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Stage Door: Best Musical Nominees at the Tony Awards

by Nathaniel R

Though I have not seen as much Broadway theater as I'd hoped to this year, I have finally managed to see all of the nominees in the big kahuna Tony category: Best Musical. This is the marquee category each year in that it's the one that matters financially and for bragging rights the way "Best Picture," "Drama Series," and "Album of the Year" are saved for last at the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys respectively... even if you might personally think other prizes more significant or telling. Let's rank the nominees after the jump, shall we?

First, a cold hard fact: it's been a legitimately terrible year for new musicals on Broadway with only one special show emerging. (Yes, Broadway somehow had a record-breaking season but, as with the movies, perpetually raising your prices does have a way of making box office records easier to break, even if it's damaging to the artform in the long run.) Last year, for example there were two shows competing for the big prize "Come From Away" and "Dear Evan Hansen" that were both legitimate sensations with critics and public alike. And still another nominee that, while not a blockbuster, was widely loved and admired i.e "Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812". None of them were based on film or tv shows! The fourth nominee last year, which you might arguably call the filler, was "Groundhog Day" which was of course based on the hit 1993 movie.

This year is the inverse essentially in that there's only one truly worthy show and all 4 (instead of 1 of the 4) are springing from film or television sources.  Let's begin...


Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk in "The Band's Visit"

This unique and gorgeous production almost doesn't feel like a Broadway show. It's far quieter and more dimly lit than most shows and short on the traditionally expected "spectacle." That might make it a longshot to win a lot of Tonys next Sunday, though it's an easy bet to take the top prize. Where it does succeed in spades, and what makes it worthy of the Best Musical win, is in its cumulative emotional power. The show may be small and minimalist (comparatively to what usually hits Broadway) but the book is wisely judged by Itamar Moses and the score by David Yazbeck is sublime. The Band's Visit is only 90 minutes long but packs a stealth wallop. There's also the added thrill of incredible musicianship. Most of the titular band is played by real absurdly talented musicians - the violinist in particular being a standout. The musical is based on the international Israeli hit The Band's Visit which starred the great late Ronit Elkabetz. That said it doesn't actually feel like a movie adaptation (which is a big compliment since so few works are sufficiently rethought for a change of medium.) Best in show is Tony-nominated leading actress Katrina Lenk who may well win the Tony. She doesn't quite reinterpret the role, letting the spirit of Ronit Elkabetz be her guide, but she nails the physicality and lyricism of the part. She can also act up a storm with her vocals as in the musical's exquisite centerpiece song "Omar Sharif" in which she loses herself in the memories of Arabic movies she watched as a child.

Predicted Fate: Five wins for Best Musical, Best Actress (Katrina Lenk), Best Score (David Yazbeck), Best Director, and Best Sound Design.

Readers, I honestly hate the use of projections on Broadway. Give me real sets 100% of the time.

Tina Fey's beloved high school comedy is a far more traditional case of bringing a hit movie to the stage, in that it's impossible to imagine it existing as anything more than a companion to the original. Brand awareness goes a long way in justifying $100+ tickets to tourists. The score is sadly generic (a typical problem with screen-to-stage transfers) but the musical is actually funny (relief!) and the book by Tina Fey has a few smart decisions about the new medium, chief among them being the framing device where Janis and Damian basically narrate Cady's journey as a "cautionary tale," direct to the audience. This makes the show feel more legitimately like a piece of theater than a movie acted out for you on a stage. (Other choices are half thought out. It was a masterstroke to have one actor playing all the adult women, for example, and they chose the brilliant Kerry Butler to do that but then they give her barely anything to do! "Cool Mom" was begging for a big comic number. Where is it?) Best in show is easily the Tony-nominated Ashley Park as Gretchen Weiners who deftly handles the task of making her arc and songs both hilarious and emotionally resonant (no one else succeeds in that). Runner up is Tony-nominated Grey Henson as Damian, who gets a show-stopping tap number called "Stop" which is basically the musical equivalent of that old web series "Sassy Gay Friend" (remember SGF's quotable catchphrase: 'look at your life, look at your choices!'?. Second runner up (what? these three are just delightful!) was Kate Rockwell as Karen, the dumbest girl in school. Sadly, it's a complete mystery to me why Taylor Louderman was nominated as Regina George. I wasn't able to understand half of her lyrics with her vocal choices and she wasn't particularly funny either. Perhaps it was an off night for her when I was there? 

