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Tony Awards, 1984: La Cage aux Folles

6 May

la cage

Oh 1984–I have such mixed feelings about the shows of this year.   We’ve got two shows that were duking it out for the win–La Cage, and Sondheim’s Sundays in the Park with George.    The first is socially revolutionary, the second is artistically flawless.

La Cage was an extremely brave show to have out in 1984–an attempt to humanize gay men at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and also a love letter to a time that was about to be over, and also looking forward to how society would change.   In 1984 the idea of two gay men raising a child together was foreign to middle class America, and positive portrayals of gay men were few and far between.   This was right at the time that AIDS was first coming into public consciousness–in fact 1984 was the year that AIDS got its name–before it was known as Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease (GRID).

I don’t think anybody can know what a dark time that was.  There was a disease where the causes weren’t even completely known yet, and whole groups of friends would grow suddenly ill and disappear.   People were afraid and suspicious, and for a long time there seemed to be little progress in understanding much less fighting this disease.   The president was receptive, and homophobia reared its head (one of the first gay jokes I ever heard was that it stood for got aids yet?)   I was just a child then, but I knew I was gay relatively early and in the eighties identifying as gay was akin to signing your own death warrant.

And no, this comedy doesn’t come close to touching the subject of AIDS, but it went a long way towards showing gay men as ordinary people, and putting on a comedy showing things being the norm was so refreshing in that time.   Plus I just adore Harvey Fierstein–his gruff campy sense of humor is all over this show, and that’s the biggest reason it shines.

The score?  It’s ok.  It has one big song I Am What I Am, which despite sounding like Popeye should sing it, is a rousing pride anthem.  It’s really very conservative–very necessarily so, because this show is all about making gay men approachable.  However, sometimes it’s too conservative, many of the songs would have fit in shows 20 years before this, and a lot of the songs repeat.

For all the reasons above this show deserved the Tony.   (Besides it was a smash).  However, I’m divided with Sundays in the Park with George–Sondheim’s most personal creation and his artistic peak.   The score here just shines–the sounds, as odd as they are, fit the show, and in 100 years I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Sundays in the Park was still relevant, while La Cage would seem like a cultural oddity.

Jerry Herman (whether purposefully or by accident) ruffled a few feathers by saying that “the simple hummable tune was still alive and well on Broadway.”   This innocuous statement can be read as thumbing his nose at Sondheim who was known for making music that was most definitely NOT hummable.    Personally, I don’t really get into the whole sophisticated vs. simple argument.  Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim are music makers that have completely different approaches and both of them succeed or fail in their own ways and there’s room enough for both of them in this world.

Tony Awards, 1983, Cats

30 Apr


Cats was the behemoth of 80’s Broadway until Andrew Lloyd Weber one-upped himself with Phantom of the Opera.   However, there’s a quote from Angels in America that really fits this show:  “Cats.  It’s about cats.  Singing cats.  You’ll love it.”

I don’t love Cats, but I find the show interesting.  The best way to consider this show is as the best theater for children ever made.   For children, this show is clever, fun, not too challenging, but with a little smidgen of thought that your average ice capades wouldn’t include.   As a Tony Award winning Broadway show—I think it’s a little bit weak.   Not that it shouldn’t have won, this show was one of the biggest of that era, It’s just very very simple, and not always in the good way, a bit too darling for my tastes, and the book could have been written by Spielberg when he was coming off of E.T.   And the whole thing just screams 80’s.    The costuming–how they look like if Kiss had made themselves some cat costumes by way of an 80’s mall.  (I mean look at this group up here and compare them to the USA in Africa group a few years later.)   And each one is just slightly different, so you can buy all the figures!!!!!   Talk about marketing!

This does have the huge song Memory in it–which deservedly is the breakaway song, however much it doesn’t really fit with all the other songs we hear.   Lots of feline dancing, a big junkyard, a tractor tire space ship to reincarnation.   Characters named Rum-Tum-Tugger, and Teacozy and I don’t know what.

Again, like all the other mega-musicals, the star is a thing–here it’s the dancers’ makeup.   There’s no progression, just song after song after song, which get samey after a bit.   Gotta say one thing–Andrew Lloyd Weber certainly knows what to bank on.   This show was HUUGE.

Tony Awards 1981, 42nd Street

20 Apr

42nd street

One thing that you’ll hear a lot with discussing 42nd Street is how it’s the end of an era.   David Merrick was one of the last big producers on Broadway, and this was his last effort to bring an old style Broadway show like it used to be.

