Tony Noms for Best Score, Then and Now: What’s Changed?

Fun Home
Fun Home Photo by Joan Marcus
Fun Home
Fun Home
Photo by Joan Marcus

Speaking of Tony nominations 2015, theater award watchers who’ve memorized them—especially those who follow musical citations like creatures trailing the Pied Piper—know that nods for Best Original Score Written for the Theatre are: Fun Home (music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Lisa Kron), The Last Ship (music and lyrics by Sting), Something Rotten (music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick) and The Visit (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb).

And yes, Sting’s rousing score is award worthy, as is, possibly, the pithily tuneful Tesori-Kron work. As for the sloppily crafted, endlessly repetitive, tiresomely meta-theatrical Something Rotten, not much can be said in its lasting favor other than that the cast works, under Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography, like slaves at selling the material. In the instance of The Visit, let it be noted that Kander deserves bows for promoting late writing partner Ebb’s legacy, but their songs for this one are low on the list of the team’s accomplishments.

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All that being expressed, what must also be said is that while the best new scores—with nose-thumbs to the scores for Doctor Zhivago and It Shoulda Been You—are being vetted by the Tony voters, the truly best scores on Broadway at the moment are heard at the revivals.

Will anyone argue that the scores contained in the show most likely to cop Best Musical (An American in Paris) and either show most likely to win best revival of a Musical, The King and I and On the Town are superb? Here, we’re talking George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Add On the Twentieth Century, the third Best Revival of a Musical nominee, and we’re adding Cy Coleman (with Comden and Green) to the list, even if the work represents lesser output from those three.

But what am I saying here? It sounds as if I’m simply reiterating that tired ol’ cry, “They don’t write ‘em like they used to.” Perhaps I am. Certainly, the bulk of new material crooned and belted across this season’s footlights would seem to substantiate the claim. That’s if you disregard, for one example, Sting’s “August Winds” from The Last Ship. It’s as beautiful a ballad as you’d hope to hear, right up there with, say, the Rodgers-Hammerstein “We Kiss in a Shadow” and the Bernstein-Comden-Green “Some Other Time.”

(Incidentally, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton isn’t discussed here, because it won’t be Tony-eligible until next year. But there’s a score to be reckoned with on an entirely different level.)

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If they’re not writing them as they used to, the explanation is that standards haven’t so much been lowered as they have changed: New standards apply. There was a time—from the 1920s through part of the ‘60s and even through 1968’s Hair—when popular American songs issued in large part from Broadway shows and Hollywood films. Those two outposts, along with the slew of Tin Pan Alley one-offs, were the expected source for that burgeoning annal, The Great American Songbook. Musicals were about songs and performers. The books for musicals—is this news to anyone?—were mere pegs on which to hang songs that Marilyn Miller or Eddie Cantor or Adele and Fred Astaire or Ethel Merman or Bert Lahr or Ray Bolger could introduce to the public.

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Even after Show Boat declared in 1927 that musical comedies needn’t always be light-heartedly comic, musical requisites hardly changed overnight. (Many would argue, even today, that the most outstanding song written for a Broadway musical remains the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein “Ol’ Man River” for Show Boat). Perhaps the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart-John O’Hara Pal Joey in 1940 and the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin-Moss Hart Lady in the Dark in 1941 reiterated the possibilities for a broader scope. Certainly Oklahoma! announced a new, uh, state of affairs.

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King and I
The King and I
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Try to imagine what it was like for audiences used to big chorus numbers as curtain raisers hearing as Oklahoma! began only one off-stage male voice intoning “Oh, what a beautiful morning”. Yet, Oklahoma!’s first-act finale—Agnes de Mille and her “Out of My Dreams” ballet—was as significant a harbinger of things to come. Musical comedies mutating into musical dramas became increasingly manifest. Choreography and choreographers (rather than the credit “dances by”) became important. Musical books, too.

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As the decades rolled on, it wasn’t that scores immediately lost their luster—or marquee-name entertainers. It was that other elements gained prominence. Songs were considered only one aspect of a musical, and if that’s what they were, and are (sometimes thought to be too wedded to character and situation to “step out”), then their quality of mass popularity, of accessibility, ironically became less crucial to the form.

Perhaps more significantly, music and music sources also changed. Pop singers stopped falling over themselves to be the first to record songs from incoming shows. (No more Rosemary Clooney delivering “Hey, There” from The Pajama Game.) Singer-songwriters took over.

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What was the last number one tune from a Broadway show? Or a tune that even broke onto the Top 100? This may seem an unfair yardstick, and yet back in the day, a Broadway song becoming known across the country and maybe worldwide was commonplace.

I might be overlooking something obvious (and hope I am), but the last chart-topping Broadway song I recall is Louis Armstrong’s version of Jerry Herman’s 1964 Hello, Dolly! title song. That’s 51 years ago. But maybe it’s the Hair title song in the Cowsills version. Not much better. The Marvin Hamlisch-Edward Kleban “What I Did for Love” from Company? The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Trevor Nunn-T.S. Eliot “Memory” from Cats? Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music cracked the Top 10, but think about this: Sondheim, generally conceded to be the foremost Broadway songwriter of our time, has never had a song of his lodge at number one. Sure, that’s really a meaningless fact—or is it?

Is focusing on high chart placement, or any placement at all, off the point? Should that be the aim of any composer or lyricist when developing a score? Of course not—even if it once was. Still, it seems as if changing times have undeniably affected the Broadway score. After all, it was Irving Berlin who defined good songs as those that become hits.

Nonetheless, there’s no reason to believe the great Broadway score is entirely a thing of the past—keep an eye on Hamilton, for one. The difference between then and now is that once first-rate scores and nothing less were expected. Now, it looks as if they’re not only not expected but also not even required. In that kind of musical climate, what do you think is likely to emerge? The next Cole Porter? The next Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe? I suppose we can hope.