Tuesday’s announcement of Tony Award nominations has unleashed a tidal wave of lamentations that sounds pretty silly to me. There are those who seem to see it as a sign of the apocalypse that the four Best Musical nominees, After Midnight, Aladdin, Beautiful and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder include just one 100% original score (the latter). Aladdin is more than half original material. The other two are packed with famous songs, as well as some obscure ones. So you hear “They was robbed!” a lot, referring to If/Then, The Bridges of Madison County, Big Fish and Rocky. People forget the many years the Tony folk couldn’t find four running shows to choose from. This season was extraordinarily large, in terms of new offerings – double figures, for once – and even the flops didn’t fold overnight. The most nominated of all the shows, A Gentleman’s Guide… has an original score by writers and a director making their Broadway debuts. View that as a sign of health, folks, and chill.
But even if you take the view that this was another awful year for new musicals on Broadway, there’s plenty of reasons for optimism. Yes, I said optimism. Now, usually, I’m a pessimist about just about everything. But there’s something I do every fall that you might think about doing this spring. I look at the farm system.
What? What the hell is he talking about? It’s a baseball analogy. I’m a lifelong fan of The New York Mets, a team that is frequently terrible. So, each fall, I look back on another season where the team didn’t make the playoffs, with the sort of disappointment you “the theatre is dying” types are feeling now. But, with rare exceptions, you don’t get to play Major League Baseball until you’ve played Minor League Baseball, and the clubs all have a set of Minor League teams whose players hope to get promoted to the big league. That’s known as the farm system, where young talent develops; the best of them will make it up, though most won’t. So, the fan of the losing team, seeking a ray of hope on the horizon, might look down at the farm clubs to see how the future team members are developing.
Modern Broadway has something of a farm system, too, in regional theatres. There are places around the country where plays play with a realistic hope that if they wow the crowd in Seattle, Chicago or San Diego, they’ll gather the steam and esteem necessary to make it to New York. Like minor league ballplayers, most won’t move on; even glowing reviews don’t guarantee “promotion.” But I find it fun to look around and see what’s being done there, knowing there’s that possibility the show will eventually be seen here.
One I’ve visited, catching a show before it came to Broadway and ran a long time, is La Jolla Playhouse in southern California. In a couple weeks, a run will begin of Chasing the Song, an original musical by the authors of the Tony Award-winning Memphis. That, to me, is encouraging news: a new original by a pair who’ve previously created an original that won the Tony laurel (and hardy handshake). Later in the year you can catch the new stage version of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which has a book by Peter Parnell, who wrote one of my favorite stage adaptations of one of my favorite novels. This would seem very likely to make it to Broadway. The animated movie Menken and Schwartz wrote some years ago was an odd bird from a marketing perspective. The story is too dark and sophisticated for most kids, and most adults don’t go to cartoons with singing gargoyles. But many of those songs are very effective, and Broadway tends to embrace dark tales based on famous tomes. I may have to travel across the country to see that.
But wait! I don’t have to travel more than a couple of miles. The Paper Mill is mounting it. Yes, long-time blog-readers, I left New York for suburbia – May is my sixth month – and Paper Mill’s town of Milburn is the town where the closest Trader Joe’s is. And they, too, are doing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, probably the last stop on the inexorable express train to Broadway. But wait, there’s more! Also on Paper Mill’s calendar is Ever After, by the exuberantly wonderful Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich. Yes, I’ve known them longer than they’ve known each other, but you don’t have to take a friend’s word for it that they’re brilliant. Look to the Fred Ebb Award (for the team) or the Ed Kleban Award (for lyricists, Marcy). Plus, they wrote this:
which I’ve long maintained is a tribute to my head.
Speaking of places where stuff once regularly grew, it used to be you could count on off-Broadway to present shows that would, figuratively, come uptown to On. For a variety of economic reasons, it seemed off-Broadway musical production had come to a halt. But, recently, there have been a number of innovative new shows that have created quite a stir: Here Lies Love, Murder For Two, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Fun Home. While these might not come to Broadway any time soon, be patient. Two recent Broadway openings, each with a famous star, are shows you might have seen off-Broadway back in the ‘90s: Violet, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Off-Broadway’s Public Theatre (speaking of the birthplace of Hair), is doing many new musicals by interesting people this year. The Fortress of Solitude, The Winter’s Tale, The Total Bent, and the one I’m most excited about, Hamilton. I mean, how often do you pay cash for a ticket, and the guy the show’s about is right there, pictured on your money?
I hope you feel better now.