This Tuesday marked the second most exciting day of any given year for Broadway babies: the Tony Award nominations. The actual awards ceremony on CBS - Broadway's night of nights - is still a few weeks off, but now is certainly an ideal time to size up the competitions and see who will most likely walk away with Tony gold come June 10 - and this year's ceremony, more than most before it, could very well be as surprising as this season was; or Tuesday's nominations themselves were, for that matter. While the 2011-2012 Broadway season certainly fell far short of the heady promise many ascribed to its various prospects way back last Summer, we certainly saw the fulfillment of some big dreams for some notable names if not an all-in-all banner year for Broadway when collectively considered altogether. The highly-praised Off-Broadway critical darling LYSISTRATA JONES landed with a thud early in the season, as did the re-jiggered, gender-bending revival of ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and its star Harry Connick, Jr., and, even the lauded and relatively successful revival of Stephen Sondheim's peerless masterpiece FOLLIES failed to make any money and closed, too. GODSPELL did not fare much better, though it is still running and plugging away. The two highly-anticipated revivals of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic early successes JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and EVITA were met with indifferent reviews - with the latter receiving some nasty press for its stars, neither of whom received Tony nominations - but have received receptive audiences so far. THE GERSHWINS' PORGY & BESS could take Best Revival, after all, given this spate - but will NICE WORK's Kelli O'Hara edge out four-time Tony recipient Audra McDonald, who has yet to win Best Actress? New plays did not fare much better than the measly crop of musicals, but OTHER DESERT CITIES and VENUS IN FUR seemed to hit their target demographics squarely, but CLYBOURNE PARK looks to be the frontrunner for Best Play despite all that good buzz. Or, the Tonys could always award ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS some prizes, but its cooler reception on these shores seems to make that implausible. We shall see. Mike Nichols may take home another Best Director for his sensitive, if workmanlike revival of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN, as conceivably could Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield; two A-list film stars finding time for the stage. Also maintaining his excellent theatre cred is John Lithgow, who is offering up some fierce competition for other Best Actor nominees with his riveting turn in THE COLUMNIST by David Auburn. The acting races are tight, for sure, in both plays and musicals, with more newcomers and first-time nominees than any season this century, which alone makes the 2012 nominee list unique.
Despite the major highlights, this was not a great season on Broadway and the Tony nominations had all the tell-tale signs of that matter of opinion if it indeed is that - Tony mavens will rightly tell you that any year where plays manage to score Best Score nominations are usually very weak years for musicals, or at least for original musicals, and this year was no exception to that tried and true rule given the nods to ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS and PETER & THE STARCATCHER a category further filled out with a fast-closing flop, BONNIE & CLYDE, as well as NEWSIES, which is only half new. Furthermore, how many long-closed shows got multiple nominations, whether or not they were justified, seemingly just to fill the four available slots whenever possible in many cases? BONNIE & CLYDE, LYSISTRATA JONES, FOLLIES; the list goes on - as good as the productions may have been, it simply cannot be a sign of a thriving theatre to have this many award-worthy shows shuttered and long gone. Beyond that, the two musicals most likely vying to take top honors are both screen-to-stage adaptations of musical films using the scores previously heard in said films now retrofitted with new material for the stage - ONCE and NEWSIES - and the other most-nominated show has no new music at all: the jukebox revue, NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT, which uses the admittedly great, but well-used Gershwin catalogue PORGY & BESS apparently wasn't enough Gershwin worship (Gership?) for one season. That's not even taking into account the details of the ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS authorship and whether or not it is a new play given its source material a contradiction in terms if there ever were any. The season was not without a few innovative and striking charms, though, despite the generally disappointing slate of shows - PETER & THE STARCATCHER, while technically a play, gave SMASH standout and Broadway star Christian Borle and company many chances to vocalize and strut their musical stuff, as did the semi-controversial late-in-life Judy Garland bioplay, END OF THE RAINBOW, and its British star, Tracie Bennett, who looks likely to take Best Actress In A Play if Nina Arianda is forgotten by voters or Linda Lavin is denied some love for the late-season play THE LYONS. Maybe a tie is in order? It's all pretty much up in the air and it could go any way, but the major snubs and shocking favorites of the 2012 Tony Award nominating committee prove that it could be a very exciting ceremony indeed.
So, now, let's turn our focus to a few of the most significant individuals in the 2011-2012 Broadway season and consider some of the reasons why they will be remembered for making this lesser season special whether they eventually end up with a gold statuette on the second Sunday in June or not. Hats off to the 2012 Season MVPs: Alan Menken, Andrew Lloyd Webber & Joe DiPietro.
