The new Broadway show Imaginary Friends may present to theater awards nominating committes a quandary that has become somewhat familiar in recent years. Nora Ephron's fantasy about Lillian Hellman meeting up with Mary McCarthy in a ladies room in Hell will begin previews November 25 and open December 12 at the Barrymore Theatre under the direction of Jack (Hairspray) O'Brien, starring Cherry Jones as McCarthy and Swoosie Kurtz as Hellman. The thing is that the show will feature several new songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia.
Imaginary Friends is Ephron's first stage work -- not counting a two upcoming, one-night-only performance of her short play I Hate My Purse as part of the "Short Talks on the Universe" fundraisers for Friends in Deed and Bay Street Theatre on November 17 and 18 -- after a long career in film as a writer and director. A press representative told TheaterMania.com that Ephron calls Imaginary Friends a play with music because, unlike a musical, "you could take the songs out and the show would still stand" -- a statement that some would find surprising, considering the line-up of talent contributing to these supposedly superfluous numbers: The music and lyrics were written (respectively) by Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia, both Tony nominated for last season's Sweet Smell of Success; musical staging is by Jerry Mitchell, a leading contender for a Tony this season for his Hairspray choreography; and musical direction is by Ron Melrose (The Scarlet Pimpernel.)
There are precedents for the show's position vis-à-vis the Tonys; the recent Dirty Blonde, Elaine Stritch At Liberty, and George Gershwin Alone come immediately to mind. Much longer ago, George M. Cohan called his 1908 production Fifty Miles from Boston a play with music, unlike the rest of his scored productions, which he called musicals -- but the exact line of demarcation has never been pinpointed. Why did Bertolt Brecht use that phrase to describe Happy End, for instance, or George C. Wolfe for his Back Alley Tales, or John Guare for his Four Baboons Adoring the Sun? Playwrights Horizons further blurred the distinction between a musical and a "play with music" by calling its production of James Joyce's The Dead "a musical play."
Some observers feel that the unusual labeling of shows like Imaginary Friends is simply due to the fact that producers want to give their projects a better chance to get nominations and awards -- but nominating committees have not always been willing to go along with producers' or playwrights' categorizations. "It's really up to our nominating committee members to decide, and we do that on a case-by-case basis," Drama Desk president David Sheward told TheaterMania. "Although I haven't seen Imaginary Friends yet, if you hire Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia and a choreographer, that sort of says to me it's a musical." Last year, the Drama Desk gave its award for best book of a musical to Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, and in 2000 the Tony for best book went to James Joyce's The Dead. That show also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the year's best musical but lost the Tony for best musical to Contact, a virtually dialogue-free dance concert to taped songs that stirred up its own brand of controversy over whether it was truly a musical.
One Tony Award voter told TheaterMania that his opinion of how a show should be classified is based on the number of songs and their integration with the piece as a whole, but acknowledged that it would be virtually impossible to set specific guidelines. "Trying to define these things? Therein lies madness," the voter remarked.