Never trust anybody who claims to be putting on a show the way Broadway “used to be.”   And most especially don’t trust David Merrick who probably wrote all this copy himself.   David Merrick was a combination of Jack Warner and a publicity hound who would stop at nothing to not only have his shows succeed but become cultural phenomenons.   He was not very nice, not many people liked him, but damn–the man got stuff done yo.   No, 42nd Street has nothing to do with Broadway in the days of yore–and more has to do with the upcoming flavor of musicals in the 80’s and 90s–this is the rise of the mega-musical.

Now, I’m not claiming that this is the first mega-musical exactly, there have been many shows before this that have had long runs, but this is the first show that I know of that was intentionally trying to have a long run–before 42nd street a show lasting more than one season was (generally) considered a success.   Now we’ve got shows (hello Spiderman!) that have to run for at least 5 years before earning a dime.   So instead of my normal review, I’m going to lay out all the aspects of the mega-musical, and how 42nd street fills the bill.

1.  An expectation of a long run.

2.  Big sets, big casts, big big big–the idea is to overwhelm the audience, which leads to…

3.  An emphasis on pageantry rather than storytelling.

4.  A conversation piece happening that bring people out of the show talking about to build word of mouth.  Here it’s the huge cast of tap-dancers practically overflowing from the stage, but a more famous one would be the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera.

5.  Broad Characters–42nd street has a bunch of characters we already know–the up and coming star, the jaded old star that’s on her way out, the tricky producers, the director who’s committed to his art, mobsters, stage-door johnnies, the love interest with a heart of gold.  You are told exactly who to root for from the very beginning.

6.  Simple plot–The good people are good, the bad people are bad.    At the end everyone gets their deserved reward.

7.  Songs that are set-pieces rather than pushing forward the story–this is a 180 degree turn from the direction that Broadway shows have been generally developing since the 40’s.

8.   Family-friendliness–While not kiddie fare, 42nd street is primarily an unthreatening landscape–there’s no attempt to connect the actions on the stage to the real world whatsoever.   No current events please.

9.   Connection to a subject that people are familiar with, but is not canonized.  42nd Street is perfect because it’s familiar, you know all the songs already, but the story isn’t one where its fans would start saying but in the original movie she didn’t do that….

10.  Emphasis away from its central stars.  Mega-musicals could have a star in them if it was convenient, but mostly they shied away from that–they wanted the sort of show that you could endlessly replace people and the audience wouldn’t really care.  In fact, this sort of musical actively resisted having an individual actor place their stamp on it too heavily.

11.  An easily recognizable theme.    Here I mean more like a dress up party theme than anything else.  Here we have the 30’s, bright lights, chlorines, pork-pie hats, tap-dancing, sparkly outfits, coat and cane, the whole nine yards.

You probably can tell I’m not a big fan of this sort of show.  Yes, they’re impressive, but they run so slickly, so like a well oiled machine, they more remind me of a carnival ride than a show that really gets to you.  You’re supposed to watch these with your brains firmly off, and your wonderment scanners on high.   The reason I don’t really review this show is there’s nothing here to really review.  It’s very professionally done, but it’s not really all that interesting (to me), in fact the production values here completely erase all the edges and interesting parts this story originally had.   The whole point of it is to make something as familiar and unchallenging as possible so that the widest possible audience would pour in.  And boy did they.

However, as a harbinger of things to come, this show was extremely accurate and thus deserved the Tony.

Tony Awards, 1980, Evita

17 Apr


Well, 1980 was the year that Andrew Lloyd Weber broke open the door and claimed the rest of the decade for himself.   What surprised me about Evita was how close to Jesus Christ Superstar it was.   I always looked at Jesus Christ Superstar as an anomaly–after all, it’s the only one where Andrew Lloyd Weber really rocks, it’s the only one that has raw emotions, it’s the only one that even approaches edginess.   However, if you listen to the two back to back, you’ve got a lot in common, more in common than Evita and any of his works afterwords.

In a way this makes sense.   Weber has always been fascinated by the martyr figure, and while Jesus was certainly the world’s best known martyr, Weber couldn’t really go all out there in terms of him as a public personality, because he had to be sensitive about people’s religious beliefs (and even then, I might add, people still got offended by it.)   Evita, by comparison, is a much safer bet.   She was someone who was loved by the public, but also someone who wasn’t exactly a sanctimonious figure,  nobody claimed that she was entirely pure of heart.   And there’s a couple of interesting things that Weber brings out about these cults of personality–they almost have nothing to do with whatever the person stands for, or is actually doing.

