Best Musical Tony Nominees, 2015

First, let me apologize for the unexpected intermission. If Previous Julia (that’s Julia 2014, or PJ as I call her), Future Julia (the me of 2016 — FJ) and me (Jules) had a discussion on why I’ve been so disinterested in blogging over the past few months, it might go something like this:

PJ: So wait, I started this blog in March of 2014 and you have already lost interest by April of 2015?
Me: Well, no, I– I’ve been really busy—
PJ: What on earth happened? Did you come up with another ridiculous, expensive and time-consuming hobby along the lines of boardgaming (2013)/homebrewing (2006)/sewing (2014)/knitting (2009)/whatever?
Me: Erm– Well, yes, but—
FJ: Oh you won’t believe her latest ridiculous hobby. She’s trying to swing dance!
PJ: Oh, hmmm, actually I’ve always wanted to learn to swing dance. Maybe I should take it up. Am I good at it?
FJ: Not remotely good at it. And Jules still hasn’t been doing anything for me either in terms of saving money.
Me: Wait, why are Past and Future Julias both so judgy? Can the three of us talk about something more pleasant? Like my desperate longing for Fun Home to win Best Musical on Sunday?
PJ: Wait, Fun Home MIGHT NOT WIN? It swept all those Drama Desk/Lortel-type awards in 2014!
Me: I know. I’m feeling blindsided too.
FJ: I know who won!
Me: You are always so cagey with your information, FJ.
FJ: Anyway, Jules, can you please buy a subscription to Playwrights Horizons? And start working out more?
Me: I could tell Past Julia the same thing.
PJ: I hate working out.
FJ: Me too.
Me: Me too.
PJ: Anyway, Jules, please start blogging again. You’re embarrassing me.

(Yes, I really do talk about Previous Julia and Future Julia all the time. Usually I’m complaining about PJ failing to do nice things for me. Or sometimes I announce that I’m leaving FJ to deal with my problems later.) Anyway, enough with that nonsense. Shall I get right into it, then? Here are my thoughts on the Best Musical Tony nominees of 2015.

2015-04-09 20.01.05Fun Home
“Now THAT’s a musical!!!” — My first thought when the lights came up after seeing this remarkable show on Broadway.

In fact one of the reasons I’ve felt so inclined to start writing again is that I’ve been unable to stop talking about Fun Home in the runup to the Tonys. It’s a little embarrassing. The #juliaspeeches have really revved up since the Tony nominations came out, because it’s recently come to my attention that this show may not win the Best Musical Tony. Apparently the favorite is actually An American in Paris. (WHAAAAAT? But more on that in a minute.)

What makes it so good? For those of you who don’t know the story, it’s based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel about growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania with a closeted father and the dawning realization that she was gay, too. Fun home is the family’s nickname for their funeral home, the family business.

Has musical theater written all over it, doesn’t it?

Maybe not, but the authors — Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) — have done a phenomenal job of dramatizing the story. Alison is played by three terrific actresses: Beth Malone as our 43-year-old narrator, Emily Skeggs as a college-aged Alison, and Sydney Lucas as a child. The story jumps around quite a bit, but no matter: the storytelling is sharp, crystal-clear and compelling as hell. Despite the seriousness of the show’s themes — you find out early on that Alison’s father committed suicide just a few months after Alison came out in college — it’s not a heavy or preachy show like some I could name (cough cough, The Visit, cough cough); it’s a joy to sit through. That’s because Fun Home handles its coming-of-age themes with wit, creativity, and intelligence. Plus the songs are great! (Is Jeanine Tesori a gift from the Broadway gods, or what?)

And the production is outstanding too: in addition to Three Fantastic Alison Bechdels (or T-fab, as I like to call them), you have Michael Cerveris giving his customary textured, intense, affecting performance as Alison’s miserably closeted father Bruce. And you have the always wonderful Judy Kuhn as Alison’s long-suffering mother Helen. It’s performed in the round at Circle in the Square, and for the most part the staging (by Sam Gold) plays even better than it did at the Public in 2013. (There are a few moments I couldn’t see, but mostly it was fine.)

