Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What Sould This Year's Tony Nominees Perform?

Remember that time NPH promised us via song and dance that Broadway is "not just for gays anymore?"  He was totally lying, but damn it was entertaining.

My annual predictions for this year's Tony winners are coming soon, so don't you worry your pretty little heads.  But before I dive down that rabbit hole, I thought I'd take a few minutes to write about something a little less serious (but still important): what songs should this year's nominated musicals perform at the big ceremony??? 

After all, the Tony Awards are a national platform where the nominated productions get "free" advertising via their 5-minute performance (rumor has it the shows actually have to cover the physical cost of the performance).  This is often the first and sometimes only exposure a show will get to people who live outside of the tri-state area, so a correctly chosen number can really help drum up interest in the current Broadway production - not to mention any prospective tours.  And as one of the few permanent records of the production, the Tony performance can end up being one of the only ways future generations can have any idea what the show was actually like.

Now, there are a host of considerations that can go into picking this performance, but 9 times out of 10 the answer is simple: go with the production's strongest number.  The one people talk about on their way out of the theatre.  Because the same qualities that make that number a talking point to audience members is going to make potential audience members want to buy tickets to the show.  I personally think it is a bad idea to save the best number for people who actually see the show live.  The Lion King cast performed the show's jaw dropping opening number (an artistic pinnacle the following two-and-a-half hours never quite match) and it certainly hasn't suffered because of it.  Because despite the prevalence of film and television, most people inherently understand that seeing something live is not the same as watching a video, and will gladly pay Broadway prices to be able to say they saw that impressive-looking production from the TV in person.

That said, the numbers get very little setup, so you want to choose something that is still enjoyable without a lot of background knowledge or emotional investment.  This can be a problem for more modern shows that consist mostly of musical scenes rather than traditional songs, as evidenced by Next to Normal's showing at the 2009 Tonys (which struck me as bizarre before having seen the show, but in hindsight is pretty freaking brilliant).  In general, big production numbers read better on TV - especially now that the Tonys are back at the cavernous Radio City Music Hall - and have the added bonus of letting the entire cast perform, which is nice for the performers.  But what if your show doesn't have a number that features everyone, or the big production number excludes the lead actor you really wanted to highlight?  The answer depends on what kind of numbers you have to choose from, although if your production has a name star who's likely to sell tickets you should probably focus on them. 

Now what if the best number of your show is the finale, and you don't want to spoil the ending?  Again, this depends on the show; if it is a plot based production then you should probably opt for something else, but if it's a character-driven comedy I say go ahead and do the finale, because that worked like gangbusters for HairsprayAnd finally, don't commit what I consider the cardinal sin of Tony performances: medleys.  Your 5-minute time slot is short enough without trying to cram several song arcs in there, and it almost inevitably leads to the performance feeling rushed.  Medleys only have a chance of being successful if the songs are exceedingly well know and aren't particularly character based; I would advise against them for everything except jukebox musicals.  For reasons I will never understand Matilda decided to do a medley last year even though those songs aren't known at all (and honestly, the music is one of Matilda's weakest aspects), and it ended up making the show look much weaker than it actually is.

So with those rules in mind, what should this year's nominees perform?  Here are some of my suggestions:

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder - The strongest and most impressive number in the show is the operatic trio "I've Decided to Marry You," and I'm hoping that's what the producers go with.  The song is an excellent example of the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque charms of the score (melodically pretty with extremely witty lyrics), has a sense of fun, and showcases 3 of the 4 leads in a situation that can be easily set up with a one sentence introduction: Monty has two love interests, and they don't know about each other.  The only reason the producers might go against this is if they really want to showcase Tony-nominee Jefferson Mays (a frontrunner to actually win), in which case I suggest having the others sit this one out and doing "Lady Hyacinth Abroad."  The number is a great showcase for Mays and the show's off-kilter humor, and because it serves as that character's introduction is pretty self-contained.