Predicted Fate: One win - Tina Fey, Book of a Musical. I think Fey's celebrity and likeability make her tough to beat even though it's maybe not the most inspired reinvention of the material, despite the contemporary updates.

Previously reviewed here. I will say that this show is technically far more creatively imagined than Mean Girls so the only reason I'm ranking it lower is that I just didn't really respond to it; I had a better time at Mean Girls. In other words, I'm just not the audience for this show. Important note: I know some people in their early 20s who absolutely adore it so perhaps you had to grow up with Spongebob?

Predicted Fate: Four Tony wins for Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting Design... and... I'm also hesistantly predicting Best Actor for Ethan Slater (so committed!) and Featured Actor for Gavin Lee as Squidward (the only part of the show that I unequivocally got/loved) though those are riskier bets even if they did win the Drama Desk awards in their category. Why the hesitation? Well, Slater is up against rising star Joshua Henry and awards magnet Tony Shalhoub, while Tony magnet Norbert Leo Butz could win a third in Lee's category.

Our contributor Dancin Dan' reviewed this one here. I liked it even less though it wasn't without a few charming bits/actors.  Still we'll thank the show for familiarizing us with thirst trap Timothy Hughes (who also played the Strong Man in The Greatest Showman this past Christmas) and for two cool visual effects moments.  

Predicted Fate: zero Tony awards... but it's only up for two anyway (Best Musical and Book of a Musical) and it's nominations in those categories reveal that the Tony voting system really needs to consider shrinking the categories in seasons where very few shows are noteworthy or eligible.

Some of these predictions may well fall because the musical revival category including My Fair Lady, Once on this Island, and Carousel (reviewed here) is strong this year and some of the craft and acting Tonys could go that way instead.  

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Reader Comments (8)

THANK GOD someone else who thought Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell were the standout females in Mean Girls! I hear so many people singing the praises of Taylor Louderman and I just don't get it. I think part of this is how she was directed though - she played Regina FAR too outwardly villainous for my liking even though she had some funny moments. I like the songs much better after a couple of listens to the cast recording than I did immediately after seeing it, but the generic quality of the music blunts the cleverness of the lyrics.

Even though I enjoyed Mean Girls, I would rank Spongebob above it for the overall more tuneful score, more inventive staging/design, and more clever (if perhaps less outright hilarious) book. But they're close, and worthy runners-up. After Joshua Henry's jaw-dropping "Soliloquy" I will be pissed if anyone else wins the Leading Actor Tony, even the delightful Ethan Slater, but Gavin Lee would be a delightful "Featured" Actor winner.

June 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

The Band's Visit and Once on This Island will win.
I myself prefer Mean Girls and My Fair Lady.
Tina Fey is definitely winning Best Book.
Ashley Park for the win!
I predict Spongebob's director will win too.
Frozen is just too mediocre and their Anna is dreadful.

June 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSTFU

I love that you only "got" Squidward because I always hear people say his character seems to be inspired by a gay man.

June 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Little Secret... I've got a "Die Hard" musical inside my brain, with numbers like...

- Barefoot tap dance on glass
- Yippie Ka Yey Motherf**ker
- Now I got a machine gun, HO HO HO
- Waiting in my limo
- Nakatomi is the place for Xmas (and finale reprise)

... we all know, some day Broadway will do it. WE KNOW, they'll eventually get there

June 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

I am curious as to people's thoughts on Lauren Ambrose in My Fair Lady. Does she have a chance to win?

June 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I was shocked Joshua didn't win the Drama Desk Award. I hope he performs it Sunday. Sans shirt.

June 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I think in 1985 several categories were actually not presented because there weren't enough potential candidates, including the Best Actor/Actress in a Musical awards. Would that still happen today, or would it seem more embarrassing to drop a category completely instead of having it filled with lesser shows/nominees?

June 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterArabella

Ashley Parks was in this year’s KPOP as a bitter aging diva. Watching her sit mere feet away from me belting out a number is one of the most magical moments I’ve ever seen in New York theater. I really hope she gets a Tony.

June 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

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