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Musicals sing for their supper at Tony Awards

Winning best musical is nice, but an effective musical number on the telecast can prove just as lucrative at the box office.

June 08, 2011|By Patrick Pacheco, Special to the Los Angeles Times

The innocent heart of "Brotherhood of Man" is of a piece with several of the other musical nominees, including "Anything Goes" and "Sister Act, the Musical," the stage adaptation of the popular Whoopi Goldberg film that will have its nuns shimmying up a sequined storm on the telecast.

But, surprisingly, it is closest in spirit to "The Book of Mormon," whose contribution to the telecast has elicited the most interest, given its insouciant, sacrilegious humor and profane language. The New York Post recently reported that the "Mormon" producers lobbied the telecast producers in an unsuccessful bid to open the show with a chorus of doorbell-ringing missionaries, summoning stars out of their dressing rooms, including this year's host, Neil Patrick Harris. They had to settle for a spot later in the show that will feature "I Believe," Tony nominee Andrew Rannells' anthem to his Mormon Church's catechism, clean enough to spare the censor's bleeps.

"Mormon," for which tickets are scarce, has the least at stake among the four nominees. The telecast offers the most potential blessings — as well as perils — for those shows that haven't set the box-office afire. "Catch Me if You Can," based on the Leonardo DiCaprio film about a charming con man, has been doing middling business but now has the opportunity to turn things around when Tony nominee Norbert Leo Butz sings "Don't Break the Rules," backed by a line of long-legged chorines and noir detectives.

While most producers welcome a Tony nomination, it can also be a double-edged sword for a show that is struggling at the box office, sapping capital that might be better spent in other ways to keep it running. Such was the case of a 2006 nominee, "Cry-Baby," based on the John Waters film. The show's producers had little chance of winning, yet they could not turn down the opportunity. The number on the telecast made little difference at the box office, and the show closed shortly after.

"Scottsboro Boys" didn't even make it that far — it closed last fall. Even though the musical had good reviews and strong word of mouth, a show about the notorious injustice of nine black Alabama youths falsely accused of rape in the 1930s did not draw an audience. What's more, this last work of the composing team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb ("Cabaret," "Chicago") was framed as a minstrel show.

That did not stop Tony nominators from remembering it in 12 categories.

"Being on the telecast gives us the opportunity to honor the work, remind people how terrific the production was and try to make for an afterlife," says Weissler, cobbling together a national tour of "Scottsboro Boys" beginning later this year. The Tonys spot will help raise its profile in regional theaters as well. (It is part of the Old Globe's new season in San Diego.)

Susan Stroman, a double nominee as director and choreographer of the show, says preparing for the telecast is never easy, whether it is choreographing a chorus line of old ladies with walkers, as she did for "The Producers," or conveying a tragic chapter of racial history. "When you're dealing with dramatic and emotionally gripping material, that can make for even better television," she says.

And good television is what it finally comes down to. Which gives the producers of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" some hope that their jukebox drag extravaganza might emerge from the Tonys with a tailwind. Even though it was not nominated for best musical, it will still have a musical moment on the telecast to dazzle with its show-stopping costumes, which it is heavily favored to win. Designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner won an Oscar for the 1994 film on which the musical is based — who could forget Gardiner's famous American Express Card gold dress?

They can only hope that the best costume Tony will do for "Priscilla" what it did for "Beauty and the Beast."

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