Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tonys 2014: Favorite Unseen Musicals and Fearless Predictions

Tonight, the 68th Annual Tony Awards will be broadcast on CBS live from Radio City Music Hall in New York. As I have mentioned just about every time I write about the Tonys, I don't live in New York, nor in a situation where going to New York is necessarily easy (the Greensboro, North Carolina - New York commute is a killer, I would think). On a high school chorus trip many years ago, I had the opportunity to take in my first - and so far, only - Broadway shows. The first was Wicked, which at the time had Stephanie J. Block playing the role of Elphaba and Annaleigh Ashford playing Glinda, and the second was Rent, which was in its final shows before closing in June 2008. The pairing actually turned out to be great for me: one was an old-school Broadway show staged in a cavernous theater (Wicked, in the Gershwin Theatre), while the other was a modern take on Puccini with AIDS, drugs, and millennial anxiety staged in a significantly more cramped theater (Rent, in the Nederlander). The contrasts helped me gain a better understanding of how broad in scope musical theatre can be, and I hope to one day return to see more.

So, before we get into my fearless (and clueless) predictions for who will take home the top prizes in tonight's ceremony, I wanted to posit this question to you all: what musicals do you know every word to but have never seen performed? Four different shows immediately came to my mind, but I'm going to leave out Passing Strange - Stew's blues-rocky spin on the bildungsroman and partial autobiography - since I've watched Spike Lee's film of the final performance many, many times. So here are the other three:

Spring Awakening

At times, it's amazing to think that the musical score to this show was written by the same man who's responsible for "Barely Breathing." But Duncan Sheik's songcraft definitely makes this musical adaptation of a 19th-century German play about sexual awakening all the more memorable, especially with songs like "Mama Who Bore Me," "The Bitch of Living," and my personal favorite, "Totally Fucked." It shouldn't be all that surprising that this soundtrack really resonated with me in high school (it debuted on Broadway during my junior year), when I was going through my angsty teenager phase. But it's a testament to the enduring power of the songs that it's stayed with me today.

next to normal

Having wrestled with depression since I was in middle school at least, a complex musical about living with mental illness was almost certain to strike a chord with me. And what a beautiful chord next to normal is. "I Miss the Mountains" is a stunning ballad that captures the highs and lows of one's mental state, while "I Am the One" summarizes the frustration that anyone who's taken care of someone with mental illness can relate to. It's a heartrending musical that, even though I've never seen it performed, resonates with me deeply.

Avenue Q

Believe it or not, the soundtrack to Avenue Q was the first album I ever purchased that carried a "parental advisory" label. I had heard about the raunchy riff on Seasame Street and The Muppets - complete with simulated puppet sex - and, as a fifteen-year-old burgeoning musical theatre fan with raging hormones, wanted to get a peek at the naughtiness. To this day the songs still crack me up, and I'll use any excuse to sing a few bars ("The Internet is For Porn" is an easy go-to). I'll often find myself singing "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" or "Fantasies Come True" in the shower, "I Wish I Could Go Back to College" is quickly becoming my new anthem as I'm working on applying to graduate school, and I just sang a few bars of "Schadenfreude" to remember how to spell it. It's goofy and sophomoric, and it's never gotten old for me, even as the show is over a decade old. Bonus fact: the show's composer, Robert Lopez, is responsible for the songs in Frozen.

On to the predictions after the jump.

Obviously, I haven't seen any of the nominated shows, nor am I really sure of how the Tonys tend to vote and what the narratives in the campaign season were this year. So all of this is purely speculative, and probably wrong, but most importantly, it's fun. Here's who I think will be taking home a Tony tonight.

(Full list of nominees here)

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

It's the only "original" musical in the group, and apparently it's one of the highest-grossing shows of the season. That mix of originality, popular success, and old-fashioned Broadway showmanship will probably make it a winner here tonight.