I told my roommate, who doesn’t care for musicals at all, that this is the type of show I’d take him to see if he’d let me. I don’t think it would sell him on musicals, but if he saw Fun Home, I feel like he’d have a better sense of just what a musical can do. A terrific musical can turn an ordinary moment in life into a magical, joyous, seemingly spontaneous expression of emotion, realization, or connection. It can take a philosophical, thoughtful, deeply personal graphic novel and make it into a coming-of-age story for all of us. And it can make us laugh and cry while doing so.

This is what you call a terrific musical.

2015-04-15 19.51.17The Visit
My wordiness and exuberance come to a screeching halt when I think about The Visit. When people have asked me about it, I can’t get much beyond merely saying: “Well, it’s bleak.” I wasn’t familiar with the play beforehand, but it’s about a rich old lady (Chita Rivera!) who comes back to her hometown to exact revenge on the teenage boyfriend who jilted her.

Already bleak, but then there’s the John Doyle production, full of drab colors and sad faces. It’s heavy-handed too. (For example, there’s a coffin used as a prop throughout.) You do have the wondrous Ms. Rivera onstage, and that accounts for something indeed: at 82 she can still command a stage and win over an audience with just a few words. But no matter how much I liked her (and the rest of the cast, including Jason Danieley and Roger Rees), I couldn’t warm up to the show. I just wish it gave me a little something to hang onto. I constantly felt the Brechtian distancing techniques pushing me away, so much so that I couldn’t feel for any of the characters at all. Even when the show seemed to want me to.

All that said, this is probably the last new Kander and Ebb show on Broadway, and it feels wonderfully unapologetic and uncompromising. It’s far from their best, but it does remind you just why we are so lucky that they decided to write musicals together. Thanks, fellas.

Something Rotten!
This one is fun. I keep thinking of Spamalot as a kind of equivalent show: it was similarly funny, with a terrific cast, an audience-pleasing tone, and a shiny, happy sheen to it. In a weaker year Rotten! might well have won the Best Musical prize (I think it’s quite a lot better than Kinky Boots, for example), and even if it wins this year, it’s a decent choice.

I also think that the book (by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, whose An Utterly Impartial History of Britain is also hilarious) is continually clever, with a ton of great one-liners and an inventive original story. Two brothers in Renaissance England, Nick and Nigel Bottom, want to get out of Shakespeare’s shadow, and set out to write the world’s first musical comedy in order to steal the spotlight. High jinks ensue, as do lots of jokes, as do a truckload of musical theater and Shakespeare references. The songs (by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick) are winning, the cast is great, and it all just… works. Again, it’s a fun, happy, crowd-pleasing show and I hope it keeps all my friends at the St. James employed for several years to come.

On Tony Sunday, Something Rotten! will be performing the big Act One showstopper “A Musical.” The big problem with “A Musical” is that this number is so incredibly good that really nothing else in the show can come close to matching it. (“Oh No!” I thought when I heard that was what they’d be doing for the Tony broadcast. “They’re giving the whole show away!”) But it’s probably the right call, and I would imagine the song will sell a ton of tickets. It’s a big, splashy, clever production number: a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) tries to explain what a musical is to Nick Bottom (Brian D’Arcy James), who has obviously never heard of such a thing. “The crowd goes wild every time,” as they say in the song, and at the James it frequently earns a well-deserved standing ovation. To be honest, I think “A Musical” actually makes a pretty good argument for the musical as an entertainment — sure, it’s not deep, but this number embodies pure glee, technical expertise, dancing, winking humor, and a big ol’ cast. You’ll see what I mean when you see it Sunday.

