It was pointed out, somewhere, that in this year’s Tony nominations, a lot of inexperienced musical theatre writers edged out the veterans who’ve given us solid work in the past. And to this I say: Good. It’s about time.
I admit that I often harbor a suspicion, or skepticism, about novices. Experience is a great teacher, and first efforts frequently are riddled with holes an older and wiser creator would have filled. But I also like to think that the long process of taking a show to Broadway involves something of a quality filter. A lot of people – the multitudinous producers and their large battalions of investors – have to believe the show is good, that it will succeed. Think like an angel: If a show has veterans doing the score, is based on a well-loved book that’s already had two film adaptations, well, that seems like a sure bet, no? Compare that to a show written by nobodies – and I use that term politely – set in a particularly frazzled time in recent history, one that no fun-seeking theatre-goer wants to dwell upon. That seems a less safe wager. Writers with no track record vs. The Names You Know and might have seen on countless movie credits and one of the century’s biggest musical comedy hits.
This year I’ll be cheering for the newcomers. It’s a sign of a healthy industry when new faces prodigiously out-achieve the old. Step aside, those who already have a mantle filled with shiny objects; if a younger generation is a knock-knock-knocking at the door, that’s a good thing. The Tony presentation that comes to mind, for me, is the one in 1960. The Old Guard had a show: Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Lindsay & Crouse had been Broadway’s most successful playwriting pair. They’d won a Pulitzer already, for State of the Union, and their Life With Father is the longest running Broadway play of all time. Rodgers & Hammerstein, I assume you’ve heard of. But what’s this? Here come a pair of songwriters from the Midwest, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Bock’s third Broadway musical and Harnick’s second involves some fairly recent history, and, with no major stars, is an unlikely hit. Who will win in the battle of the Old Guard versus the New Guard?
And it’s… It’s a tie. An equal amount of votes went to the Mary Martin vehicle, The Sound of Music, as to the biography featuring newcomer Tom Bosley, Fiorello. Left in the dust was Gypsy, but more on that later. Martin and Bosley both won awards, but his was in the Featured category. If that sounds odd, consider how few songs in Fiorello involve singing by the future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In fact, it’s always a good day to consider Fiorello, as it’s a rather extraordinary show. And I wouldn’t say the same of The Sound of Music.
Now a lot of people, looking back, think all the awards should have gone to Gypsy. And a lot of those people view Broadway through the odd prism of Stephen Sondheim’s career. But what’s important to remember is that that Sondheim had just turned 30, and so the (then just-) lyricist represented youth; in fact, he’d learned much, when he was just a boy, from his best friend’s father, Oscar Hammerstein.
Suppose, back then, you had the mind-set of those today who dislike seeing the Old Guard supplanted. Twenty-twenty hindsight reveals that it was Bock and Harnick who went on to write the best scores of the new decade – Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, and my personal favorite, The Apple Tree. The Old Guard – well, Hammerstein died later that year, but Rodgers went on to write No Strings, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Two By Two. Not nearly as good, right?
So, because I don’t wish to sound cryptic, I suppose I should name the players:
The Old Guard
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the show that got the worst reviews of any musical to open this season. By far. Shaiman’s scored many a comedy film, and the team also did the songs for Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can and the first season of the television abomination known as Smash.
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are best known for Broadway shows such as Ragtime, the soon-to-be-revived Once On This Island (a particular favorite of mine) and Seussical, the most-produced musical of the century. This year, they adapted their movie musical Anastasia for the stage. If you’ve seen media stories about Russians, it probably isn’t this.
Alan Menken (Aladdin) and Glenn Slater (School of Rock) doubled the number of shows they’ve currently running on Broadway with A Bronx Tale. I predict they’ll soon be back to one each.
Scott Frankel and Michael Korie wrote about actual ladies-of-note in Grey Gardens and now have War Paint about actual ladies-of-note Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. They’ve also done two comparatively major off-Broadway shows, Far From Heaven and Happiness. My wife was particularly underwhelmed by their work here.
The New Guard
Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the best-reviewed musical of the season, Come From Away, about a small Canadian town that embraced airline passengers who were forced to land there on 9/11. Their previous work was a Fringe Festival favorite called, I kid you not, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were both born in 1985. Let that sink in a moment. Now, perhaps its unfair to list them as neophytes, since Dear Evan Hansen is their fourth musical to make something of a splash, and they’ve already picked up an Oscar this year for their lyrics to a long rambling song towards the end of the second hour of La La Land. We know how Hollywood makes people rich and famous; I think their stage work makes them more worthy of fame and acclaim.
Tim Minchin had fame from another sphere – comedy – before he started writing musicals. You may recall his audacious debut with Matilda and this year his sophomore effort is a crowd-pleasing musical comedy called Groundhog’s Day.
Dave Malloy writes songs that don’t quite sound like anybody else’s. He’s worked his way up from avant garde and off-Broadway venues to a reconstituted Great White Way house. Three nominations. That’s a route that’s gratifying to see. The title makes it sound long, but it’s based on only a tiny passage of War and Peace: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
To go through the BMI workshop and then get a show on Broadway is another path that cheers me, as a BMI vet. In Transit introduced Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, one of whom already has an Oscar.
Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor are unfamiliar names to me. My wife quite liked their Broadway debut, Bandstand. Not a lot of nominations for these last two (nor the quick-closing Amélie by Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen). But I have to celebrate a season so crowded with good new work that good old writers can’t get a nod. Do better next time, venerable ones!