After both having resided for over a decade in development Hell, Alan Menken saw two of his long-gestating musicals finally arrive on the Great White Way - the quick hit stage transfer of NEWSIES, which received generally favorable reviews and struck an instant chord with the crowds, and the sadly struggling, just-opened LEAP OF FAITH, which is finding difficulty finding and reaching an audience. While Menken is not the first composer to have two new shows on Broadway in the same season - Jule Styne did, too - he certainly can pride himself on being one of the only composers to ever have three shows concurrently treading the boards, as he does right now - NEWSIES, LEAP OF FAITH and last season's screen-to-stage adaptation, SISTER ACT. The latter musical, SISTER ACT, possesses the strongest score of the three as far as I am concerned, but those familiar with the 1992 feature film version of NEWSIES can find much to enjoy in hearing the catchy tunes of the turn-of-the-century-set tale as expanded upon and revisited in the elaborate Jeff Calhoun-directed production, which is outfitted with nearly a dozen mostly attractive new musical numbers. LEAP OF FAITH gives one of Broadway's brightest stars, Raul Esparza, a leading man role not unlike Harold Hill in Menken's other new season entry this season, LEAP OF FAITH - itself taking a page or ten from THE MUSIC MAN playbook and plot book, as it were - with more mixed results than the audience-pleasingly and energetic NEWSIES, to say the least, despite the best efforts of those involved. LEAP OF FAITH gives Esparza some memorable music and the cast works itself up into a frenzy in a handful of church-set sequences, but the most sparkly and shimmering aspect of the enterprise is unfortunately the mirrored jacket visible in the poster, which makes Menken's NEWSIES the clear-cut prize horse of his stable for this race, despite both receiving Best Musical nominations. Impressively so, Menken's triptych certainly run the gamut in musical sounds, from 70s funk and disco in SISTER ACT to gospel and country in LEAP OF FAITH to early-20th century sounds (and a generous dose of 80s pop, too) in NEWSIES and we can look forward to seeing what he will come up with in the future given his stupendous track record so far - from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS to the Disney classics THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY & THE BEAST, ALADDIN and TANGLED, most notably, to his current trio and beyond.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
What can be said about Andrew Lloyd Webber that has not been said? What can be achieved in the entertainment realm that he has not achieved? With three shows currently running on Broadway - the longest-running show of all time, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and two new revivals; the Michael Grandage EVITA and the Des McAnuff JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR - and a fourth, LOVE NEVER DIES, on the horizon, Lloyd Webber is still at the top of the theatrical food chain more than forty years after his first show debuted across the pond. While EVITA was snubbed in many major categories for this year's Tony Awards - neither Elena Roger in the title role, nor Ricky Martin in his managed to garner a nomination, though Michael Cerveris was recognized for his commanding portrayal of Peron. JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR may fare better on Tony night, especially since Broadway newcomer Josh Young has won over so many fans since the show's bow, with a Tony nomination now to prove it. While these may no longer be the halcyon days for Lloyd Webber - there was, needless to say, a time when he had three shows running concurrently for years on end - he continues to create compelling, unique and creative new work and continues to dare others to do the same and we can all hope that we will see more new musicals from him than revivals - as good as they may be - in the upcoming theatrical seasons. Are we ever going to get THE WIZARD OF OZ on Broadway? What about PHANTOM 2, LOVE NEVER DIES? And, then, there is his new musical based on the Profumo Affair to consider, as well. That's a lot to look forward to in the coming years - let's just hope one or all of those shows eventually come in.
While he only has two Tony Awards and only two shows currently running on Broadway as compared to the shelf-full of awards and three currently running shows of Menken and Lloyd Webber, MEMPHIS composer/lyricist/book-writer Joe DiPietro is an elemental part of the team of one of the most recognized shows at Tuesday's Tony Award nominations - his newly-created jukebox musical, NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT racked up 10 noms total, including his work for Best Book. NEWSIES is close on NICE WORK's heels, of course, with eight nominations, as is the early season critical hit, ONCE, which looks likely to be a winner in at least a few categories given its copious nominations the most of any show, 11, but NICE WORK has some serious pedigree, such as the songstack and impressive cast assembled onstage, which includes repeat-nominee Kelli O'Hara, previous winner Matthew Broderick, as well as Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye, the first and the last two all receiving nominations. As prior Best Musical winners CRAZY FOR YOU, 42nd STREET, Jerome Robbins' BROADWAY, FOSSE and CONTACT all proved, the revue-sical is often potent Tony bait, so DiPietro may end up with three total Tonys on his shelf a few weeks from now after all - and maybe even another for Best Book, too; which is a pretty paltry category this year, by the way (and that certainly saying something given the low, low standards of years past). We will have to wait and see what prizes DiPietro reaps for his new jukebox tuner, but no doubt he already has his sights set on the prospects for his newest work, THE TOXIC AVENGER, which could very well make it to the Street by this time next season, up for awards consideration. With MEMPHIS a Best Musical winner so recently and NICE WORK a major force in this year's Tony race, as well as another show already on the horizon, Joe DiPietro seems sure to continue to be a presence on Broadway for many years to come.
The Heart Is Slow To Learn
No matter what each season is comprised of, it is impossible to deny the excitement that the Tony Awards brings to the theatre community at large - plus, the publicity and press that it generates in the mainstream media is incalculable. Yet, 2012 may be best remembered as the year of the tell-tale Tonys - a year where it seemed barely evident that Broadway still had a beating heart beneath the bright lights, sequins and razzle dazzle. Was it really always just smoke and mirrors? Those of us that love it know it does, still, somehow live on - even now - but this season was far from edifying for those among us who are ready to celebrate the best that Broadway has to offer, We can hope for it to take a turn for the better and a breakout sensation like last year's BOOK OF MORMON is a sign that Broadway is still viable and alive, just laying low - maybe even dormant. Whatever your opinion on the season that was, we have 36 days left to go until the Tonys - that's when we'll all see what happens; with Neil Patrick Harris as host, which is reason enough to tune in.
Stay tuned to BroadwayWorld until then and we will see happens in the days and weeks ahead until ONCE, NEWSIES, NICE WORK and the rest battle it out for the glory only Antoinette Perry can provide. Nice prize if you can get it - especially, as our three theatrical 2012 MVPs show, if you can get it more than once.