Patti Lupone really knocked this out of the park, because believe me, if you’ve got a weak Evita, the rest of this show just goes straight down the drain no matter how good everyone else is.   The music is–sorta ok I guess.  It’s extremely repetitive, and while Jesus Christ Superstar certainly had its repeating themes, the ones here are much simpler.  However they vary it enough so that it doesn’t make your ears bleed or anything.   Also, this marks the transition of Andrew Lloyd Weber from shows that are about something, to shows that are largely pageantry.   Here the pageantry is largely part of the story, so it’s forgivable I guess, but later–oooooh later, style would definitely trump substance in every single manner.

Oh well, the only other show that year that came close was the unfairly forgotten Barnum.  Nobody really denies Evita its win.

Tony Awards, 1979, Sweeney Todd

15 Apr

sweeney todd

There was never any doubt on this one.  Not only is Sondheim the Meryl Streep of the Tony’s getting nominated for any musical urp he lets out, this movie was the trendsetter of that season.

Sondheim switched gears here, and honestly he never made anything like this since–moving away from his character studies, he embraces the dark musical, completely undermining the toothy smiles and tap dancing that Broadway always had in large abundance.  (Want to know what bi-polar feels like?  Just chase this with Annie and you’ve just about got it.)   I wonder if the success of Annie allowed for this to have such an impact–because we’ve got quite another story of an impish redhead living in poverty right here.

We start with a dark undertone, and the darkness never relents.   I’m amazed at how well this play works, by breaking all the rules–by following such a penny dreadful pattern, by having all the characters being ghastly exaggerations.  It’s like watching a funhouse mirror.   The Phantom of the Opera’s ersatz darkness can’t hold a candle to this story.

Oh well, we’re done with the seventies.   Andrew Lloyd Weber is about to bust the door down and start things over again.


Tony Awards 1978, Ain’t Misbehavin’

14 Apr


One person who, if remembered at all, simply does not get enough credit is Ms. Nell Carter.   By the time the 80’s were over, she was a sit-com walk on, but in Ain’t Misbehavin’ she was a powerhouse vocalist who went a long way to giving this show its boozy piano-rag flavor.   The whole cast is great, bringing back an era gone by–but wisely, not pretending these times were better than the times they were in.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is often considered the first example of (gasp!) the Jukebox Musical.   Unfortunately The Jukebox Musical has been done in such a manner since then, that it’s not complimentary anymore.   At the time, with all the care and creativity that this show had thrown into it, and also with the point of bringing Fats Waller so that everyone can hear his genius.  At the time, the Jukebox idea was refreshing–because this was seen as a sort of homage, rather than the more cynical Jukebox musicals that have come since, which basically throw together a bunch of songs that people are nostalgic for, whether they work well on the stage or not.

In any case, this was the great Tony Award winner of its time, and well deserved it.

Tony Awards, 1977: Annie

13 Apr



Many of the musicals I have revisited, I grew to like a lot more than I remembered.   Annie, however, is not one of them.  At first, while listening to this soundtrack I almost thought my mind would have changed, but unfortunately no.   Not to say it didn’t deserve a Tony–this musical was an outright smash, and brought the family musical to Broadway (which I have mixed feelings about, but attests to its influence if nothing else.)  Not to mention that Annie laid out the template for Disney which carried all the way through the Disney renaissance (outside of not being an orphan, how is The Little Mermaid all that different?)

Let’s start with the positives–Hard Knock Life, Maybe, Tomorrow, and We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover are all great songs, and quite enjoyable to listen to.   The Herbert Hoover song in particular gives a wonderful view of depression era life which gives Annie a smidge more grounding than it otherwise would have.   Also its sarcastic tone is refreshing against the rest of the score.

Now for the downside–it might be appropriate for Annie’s characters to all be cartoonish–it was based off a comic strip after all–but these characters are really really annoying.   Miss Hannigan is a screeching harpy, the orphans are all cute and winsome, Daddy Warbucks is the grouch with the heart of gold, and Annie is so gosh-darned optimistic and spunky you’ll want to side with Miss Hannigan now and then.

The worst comes in when you get the screechy orphans coming in to sing songs being cute–other than Hard Knock life–their voices are just too shouty and shrill.   Oh and what about the shmaltzy stuff with FDR?   Ugh.


