Who's Going to Win the 2020 Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album?
The recordings of multiple Tony-winning shows are in the running for the coveted award.
The Grammy nominations were announced this week, and with them the nominees for the most important category: Best Musical Theater Album.
In this Story of the Week, I'll consider the five nominees and their chances of winning when the awards are announced on January 26, 2020. Feel free to listen along at home.
Based on Anaïs Mitchell's 2010 concept album (which is, in turn, based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice), Hadestown borrows from a variety of American musical styles to lend a new sound to an old song. It won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Musical, and has since become one of the most in-demand tickets on Broadway.
Six of the last 10 Grammy winners for Best Musical Theater Album went to shows that won the Tony for Best Musical. Instances when that didn't happen (like when American Idiot won in 2011, even though it lost the Tony to Memphis in 2010) usually work in the favor of composers who come from the recording industry, or whose shows originated as concept albums. Hadestown has both traits going for it, making it the clear front-runner for this year's Grammy.
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Ain't Too Proud is a jukebox musical about the popular Motown band the Temptations. The score is compiled from the band's discography, with a few numbers from adjacent acts (there's a medley of songs from the Supremes).
The Grammys have tended to favor original scores over compiled ones. The last jukebox musical to win the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album was Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in 2015. This had more to do with the enduring love in the music industry for Carole King (and the ho-hum score for that year's Tony winner, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) than any real affinity among Grammy voters for the jukebox musical form.
The Ain't Too Proud cast album features snippets of Dominique Morisseau's book in the form of Otis Williams's narration, which, however cringey, allows the listener to follow the plot. And while the vocal performances are excellent, the American Idol-style arrangements, in which great pop songs are sped up and shaved down for time, leave much to be desired. Why wouldn't you just listen to the original recordings of these songs? I would count this one as a longshot.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Moulin Rouge! is also a jukebox musical, but it's not a bio-musical like Ain't Too Proud. Instead of relying on the music of one artist, it takes music from a variety of artists — making it much more like an actual jukebox. And where Ain't Too Proud offers a biography of the Temptations, Moulin Rouge! is an entirely made-up story, based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann musical about beautiful and tragic bohemians in love in fin de siècle Montmartre.
Listening to the cast album really captures the feeling of watching the musical — which is to say, it's the auditory equivalent of snorting a box of Pixy Stix. Justin Levin's caffeinated mash-ups and arrangements of 70 pop songs are all there. It's a really great treadmill listen, and I fully intend to slip the album to the next wedding DJ I encounter.
This is a bit of an odd case: Since Moulin Rouge opened in July (just a month after the 2019 Tony Awards), it will be considered as a part of the 2020 Tony season. It is entirely possible that Moulin Rouge! could snag a Grammy before it ever touches Tony, following the path of the 2016 winner, Hamilton. Hadestown is the album to beat, but Moulin Rouge! could be the sparkling zircon that steals the spotlight.
The Music of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — in Four Contemporary Suites
This is by far the strangest nominee this year, as it is the only one not from a Broadway musical. It is true that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Jack Thorne's two-part drama about the adventures of Harry's son, won the Tony for Best Play back in 2018. Imogen Heap's music also won the Drama Desk Award that year for Outstanding Music in a Play. The Tonys ruled the music ineligible for Best Original Score, however, since Heap drew heavily on music she had already written when piecing together her soundtrack for Harry Potter. Adrian Sutton's original music for the revival of Angels in America was considered for Best Original Score that year, but it lost to David Yazbek's score for The Band's Visit.
That was all in 2018. Harry Potter's inclusion on this list seems like a blast from the past, since the other shows considered are from the 2019 and 2020 Tony seasons. However, Heap's album only dropped in November of 2018, a month into the window of considerations for the 2020 awards, which closed on August 31 of this year.
Heap's music has a strong whiff of new age about it, and surely has many of the millennials in the audience thinking of those "Pure Moods" albums Nickelodeon so loved to hawk in the '90s. While it provides arresting underscoring for Harry Potter, I'm not sure where one would listen to this album, other than a spa waiting room or Catholic youth retreat. Only the darkest of magic could ever win this a Grammy Award.
Grammy nominators and voters have tended to favor new scores, but two revivals have won the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album in the last decade: West Side Story in 2010, and The Color Purple in 2015. In the first case, it was a rich recording of a well-known score, with a little something new in the form of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Spanish translations of certain lyrics. The latter case may have involved some guilt on the part of voters for snubbing the original cast recording of The Color Purple in 2007 in favor of the "Best of the Four Seasons" tribute album that is the OCR for Jersey Boys.
This recording of Oklahoma! has novelty working in its favor. While this 1943 musical about love and resentment in the Oklahoma territory is largely credited with ushering in the Golden Age of Broadway, Daniel Fish's 2019 Broadway revival looks, feels, and sounds radically different than anything your grandparents might have recognized as Oklahoma! The recording captures that, from Ali Stroker's country-glam rendition of "I Cain't Say No" to the invigorating electric guitar riffs at the top of the Dream Ballet to the snarling rage of the title anthem. People who loved this revival will be listening to the recording for decades after the final curtain call at Circle in the Square on January 19.
It would make a thrilling epilogue if Oklahoma! were to sweep down the plain a week later and snag the Grammy — but I'm not betting the farm on it.