composing team that would go on to create She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof. It told a story that was uniquely New York, celebrating and exploring the rise of one of its most famous mayors. The Sound of Music has endured the test of time and has been revived on Broadway, adapted into a beloved film, and also received a made-for-TV inception. Fiorello!, despite a terrific score, has only been kept alive mostly though its original cast recording, and a couple of concerts in the City Center Encores! series. In the end, though, it is the Tony loser of 1960, Gypsy, which continues to return to the stage, generation after generation, proving that awards don't necessarily predict shelf life, longevity or durability.
(Mark Robinson in 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.)