The Tony Awards are coming up this weekend (Sunday, June 7) and as a big fan of musicals, I’m going to take a look at the nominees for the one category everyone actually cares about: Best Musical. Though this year’s nominees do not have a clear favorite like in past years, there is a fierce race between the four shows. That said, in a down year for Broadway musicals, is this a win or just a “best of the worst” type of contest?
The shows nominated for Best Musical are An American in Paris, based on the film of the same name and the Gershwin composition; Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name; Something Rotten!, an original comedy about the creation of the “first” musical; and The Visit, a Kander and Ebb show that had a planned Broadway opening in 2001 but finally got off the ground in New York earlier this year. All four shows are more beneficiaries of their late openings (in March and April) as there is no Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, or Rent, a musical that runs for years as a critical and fan favorite, in this year’s class.
Other shows that opened on Broadway this year include Holler if Ya Hear Me, a hot mess of a musical featuring music by Tupac Shakur; The Last Ship, which was Sting’s baby, but never really gained traction despite a great score; and Finding Neverland, which had the highest of hopes with critics and fans, but has only been successful in sales due to a cast starring Matthew Morrison (Glee) and Kelsey Grammer (Frasier). Needless to say, the 2014-15 Broadway musical season is the equivalent of the 2000 NBA Draft in terms of overall quality.
What is the reason for this season’s lukewarm reception? All of the buzz that should be on the Tony nominees has been on Lin-Manuel Miranda and his new show, Hamilton, which is currently running Off-Broadway. Miranda is known for writing music for and starring in In the Heights, which won the Tony for Best Musical and the Grammy for Best Musical Show Album in 2008.
Hamilton was named Outstanding Musical at this year’s Drama Desk Awards, the first time since 1983 that an Off-Broadway show won the award before opening on Broadway. Miranda’s brainchild won seven Drama Desk awards in total, the most of any show this season. The production had the opportunity to rush a Broadway opening in time to compete for this year’s Tony Awards, but Miranda and company opted to prolong a move until July. Had Hamilton made the move, it would have likely won Best Musical, but it will no doubt compete for the honor at next year’s awards.
When narrowing the list of Best Musical nominees, it is clear that An American in Paris and Fun Home are on a higher tier. Both of these shows earned 12 nominations. Sometimes things are meant to be — for various reasons, The Visit never made it to Broadway back in 2001 and after so many years, the show is past its peak. And as much of a fan as I am of Brian d’Arcy James and of comedies, Something Rotten! is imperfect and a bit much at times.
With the list down to two, I decided to consult the list of past winners to see if I could notice a pattern. Period pieces have been successful in recent years, with both Memphis and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder winning Tonys this decade. That would seemingly help An American in Paris, but it has not been as well reviewed as Bechdel’s Fun Home, the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist.
Fun Home stars Beth Malone, Michael Cerveris, and Judy Kuhn, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014. Shows that push the envelope and cover new ground have also been big winners in recent years, such as Rent in 1996, Avenue Q in 2004, Spring Awakening in 2007, and In the Heights in 2008. In my opinion, those are all stronger shows than Fun Home, but the Bechdel-based musical winning would not set a precedent.
An American in Paris and Fun Home are opposites in many ways, which could be a reason voters are split on the Best Musical winner. I would not be surprised by either show winning, but my belief is that Fun Home takes the award.
The 69th annual Tony Awards ceremony takes place this Sunday night, June 7, at Radio City Music Hall. Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming are hosting this year’s awards, which will air live at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. There will be plenty of performances during the event, including excerpts from all four Best Musical nominees.