Spoiler: Beautiful - The Carole King Musical

Act One

Though I could totally see them going for any of the other nominees outside of Outside Mullingar (this is that show's only nomination), Act One seems like the most likely winner. It's celebration of actual Broadway playwright Moss Hart, adapted from Hart's autobiography by Tony-winner James Lapine, which will appeal to other Broadway veterans. Hollywood likes to pat itself on the back sometimes by giving Oscars to movies about movies; I suspect Broadway will want to do the same.

Spoiler: All the Way

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Even though this is the show's Broadway debut, it gets into the "revival" category by having been staged Off Broadway back in the early 2000s (the same is true of fellow nominee Violet). Les Miserables already won a Tony for Best Musical when it premiered in 1987, so it doesn't seem likely to win again here. Hedwig, though, has been the most talked-about production during the voting period, with much of the focus on Neil Patrick Harris' starring performance. Over weaker competition, it seems like the safest bet.

Spoiler: Les Miserables

Twelfth Night

It seems like there's a new production of one of Shakespeare's plays premiering every few months on Broadway, but very few end up with Tony nominations in the revival category. In fact, since the category's creation in 1994, only one Shakespeare play has won the Tony (Henry IV, in 2004). That should change with the much-celebrated revival of Twelfth Night, which featured an all-male cast and scored more acting nominations than any other play. It should come out the winner.

Spoiler: A Raisin in the Sun

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder; book by Robert L. Freedman

Again, originality is going to count a lot in this category, and with Gentleman's Guide being a frontrunner for the Best Musical prize, it would be surprising if the book didn't win as well. Still, with big names like Douglas McGrath (Beautiful - The Carole King Musical) and Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway) in the mix, it's easy to image one of them pulling the upset.

Spoiler: Beautiful - The Carole King Musical; book by Douglas McGrath

The Bridges of Madison County; music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown

This is probably my most fool-hardy prediction, especially considering that Alan Menken (Aladdin) and Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (If/Then) are Tony favorites and also nominated. Plus, if Gentleman's Guide ends up being an overwhelming favorite, it'll likely win here as well. But I'm going with Brown because he's been reliably great for years, and his score for The Bridges of Madison County has earned raves. I'm betting he gets (surprising) recognition for it.

Spoiler: A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder; music by Steven Lutvak, lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak

Mark Rylance, Richard III

Bryan Cranston (All the Way) is the most high-profile nominee for most of America: he was Walter White on Breaking Bad, after all, and he's nominated for his portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which was very well-received. Tony Shalhoub, too, is a recognizable face in a likely Best Play winner (Act One). But Tony voters love Rylance - he's already won twice in this category in the past decade - and his rapturously-reviewed performance as Shakespeare's mad king will likely land him a third.

Spoiler: Bryan Cranston, All the Way

Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

Should she win, McDonald would become the most celebrated actor in Tony history, winning a record sixth award (and she would have a Tony in each of her eligible acting categories). And she should win: she's playing Billie Holiday, which allowed her to meld her dramatic skills with her formidable musical chops. And out of all the ladies on this list, she's had the most buzz. It seems like a done-deal to me.

Spoiler: Tyne Daly, Mothers & Sons

Neil Patrick Harris, Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Harris has been the talk of the town, and he's done an impressive press tour on top of delivering a very physical performance eight times a week. He's also a favorite host of the show in recent years, which should help seal the deal. The only real threat I see to his win is Jefferson Mays, who plays eight different characters over the course of Gentleman's Guide. That versatility could prove very appealing to voters.

Spoiler: Jefferson Mays, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder

Kelli O'Hara, The Bridges of Madison County

This category is stacked, and could go any way. Idina Menzel (If/Then) and Sutton Foster (Violet) are Broadway favorites, and Menzel has had a huge year between her show and the phenomenon that was Frozen. Plus, Jessie Mueller earned the endorsement of Carole King herself for her performance in Beautiful - The Carole King Musical. But at the end of the day, I think they'll decide that the much-celebrated O'Hara has earned her first Tony win.

Spoiler: Jessie Mueller, Beautiful - The Carole King Musical

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