Contenders for the New Musical Tony are anyone’s guess
Practice usually makes perfect, but not for this season's new Broadway musicals. Eleven of the 12 new shows had tryout runs in an effort to get them right, only to find a tepid reception from critics and audiences when they finally opened on Broadway.
The 12 shows are such a mixed bag that this year's race for the top prize, the Tony Award for best musical, is wide open for the first time in recent memory. In question is not just that award, but also (and this is truly rare) the four or five nominations for that category, which will be announced on April 29.
Producers made adjustments — some significant — to all 11 musicals between their maiden productions and their Broadway openings, including "After Midnight," "Beautiful," "Big Fish," "If/Then," "Rocky" and "The Bridges of Madison County." Some addressed negative feedback from out-of-town critics, yet most opened in New York to lukewarm reviews anyway.
The $14 million "Big Fish" closed in less than four months; even the few shows that received more enthusiastic reviews — like "Bridges" and "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" — have struggled to fill seats.
Among the new musicals, the closest one Broadway has to an all-purpose hit, popular with critics and at the box office alike, is Disney's "Aladdin." Its creators and producers turned the show around after a poorly reviewed tryout run in Toronto by sharpening the jokes (with a few contributions from script doctors) and restaging and polishing several numbers. The "Aladdin" tryout did not produce a perfect show, but it was better than most this season.
Whipping musicals into much better shape after tryouts is a struggle, no question. "If/Then" made changes after its tryout last fall that were both cosmetic (the main character was differentiated in some scenes by wearing glasses) and substantive (some new lyrics and dialogue), all of which helped clarify the plot development; the show ended up receiving both strong reviews and mixed-to-negative ones in New York, yet has still been a hot seller (no doubt partly because of the popularity of its star, Tony winner Idina Menzel).
Shows can junk only so much of their music, scripts or conceits in the months between out-of-town runs and Broadway. And creators and producers try to avoid such panicky moves for fear of radiating "flop sweat."
"When a show doesn't make a big leap of improvement from a tryout to Broadway, it's usually because there's not enough time or because there's not complete unanimity among the creative team and producers about what needs to change," said Hal Luftig, a lead producer of "Kinky Boots," which made a series of changes after a so-so opening in Chicago; it went on to open on Broadway last spring to good reviews and win the Best Musical Tony.
"And even when there's agreement on what needs fixing, there's not always agreement on how to do it," added Luftig, who is not producing any of the new musicals this season. "With 'Kinky Boots,' in Chicago, we quickly knew we needed to make one of the two main characters more sharply defined and likable. That required a new song, new dialogue, a new costume, different lighting and other changes that we all pretty much agreed on. For us, the tryout made a big difference."
The only new musical this season that did not have a prior production, "Bullets Over Broadway," chose to open cold in New York largely because it looked like a slam dunk. It has a book by Woody Allen based on his popular 1994 movie; a 1920s-themed score drawn from the American Songbook; direction by Tony winner Susan Stroman ("The Producers"); and the bright costumes, guys-and-molls choreography and energetic vibe of an old-fashioned Broadway entertainment. Yet the musical opened to sharply mixed reviews, including a pan from The New York Times that shocked the producers.
"Bullets" grossed $813,145 last week, a solid amount, and executives involved with the show say sales are growing. Yet "Bullets," once widely assumed by Broadway veterans to be a likely front-runner for the Best Musical Tony, may not even be a shoo-in for a nomination.
Producers of many of the new musicals are waiting anxiously for April 29 to see who makes the Tony nominations cut. Predictions are all over the map, unusually so.
Last year the well-reviewed box-office draws "Kinky Boots" and "Matilda" were obvious contenders, while in 2012, "Once" and "Newsies" were widely seen as major contenders. "The Book of Mormon" was the unbeatable juggernaut in 2011, while most other recent years had favorites like "Billy Elliot," "In the Heights," "Spring Awakening" and "Jersey Boys."
"In my 30 years of living in New York and being part of a theater community, I've never seen a more spirited parlor game in seeing who will get nominated and who will win," said Scott Sanders, a lead producer of "After Midnight," which opened to good reviews but has had several weeks with modest sales (and, as a revue with little dialogue, might be a hard sell for a nomination).
"There has never been a year where there aren't clear front-runners for Best Musical, or Best Play for that matter, and that's making the town excited and a little crazy," he added.
Based on interviews with Broadway producers and some of the 35 or so Tony Award nominators, the only new show that is considered highly likely to receive a Best Musical Tony nomination is "Gentleman's Guide," a cleverly told operetta about a British would-be heir who bumps off his relations. Not only has that show received the best reviews of any new musical this season, it has persevered: After opening in November, it survived the long winter (unlike "A Night With Janis Joplin," "Big Fish" and "First Date") despite some lean weeks. (The 12th new musical this season, "Soul Doctor," closed in October.)
"There's a lot of affection in the theater community for 'Gentleman's Guide,' a small-scaled show that hung on," said Sue Frost, a lead producer of "First Date" and a Best Musical Tony winner for "Memphis." "Other than that, you can make cases for many other shows to get a best musical nomination."
"Aladdin" has good reviews and box-office appeal going for it, but Tony nominators largely snubbed the last two Disney musicals based on animated films, "The Little Mermaid" and "Tarzan."