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Tonys' Musical Chairs

There are some inspired nominees (at least in the drama department), more TV breathing room and a hot host leading the show. But where are the tunes?

June 01, 1997|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

Last year, Julie Andrews brought more attention to the Tony Awards than ever before by rejecting her best actress nomination for "Victor/Victoria," the mediocre musical about a cross-dressing nightclub singer. Complaining that the show, which was directed by her husband, Blake Edwards, had been "egregiously overlooked" by the Tony nominating committee, she also refused to appear on or attend the Tony telecast. "Mary Poppins Hoppin' Mad!" crowed the New York Post.

Things are different this year. For one, Andrews, who is not a contender, will appear on tonight's telecast. And for another, no mediocre musicals were "egregiously overlooked"--in fact, quite the opposite. Two shows that never cohered onstage managed to spear the lion's share of nominations and subsequent free publicity: "The Life," a hopelessly tacky tale of prostitutes and pimps, got 12 nominations, and "Steel Pier," a dreary love story between a 1930s marathon dancer and a dead pilot, got 11.

These shows are better than last year's "Victor/Victoria" and "Big," the aggressively irritating adaptation of the Tom Hanks movie about a boy in a man's body. But they're not much better. Still, they captured what last year's producers had counted on and were bitterly disappointed not to have gotten: nominations for best musical in lieu of any really good new shows.

This was a much better year for drama--even though the most nominated plays (David Hare's "Skylight" and Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo") collected only four nominations apiece. The Tonys are weighted toward the musical, both in air time and in number of awards. (There are 11 possible awards specifically for musicals, seven for plays. In addition, most of the design nominations go to musicals--as 11 of the 12 possible spots did this year.)

Musicals bring in the most cash, given their higher ticket prices and the larger houses they tend to play. Plus, they are more likely than dramas to spawn road companies and significant additional revenue. Even fabled flops like "Big" have the potential to eventually turn a profit on the road, especially with the cachet of having played Broadway (even without Tonys). That's partially why so many musicals opened in a cluster at the end of the season. This year, in the final week of Tony eligibility, four expensive and mediocre new musicals opened within six days of each other. This was a disheartening week in the history of Broadway.

Three of the four shows that opened that week got their nominations for best musical. All three had their premieres on Broadway, which, like some kind of mad puppy mill, continues to turn out product with an eye on the bottom line and little sense of nurturance. Not restricted to Broadway shows, the New York Drama Critics awards overlooked all of these extravaganzas and awarded best musical to "Violet," the eccentric, local-color story of a disfigured country girl who falls in love on a Greyhound bus. Premiered at Playwrights Horizons, "Violet" was a talented piece that needed work, but at least it was in a place--the nonprofit theater--where it could get what it needed.

Of course, "Jekyll & Hyde," the worst musical of this year's fatal four, had a very long development process. This vacuous adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale was first staged at Houston's Alley Theatre in 1990 and toured extensively thereafter (it stopped at the Orange Country Performing Arts Center in 1995). But the only real development that occurred in those seven years was audience development. When it finally reached Broadway two days before the Tony nomination cutoff, "Jekyll & Hyde" had a new director but was no better than it had been on the road.

In a way, "Jekyll & Hyde" is the victim of the publicity it courted. There were not one but two recordings of the pernicious score, featuring a song much beloved by Olympic athletes and lounge singers called "This Is the Moment," a song destined for immortality in Las Vegas. This song helped produce an audience for the musical thriller, which did strong business in many of the cities it toured.

By the time the show arrived in New York, there was already a name for its cult of devoted fans: Jeckies. No Jeckies made it on the nominating committee, thankfully, and "Jekyll & Hyde" got neither a best musical nor a best score nomination.

Those shows that did featured at least some saving graces. At least John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote some solid, old-fashioned show songs for "Steel Pier," and at least Susan Stroman's choreography athon dancing inventively. At least "The Life" showcases talented singers, most impressively Lillias White. At least "Titanic" features some hauntingly elegant music by Maury Yeston, beautifully orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick.

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