But after that, the rest of the show was a bit of a letdown. Which is an odd thing to say, because I was giggling throughout. It’s still funny, the audience ate it up, and again, it has a wonderful cast (especially Brian D’Arcy James and John Cariani as the brothers Bottom, Christian Borle as Shakespeare, and Brad Oscar as the soothsayer). It’s a good show. I liked it a lot. It just doesn’t reach the heights I had hoped for in “A Musical”.

An American In Paris
Now I haven’t seen An American in Paris yet. Why not? Well, I don’t particularly care about ballet, or corny, idealized visions of postwar Europe, or another jukebox Gershwin show, or a movie musical from the 1950s, or gamine French girls. But the mere fact that “I haven’t seen it” hasn’t stopped me from unfairly bashing it to anyone who will listen. I hope to go see it soon, so I can either A) eat my words or B) start bashing it fairly. I think it’s just that I always hope the Best Musical Tony goes to a NEW MUSICAL. It’s really nothing against An American in Paris.

I agree with you if you are thinking that I am totally embarrassing myself with my disdain for a show I haven’t seen yet. What will be even more embarrassing is that it’s very possible I’ll end up completely changing my mind on this one. (For an example of this, check out my Rocky review. I totally bashed that one before seeing it too.)


The Winner

Today I found myself wishing Avenue Q had never won the Best Musical Tony over Wicked. Or Gentleman’s Guide over Aladdin and Beautiful, for that matter. Because those two shows winning gives me hope. If it were the case that the more commercial hit always won, it would be one thing. Just as an example, look at just a few recent years when the bigger hit beat what I would consider to be the more deserving show:

  • 2009: Billy Elliot beats Next to Normal
  • 2005: Spamalot beats both The Light in the Piazza and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
  • 2002: Thoroughly Modern Millie beats Urinetown (This one still stings.)

I could go back a lot further, too. It happens a lot. The problem comes when the Tony voters sometimes get it right. And it has a real impact on the life of a show. Because of its win, Gentleman’s Guide has probably lasted a lot longer than it would have otherwise. So I’m crossing every finger and toe that the voters get this one right. But as I keep reminding myself, Fun Home’s artistic accomplishment is not dependent on what happens Sunday.

So I’m going to drink a heck of a lot of champagne and hope that the predictions are wrong. Let’s go Fun Home!

Tony Nominations 2014

My first thoughts when it comes to Tony nominations and awards are always about the shows I’ve taken “ownership” of for one reason or another. Since I saw all of them before I even started this blog, I thought I’d talk a bit about my reactions to the nominations (or lack thereof) for some of my big favorites of the season.

As a caveat, I haven’t seen three out of the four best musical nominees. (Good grief! That sounds so embarrassing! What kind of Broadway blogger am I?) I do want to see Beautiful and After Midnight in the weeks to come, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to snag a ticket for Aladdin. For the plays, I’ve seen All the Way, Outside Mullingar and Mothers and Sons, but not Casa Valentina or Act One. I’m not convinced I’ll get around to seeing either, so my fairly uninformed pick for Best Play is currently All the Way.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
My pick for best musical of the year (since Fun Home isn’t eligible), and my current go-to selection for those who ask me what show they should see on Broadway. So naturally I was really delighted with all the nominations for this piece. Both actors (Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham) are wonderful and I’d love to see either win (though I know they won’t, not with Neil Patrick Harris in the running). I was happy for Lauren Worsham, though her nomination made me wonder if Lisa O’Hare (who is also terrific) got her feelings hurt a bit. I know I would, if I was the only one of the four major actors in a show not to get a nomination. She’s probably way more professional than I am, though. In any case, I’m rooting for this show to win nearly everything but best score, though the songs are terrific. A friend pointed out that a comedy like Gentleman’s Guide doesn’t even need to have songs that are this good. But it does, and it’s wonderful. I just think the score was bettered, just by a teeny tiny bit.