Tony Awards 1976: A Chorus Line

12 Apr

a chorus line

In a way it’s a shame that One became the identifying song for A Chorus Line.   When I was a kid I had the wrong impression of the show–I thought it was a silly gold lamé thing where people got in lines and kicked.   Really, the song is supposed to be generic–the characters are singing about the admiration they wish they could get, despite the fact that they are in a line where everyone moves and sings exactly the same, thus erasing their individuality.

And we really mine into their individuality–the rest of the show are all the characters telling their stories–woven into each other in such a manner that this group gets its own identity that’s far more interesting than the 2 minute piece they get to do in the end.   The other song that people might know is “What I Did For Love”  a big schmaltzy song about the love of dancing.  However, contextually the song is supposed to be schmaltzy–the woman singing this song is not singing what she believes so much as what she tells herself she believes.  She has to think of herself as doing a labor of love to make it all worth it.

The stories are mostly about growing up, which makes sense since most dancers are younger.  They are all desperate to get recognition and to get some stability, and they all have worked very hard.   It’s a montage of how all these people from all these different backgrounds have found themselves in the same situation.   The director delves into all their motivations and has them express their stories in a sort of group therapy that’s funny and touching.

The thing is, he’s not delving to get them to pull out a performance from their very souls–he’s delving to smooth out their edges so they can be a conform group where no individual really sticks out.     And the number at the end, as slick as it is, comes off as so much shallower than the group as we see them develop and let out their feelings.    And yet, that finale is very satisfying–it’s hard to say why.

1976 was a very strong season–many could argue that Chicago should have won.   Chicago has certainly eclipsed A Chorus Line, but A Chorus Line so much hit the moment–if you watch audiences you can hardly hear the finale for all their cheering, that I agree with the Tonys on this one.   Chicago is a great musical, but A Chorus Line really knocked it out of the park.

Tony Awards 1975, The Wiz

10 Apr

the wiz

First, forget the terrible movie version (I swear half my reviews could start this way), the Broadway show The Wiz was an incredibly gutsy show from the start.   First, we get a black musical version of what must be one of the whitest stories there is–and the music is up-to-the-moment in tune with urban music of that time.   Then, their version is the most faithful to the book The Wizard of Oz, most of the things that happen here happens in the book (while the 1939 movie changes quite a bit.)   Third, it’s one thing if they remade some other children’s story, but The Wizard of Oz is such a beloved franchise that if they did the slightest thing off you’d hear howling from New York to LA and back again.

Fortunately they pulled this off perfectly–the music is punchy, the script sly, and there’s this incredible energy that thrums from this show from the design to the actors to the sets–nothing, and I mean nothing, was more deserving of the Tony Award in 1975.

The only unfortunate thing was that this show was so Zeitgeisty that by the time the movie came out (just three years later) the music was already out-of-date.    This was lightning in a bottle–the exact right show coming out with the exact right people at the exact right time.

Unfortunately the movie has none of this charm–we’ve got Diana Ross being the worst Dorothy ever, ugly urban sprawl, and Michael Jackson already doing his creepy man-child schtick (I know there’s people who love him, but I find him disturbing.)    But let’s not let that raincloud spoil this show, which really has it all.

Tony Awards, 1974: Raisin

6 Apr


Can I start out this review to say I love Debbie Allen in just about anything?   She has such a huge personality and adds such fire to whatever she’s in, that even when she shows up in an otherwise mediocre sitcom I have an internal thrill when she shows up.   Debbie Allen has that characteristic where whatever she shows up in, your eye just follows her around to see what she’s doing.

However, this isn’t the Debbie Allen show, this is Raisin, the musical version of A Raisin in the Sun–the play by Lorraine Hansberry.   What we get is a story about a black family trying to move ahead in America.  The father had recently died, and the mother inherited a large sum of money from life insurance.  Of course everybody has ideas as to how to spend it.   The mother wants to buy a nice house–which she does, but it’s in a white community that doesn’t exactly embrace them moving in.   The son wants to open a liquor store.  The daughter wants to go to school.

This show is very likable.    The score is not incredibly strong, but works pretty well despite that, and there’s no faulting the story as providing a backbone.  My only criticism is I simply don’t see the need to musicalize A Raisin in the Sun.  As a play it’s tight and touching and nearly perfect.  The musical lets a little air out of that balloon, just enough to distance the action from the audience so they don’t get drawn in.  Also while the play has a bittersweet ending, the musical’s ending is all out happy–which slightly undercuts the complex issues the story brings up.

Those are only minor quibbles though, of all the shows that year, Raisin certainly deserved a win.