Aladdin - This show is provoking very mixed reactions among industry folks; some people love it, and some think it fails to live up to Disney's high standards (those people are clearly ignoring Tarzan and The Little Mermaid).  But the one number that everyone agrees is spectacular is "Friend Like Me," and Disney would be wise to put their best foot forward.  There are a lot of props and set pieces involved in that number which would make it difficult to recreate at Radio City, but the effort would be worth it, just like it was worth it for Pippin to bring all that circus equipment last year.  If Aladdin does "Friend Like Me," I fully believe they will keep selling out for the next few years.

Beautiful - I haven't personally seen this show, so it's difficult for me to make a recommendation.  As a jukebox musical it could attempt to get away with a medley, although I think it would be a better idea to just put Jessie Mueller front and center and let her do her thing (especially since Carole King songs tend to be more about the entire composition and not just a catchy chorus).  I'd also pick something more uplifting, because this is at heart a tourist show and tourists have proven repeatedly over the years that they just want to be entertained.  Looking at the song list, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" would probably be the best choice.

After Midnight - This show would actually benefit from a medley in my opinion, and that's what they should do.  Have Fantasia sing a verse and chorus of one of her solos (maybe "Stormy Weather"), then kick things into high gear with a big production number.  Tap dancing is always impressive on the Tonys, and I would definitely recommend something that allows the band to shine as much as the performers.  But don't go crazy with the number of songs; I'd say pick 2 to 3 and knock them out of the park.

Violet - This show has a problem that is becoming more prominent as shows get better about integrating music and story; none of the songs jump out at you as a stand-alone piece.  There are a lot of loooong musical scenes that would have to be cut down (and likely loose some coherence), and the biggest production number (the gospel anthem "Raise Me Up") doesn't involve any of the Tony-nominated stars.  I think the best choice would be "All to Pieces," featuring the main trio of Sutton Foster, Joshua Henry, and Collin Donnell.  It also has the added bonus of being an uptempo song, which is always an easier sell in these types of situations.

Les Miserables - I am very afraid the Les Miz producers will decide these songs are well known and attempt a medley of power ballads, which would be a disaster.  The performers can barely find the emotional grounding to sell the songs in the context of the show; with only a brief snippet to work with I feel like the songs would just become noise.  The obvious choice is for them to do "One Day More," but as their Good Morning America performance proved that number highlights some of the more questionable casting in the show.  If the producers are smart, they will sit Tony-nominee Ramin Karimloo center stage and let him sing "Bring Him Home," the one number universally singled out by critics as a highlight.  Karimloo has the stage presence and vocal chops to fill even the massive Radio City Music Hall, and it will make the revival frankly look better than it actually is.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch - I would advise the producers to take a page out of the Patti LuPone-led Gypsy playbook and allow star Neil Patrick Harris to monologue a bit before breaking into song.  Hedwig is a freeform piece and it would be nice for Harris to be able to communicate some of that feel before belting out one of the show's rock anthems.  We know Harris has the charisma to command such a large venue, and as a likely winner it will be nice to have some record of what his whole performance encompasses.

There are several other currently running shows that aren't nominated, and five years ago that would have meant they wouldn't perform.  But the past few years the producers of the actual Tony Awards have shown willingness to let unnominated but worthy (or not) productions perform, so who knows?  Given her increased profile thanks to Frozen and the infamous Adele Dazeem incident, it would seem silly not to feature Idina Menzel and If/Then in some capacity, especially since that show has actually been one of the better sellers of this spring.  (But then again, it's clear that Menzel suffers from horrible awards-show nerves, so letting her sing would be a risk.) 

Since it didn't snag a nomination and is closing next weekend, I've given up hope that The Bridges of Madison County will be allowed to perform, but since the producers are (shockingly) mulling over a tour maybe they'll get Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale to blow everyone's mind with the rapturous "One Second and a Million Miles."  I don't see the point in having Alan Cumming perform "Wilkommen" on the show again, but I wouldn't mind it if Cabaret let the divisive but undoubted box-office draw Michelle Williams perform one of Sally's big numbers ("Mein Herr" would work better on the telecast, but the title song would involve less work on the production's part).

That's my thoughts on this year's nominees.  And now, I leave you with what is probably the single greatest Tony performance of all time, Jennifer Holiday in Dreamgirls:

What songs do YOU want to see performed on the Tonys?

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