In my quest to look back over the past 10 years in film, theatre, music, and television, I have decided to tackle theatre this week. Now this might be the least interesting list, because we have very limited opportunities to actually see some of the fine productions that have played the Broadway stage in the past decade. Sure, Walton Arts Center brings us quality productions every year, but with rumors that the arts center is just itching to get up to Benton County, we could be stuck with very little in the touring national companies realm. Either way, we have been fortunate enough to see a great variety of shows in Northwest Arkansas, and for that, I am thankful.
Being a bit of a theatre buff, I have been fortunate enough to see quite a bit of theatre in the past decade. When trying to judge theatre, one should probably turn to the Tony Awards. Presented each summer by the American Theatre Wing, the Tony Award remains the highest honor that a theatre professional can receive. Granted, the Tony is a bit unfair because it only rewards those productions that ran on Broadway/Broadway area proper. There have been tons of quality off-Broadway productions that have to rely on other awards. Anyway, when evaluating popular theatre, Tony is tops.
The Tonys hand out their awards in both play and musical categories. Given that I haven’t seen all of the Best Play winners, I thought it best to tackle the past decades winners for Best Musical. The Best Musical category proves to be the most popular based on ticket sales but also its ability to produce money makers for national tours that come around to venues like the WAC. Given that the 90s gave us great musical theatre like “Rent” and “The Lion King,” the new decade had a lot to live up to. For the most part, the decade produced some fine musicals, although very few of them actually won Best Musical. Here I present the ten winners from the last decade.
Ten Best “Best Musical” winners of the 2000s
#10 – “Thoroughly Modern Milly” (2002)
From a strictly financial standpoint, this was a big mistake on the Tony voter’s part. “Mama Mia” was nominated in the same year and lost out to this little-seen musical. Although the musical made a Broadway star out of its Tony-winning lead Sutton Foster, this is the kind of musical that just doesn’t stand up over time. The story of a young, innocent girl coming to the big city hasn’t had success touring and eventually closed after a fairly limited run. Either way, on book and lyrics alone, it is stronger than other entries from that year.
#9 – “Contact” (2000)
Staring Tony winners Boyd Gaines and Karen Ziemba, “Contact” was the sort of talent show musical that was extremely popular in the last 90s and pre 9/11. “Contact” was a dance showcase set to popular music. This is one of those years where good quality musicals were pretty rare. Therefore, the win by “Contact” can’t be bitched about too much because there just wasn’t a clear alternative. The touring companies of “Contact” never really connected and therefore, this has to end low on the list. Elton John’s popular “Aida” was released during this year and shockingly didn’t get a nomination. Touring theatres were probably not too happy about that.
#8 – “Jersey Boys” (2006)
This can’t make me very popular. “Jersey Boys” is extremely loved and continues to pack houses, while the tours and branch shows have been wildly successful. The book and songs are fine, but one has to argue that the story is just “Ray” or “Walk the Line” set to music. This isn’t the deepest story and doesn’t deliver the way other fair from the decade did. Following the life of Frankie Valley is a great evening but more suited for a Vegas review than a Broadway show. That being said, it is still making tons of money, so what do I know?
#7 – “In the Heights” (2008)
This is probably one of those musicals that will get made into a movie. It seems prime to be shown on the big screen. It is a fairly simple, yet timely story of a neighborhood of Latin Americans in the outskirts of New York City. The music and book are lovely and pleased both audiences and critics. However, it is more of a star vehicle and less of a great musical in its entirety. It has had some tour success, though, and it’s pleasant enough to land in at number seven.
#6 – “Billy Elliott” (2009)
This is the latest (and perhaps best) of the 2000s trend of musicals made from motion pictures. Swiftly directed (and edited) by Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours), “Billy Elliot” has delighted critics and fans since its opening last season. Part of the allure of the musical are the songs, the book, and of course, the stars. The trio of young actors who play “Billy Elliot” won a sole award for Best Actor. Because of child actor laws in New York, the musical was deemed too difficult for one actor to perform over and over without breaks. Therefore, the producers made the very interesting decision to alternate leads based on the night of the week. One would have to argue that it has paid off royally. The musical is a huge success and likely to be a crowd pleaser (like the movie) across the country.
#5 – “Spamalot” (2005)
Anyone who was fortunate enough to see the touring company of “Spamalot” last year at the WAC knows why this musical was/is so popular. When the musical opened with the Monty Python name behind it, many critics winced at the thought. However, that was all silenced when they actually saw it and started cracking up. Led by David Hyde Pierce, Hank Azaria, and Tim Curry, the musical filled the house every night. However, the star of the show has to be considered the lady of the lake, originated by Tony winner Sara Rimerez, who since went on to co-star in “Grey’s Anatomy.” The book to this musical is so side-splitting that it still charms theatres across the country.
#4 – “Hairspray” (2003)
I’m not the biggest fan of “Hairspray.” The musical takes itself too seriously for me and the songs come across more campy than cute. However, one cannot argue with the success of the original production which won Best Musical, Actress (Marissa Jaret Winokur) and Actor (Harvey Fierestein). The musical introduced some of the catchiest and sweetest music to come out of Broadway in a time when Broadway desperately needed some relief after 9/11. Now the movie, that was just awful. AWFUL!
#3 – “Spring Awakening” (2007)
“Spring Awakening” is about as close to “Rent” as the new decade was going to give us. Starring a laundry list of young up-and-comers, “Spring Awakening” was the young person’s musical. Written by Tony Winner Duncan Sheik (“I am barely breathing…but I can’t find the air”) the musical tells the story of the institution being taken down. It a tale of discovery and teens learning about “themselves.” Although the production won a slew of Tony’s, perhaps its biggest shocker was the failure of a nomination for star Lea Michelle who stole the show night after night. Of course, she had the last laugh – she is now the lead on “Glee.”
#2 – “Avenue Q” (2004)
This was the little show that took down “Wicked.” It is funny to think that the most popular musicals of the decade – “Wicked,” “Mama Mia,” and a few others – failed to actually win Best Musical. Most consider the win by “Avenue Q” over “Wicked” as the biggest shocker in Tony history. Of course, anyone who actually saw the shows knows that it was no mistake. “Avenue Q” simply had a stronger story and songbook. Of course, it is the Sesame Street puppet story of growing up in New York. In short, a bunch of twenty/thirtysomethings trying to get by in New York City. Yes, they are all adorable puppets, but the story is dirty, funny, touching, and surprisingly filled with heart. A WORTHY WINNER!
#1 – “The Producers” (2001)
I can’t really compare anything to “The Producers.” It is in a class all by itself. It was the highest grossing opening year of any show in history. It won the most Tony Awards of any musical in history. Its stars, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, packed them in every night even with extremely high ticket prices. It won every single Tony that it was nominated for and finally gave Mel Brooks the recognition he deserved. However, the greatest thing that “The Producers” did was not that it united critics and the public. No, the greatest accomplishment of this comedy was that it revived Broadway in a way no other show could do. Musicals were on the decline before “The Producers” and it ushered in a new wave of great story-driven theatre. Of course, “The Producers” also helped save Broadway in a post-9/11 world when people who could never get tickets before were suddenly able to get tickets and laugh off their worries for a few short hours. It is simply the greatest musical of the decade and one of the best ever.
On to next week and the end of this “Best of” series with a look back at television…
Wayne Bell is a regular contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. He moved to Fayetteville in 2003 for his Masters Degree and you can almost always catch him at Little Bread Co. or Hammontree’s. For more of Wayne’s contributions, visit his author page.