The Bridges of Madison County
I’ve been pretty apologetic about my regard for this show. When people ask me how it is, I say something along the lines of this:

“Yeah, I really do think it’s great, but then of course I’m a Jason Robert Brown fan and I tend to love his music. And you know, I don’t even care about the love story that much, because Robert Kincaid isn’t even all that interesting of a character*. Mostly I love it for Francesca and her story.”

You know what? The heck with that. I’m going to stop apologizing. It’s a lovely show, full of heart and intelligence. (And oh that music! My favorite score of the year. Again, the caveat is that Fun Home isn’t eligible.) I got really irritated with the New York Times review, which seemed to imply that Kelli O’Hara’s performance was the only real reason to see this show. I agree that she is marvelous, but there’s plenty to like about this show. The writers did a great job of opening up the story, it’s beautifully staged, the sets are evocative, the cast is all-around terrific. Basically, the whole thing is a really strong effort. I agree with Jesse Green, who said “That the musical succeeds in extracting something so smart and powerful from the treacle is little short of miraculous.” It deserved a nomination for best musical, for crying out loud. Tony committee, what’s the matter with you people?

* – I still don’t think Robert Kincaid is nearly as interesting as Francesca is, though. I get that theirs is a Great Love, but geez. He really doesn’t ever experience intimacy except for those four days in Iowa? That’s totally neurotic! I want to see a musical about how nuts that guy is. The gorgeous, heartfelt song “It All Fades Away” doesn’t actually do him any favors in my book, because who wants to live a life like that? I tend to justify it to myself, however, by saying it’s a song basically along the same lines of “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific. Yes, over the top, but since when did Broadway shows shy away from “hearts on sleeves” moments? Still, though, next to Francesca’s lovely and complex “Always Better” immediately afterwards, it’s a bit hard to swallow.

Bullets Over Broadway
Boy can Susan Stroman ever stage a musical. Wow. Every number, every transition is winning and clever and joyous. I just love to watch her dancers move onstage. Particularly during that gangster tap dance number, which is a real old-fashioned showstopper. (Do they get a Tony number? Can they pretty please do the gangster tap number on the Tonys?) Of course, transitions and choreography don’t necessarily make for a wonderful show. To be honest, I prefer the movie. I keep telling people who ask me about it “Well, the whole reason I like musicals is for the new songs and this show doesn’t have any of those.” (Which is why I haven’t gotten around to After Midnight or Beautiful yet.) (I shouldn’t mention my unabashed love for Jersey Boys as it might contradict my point.) But the lack of new songs probably isn’t the real reason. I just wish it was a bit funnier, and that it didn’t take out some of my favorite moments from the movie, like Cheech’s final script suggestion, and the film’s lovely closing scene. I don’t think I would have picked it over Bridges for a nomination, but snubbing both Bridges and Bullets just seems mean. But I’m really happy for Nick Cordero as Cheech, who is just as good as you’ve heard. Marin Mazzie’s lack of a nomination was a bit of a shock, though. What more does the woman have to do? Geez louise.

Twelfth Night
After I saw this, I told all my friends that “Twelfth Night makes SO MUCH SENSE now! It should always be an all-male cast!” Finally, the Viola/Sebastian mixups are just as funny as they were written to be! I never thought the Anne Hathaway Central Park production could be topped, but then I wasn’t accounting for Mark Rylance. Obviously I’d love to see him win for both lead actor (for Richard III) and featured actor (Twelfth Night), just because of the possibility of seeing two of his kooky Tony acceptance speeches in one evening. I didn’t see Richard III, though, so I can’t say for certain that he’s likely to top Bryan Cranston. Anyway, just about everything in this production was delightful, and I’m very happy the Tony committee seems to agree, with nominations for Stephen Fry, Samuel Barnett, and Paul Chahidi.

Best of luck to all the nominees! I look forward to toasting you on Tony night from home, a glass of Prosecco in hand.