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Tony, Tony, Tony:
Beloved Losers and Disdained Winners

It’s Tony season and who better to educate us about the wonderful world of theatre than Thomas S. Hischak, author of The Oxford Companion To The American Musical: Theatre, Film and Television. Hischak is a Professor of Theatre at the State University of New York College at Cortland. He is the author of sixteen books on theater, film, and popular music as well as the author of twenty published plays. In The Oxford Companion To The American Musical Hischak offers over two thousand entires on musicals, performers, composers, lyricists, producers, choreographers and much more. In the original post below Hishak reflects on past Tony award winners and losers. Be sure to check back every week on Tuesday for more from Hischak on Tony.

Looking back over the past 59 years of Tony Award winners and losers, two lists cause a great deal of lament for musical theatre lovers: those undeserving shows that won, particularly in a season when there were superior offerings, and the outstanding musicals that were passed over by the Tony voters. Over the years there have been seasons in which the offerings were so mediocre that an undeserving musical won, just as there were years in which too many good shows opened and only one could carry home the Tony. (Actually, in 1960 there was a tie between Fiorello! and The Sound of Music.) So let’s revisit some cases of musicals that were, as Julie Andrews would say, egregiously overlooked.

While no two fans of American musical theatre will completely agree on what constitutes a superior musical, some titles recur so frequently that you can say they’re the popular choices. Keeping that in mind, I offer a list of the ten most acclaimed Americans musicals that didn’t win the Tony Award for Best Musical. In order of their Broadway bow, they are:

In some cases these outstanding shows had some stiff competition. The Most Happy Fella lost to My Fair Lady, West Side Story to The Music Man, and Gypsy to those double winners Fiorello! and The Sound of Music. She Loves Me had to compete with Hello, Dolly!, the radical Hair bumped heads with the patriotic 1776, Chicago could not survive the avalanche of awards for A Chorus Line, and Ragtime was up against The Lion King. Other seasons the contest was close and the Tony voters’ selection of Nine over Dreamgirls or Sunday in the Park With George‘s loss to La Cage aux Folles is understandable even if most theatre lovers today might disagree. Then there is Two Gentlemen of Verona‘s win over Follies, a decision that seems ridiculous today and wasn’t even all that popular in 1971. Many of these shows were just unlucky, opening in the wrong season; Follies, put simply, was robbed.

Looking at the musicals that were giant hits without benefit of a Tony Award for Best Musical is a less subjective exercise. This list tends to favor more recent shows since the definition of a box office hit has changed in the last 20 years and the newer moneymakers are earning more than anyone in the 1950s could’ve imagined. Here then are the top ten Tony-less Broadway success stories in the order of their opening gross:

Some may want to include one or two of these titles on the first list and only history will tell if they are right. But let’s face it, you don’t see many revivals of The Magic Show or Dancin’ anymore. On the other hand, Grease has returned to Broadway twice and is probably the champ, winning no Tony Awards in 1972 and crying all the way to the bank ever since. It’s also interesting to note that the scores of three of the above, Pippin, The Magic Show, and Wicked, are by Stephen Schwartz. The Tony voters have never been kind to Schwartz. But that’s a story for another time.

If choosing a superior musical is contentious, deciding which shows simply did not deserve the Best Musical Tony is even more fraught with controversy. Traditionalists might argue that the Tony Winners from the past six years all qualify as undeserving. Younger viewers will point to old favorites such as Wonderful Town or Kismet as over-praised winners. Then there are those not-really-a-musical shows like Fosse and Contact that seem to have won unfairly, not because of quality but because of definition. Recognizing that no one can agree completely, here’s my list of the ten Best Musical Tony winners that ought not to have won, regardless of the competition:

The upcoming 2008 Tony Awards will probably add a title to two or even all three of these lists. Will The Little Mermaid become the next Tony-less box office bonanza? Will In the Heights be added to your “should have won” list? Stay tuned.

Recent Comments

  1. Mark Robinson

    Hischak makes some very astute observations on what musicals have or have not deserved recognition. His inclusion of Passion in the list of musicals that should NOT have one is a courageous choice. I agree with him. What a dull, evening that musical was. It is mistitled, it should have been called “Obsession”…no character in that musical had a clue of what passion is. I don’t know why the critics were as kind as they were. It was a case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

    In my opinion, the musical that was most overlooked for Best Musical was Into the Woods. How did Phantom of the Opera beat this emotional wallop of a show? “Phantom” is all spectacle, recycled tunes and empty lyrics.”Woods” is an in depth study of the human psyche, coupled with unforgettable characters and deep felt messages. Themes of forgiveness, the ache of loss, the power of jealousy, the intensity of parental control, the humor of life’s complications and the fears that reside deep in our hearts are all explored with precision and poetry.

    I do have to argue that Avenue Q is the better musical over Wicked. Granted, Wicked is a powerhouse of show that had great performances, a mostly exhilerating score and a unique take on a classic story…but the story ambles about in the second act and the show’s resolution is a cop out. When I truly thought Elphaba was dead, I felt the show tragic and full of meaning. Then she crawls out of the floor and runs off with a Scarecrow! I laughed…and humor is not the final emotion I should have walked away from the Gershwin with. It should have been the ache of the loss of a beautiful, unique friendship.

    Avenue Q, as ribald as it is, had a better through line to its story, it balanced humor with sadness, it gave us a cast of unforgetable characters and explodes with shear joy! The songs do exactly what they need to, and anyone who thinks of the score as sedond rate humor need only listen to “A Fine, Fine Line” to knwo that these composers are writing from the heart.

  2. Bob Spitzer

    I am always guided by Hischak’s writing on the theater. But the most interesting competitive category for this year’s Tony Awards will be for best musical revival, including such powerhouse productions as “Sunday in the Park,” “Gypsy,” “South Pacific,” and “Grease” (the latter not such a powerhouse). Query to Hischak: have Broadway revivals overshadowed new productions? Is this harmful to Broadway’s future?

  3. Charles Donnelly

    Would like to know what musical took Tony Award for best musical over Mary Poppins.

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