Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ranking the 2016 Tony Nominees for Best Musical

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 23:51


#5: Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
tells the true story of Shuffle Along, the musical sensation of 1921 that was the first to feature an all-Black cast on Broadway. The show is chuck full of talent, punctuated by Tony winners and Broadway legends Audra MacDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, who have paired in many shows before, including Ragtime, one of the best shows to ever grace the stage. They are joined by Billy Porter, who shows a little too much Lola, his Kinky Boots drag queen persona that won him the 2014 Tony Award, here. His performance is so effeminate, he even has to jokingly explain to the audience at the show’s end that his character was actually married to a woman. While it got a chuckle from the audience, it resulted in me cringing a little in embarrassment for his lack of ability to downplay his flamboyance to bring this character to life.

And while McDonald and Stokes Mitchell are truly the masterful talent behind the show, the true beauty of Shuffle Along actually lies in its ensemble. Almost every scene of the show is stolen by the phenomenal dancers that tell the story of the musical’s incarnation in scenes from the story and the actual musical they were creating. Where the show struggles is in its book, written by George C. Wolfe. Always trying to maintain its cuteness, the show remains superficial, trading in the gritty details of how a show starring an all-Black cast during the 1920’s was brought to life, captured an audience, and changed history, with writing that keep the details slim and the dancing and song strong. The dialogue spoken at the end of the production detailing the fate of the characters does the history of the actual show more justice than what’s presented the prior 2 hours. That’s a serious problem for a show that deep down is telling the story of truly life events with real depth and significance. Still, it’s worthy of praise for its stars McDonald, Stokes Mitchell, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, and incredibly skilled ensemble.

#4: School of Rock


Andrew Lloyd Webber, an adored (and sometimes criticized) composer of some of the most iconic musicals of Broadway (and beyond) shows in School of Rock that his musical genius extends beyond the classic chords of Phantom and EVITA into the realm of Rock ‘n Roll. And I mean real Rock ‘n Roll! A lot of the music in the show (with lyrics by Webber’s longtime collaborator, Glenn Slater) is metal-laden, straying away from some of the more poppy music Webber is typically associated with. The show relies on its two star leads, Tony-nominated Alex Brightman (Dewey Finn) and Sierra Boggess (Love Never Dies), to bring to life the heartwarming story of a teacher with a love for music who realizes the impact he can make extends way beyond the notes on the page, even to privileged children, who might otherwise be unexposed to the realities of the world.

As someone who credits a music teacher as playing a major role in my personal development, the story of the show reverberates within my spirit. The stage show is written by Jullian Fellows and it follows the source material of the movie, written by Mike White, closely. And Brightman’s portrayal of Dewey, while funny, enjoyable, and loveable, is a mirror image of Jack Black’s performance in the film. These elements give the show a slight feel of lack of originality. And most of Webber’s music is unfortunately, forgettable. But the show is still fun and incredibly sweet and touching. It does a great job of showing audiences that music can play an incredibly formative power in the lives of children, making it one of the best and important shows of the season.

#3: Waitress


Like School of Rock, Waitress is also based on a film that shares the same name as its Broadway counterpart. I’ve never seen that film, so I cannot comment on how closely the Broadway production follows it. But I can certainly tell you that I absolutely loved every minute of the show. Tony winner Jessie Mueller (Beautiful) plays Jenna, a waitress and pie chef extraordinaire who lives in a small rural town where everyone is in everyone else’s business and where dreams are easily made, but almost always, impossible to realize. She’s in a dead-end and abusive relationship when she becomes pregnant and simultaneously falls for her irresistible obstetrician, played by the handsome lead Drew Gehling. The two carry on an unlikely affair, and in the process, teach each other about life and just how difficult the ultimate pursuit of happiness, truly is. This is all happening while the supporting characters are defining their lives as well.

With an ensemble dripping with talent (including Tony nominee Keala Settle, playing Jenna’s best friend and colleague, Becky), Waitress is truly heartwarming and inspiring. The music, written by Grammy award winning superstar Sara Bareilles, is fun, poppy, and good! It’s made me excited for an OBC recording of the show! And the writing, by Jessie Nelson, is crisp, witty, and consistently excellent. The set design is great and accents the settings of the show perfectly. While I wouldn’t say Waitress is groundbreaking theater, it has enough ingenuity and heart that it could be a show loved by audiences for years to come. The question is, once Mueller moves on, will it have enough sustainability to realize its potential?



When it comes to theater history, there are only a handful of shows that have truly been groundbreaking works, ones that have made serious and unimaginable impacts and contributions to the craft. Shows with this distinction include Hair, one of the first-ever to bring a contemporary storyline of current political and social strife to the stage. Elaborate productions like Phantom of the Opera, TITANIC, and Wicked broke ground by dazzling audiences with spectacular special effects and unforgettable music. Les Miz remains timeless because of its unmatched orchestrations and humanistic story of forgiveness and redemption; and the modern Book of Mormon has shown that even shows that promote blasphemy with vulgarity and explicit language can make mad bank at the box office!

Now comes a show that will forever be included in the history books chronicling such shows that defined the theater, HAMILTON. Garnering an unprecedented 16 Tony nominations, including noms for practically every actor with a main role, HAMILTON tells one of the most important pieces of American history, using rap and hip-hop articulated from the mouths of an ethnically-diverse cast that looks nothing like the characters they are portraying. And yet this approach to the production is not only what makes it unique, but history changing, as well. Lin Manuel Miranda has created a show that is nothing short of a masterpiece. His performance is incredible as is those of his castmates, Christopher Jackson, Renee Elise Goldsbury, Daveed Digs, and Leslie Odom. The entire cast brings an insurmountable energy to a fresh and captivating production that layers one impressive scene after another.

HAMILTON breaks down the ethnic archetypes of traditional theater. And it shows that a culturally-diverse cast is more than capable of bringing non-culturally diverse characters and events, to life. HAMILTON is simply like nothing that has ever been staged before it. It will win essentially every Tony Award it is nominated for, and rightly so. Many might be reading this and thinking, “Geeze. If it’s worthy of so much praise and awards, is historic and groundbreaking theater in every way, why do you rank HAMILTON as #2 on the list rather than #1?” Keep reading and you’ll find out why.

#1: Bright Star


Okay, you can manually close your jaws and wipe up the saliva now. You read right. I ranked Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star higher than HAMILTON. No. It isn’t as good as HAMILTON. It isn’t historic and groundbreaking. It won’t be remembered in the history books as being a major contributor to musical theater. In fact, although I hope I’m wrong, the show will more than likely not win a single Tony Award and will be forced to shutter a week or two after the ceremony. But it has an absolutely gorgeous and lush score with orchestrations as beautiful as Jason Robert Brown’s Bridges of Madison County, a terrifically written book, incredible staging and choreography, and a story that will absolutely grab ahold of your heart and never let go.

The show was prized with the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and Best Score; and it garnered nominations in 5 other categories as well. Centered in two close time periods in the early-to-mid 1900’s, the show follows the story of parallel characters who are falling in love in the Deep South during a time when religion, proscribed morality, and family reputation trumped all else, including even life. The orchestra, who plays a prominent role in the staging of the show, is made of mostly strings and percussion. They bring a soaring score to life that is only made stronger by the incredible voices of the leads, Tony nominated Carmen Cusack (one of the finest actors and singers I’ve ever seen on stage) and Paul Alexander Nolan. The characters of Bright Star are totally loveable and relatable. And their story and struggles are real, heartbreaking, and at times, tragic. This coupled with the show’s incredible music brings their human experiences to life and truly solidifies the show as phenomenal!

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