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Booking for Two

How might the history of the Tony Awards have been different if there were two categories for Best Book of a Musical?

Jeff Whitty
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
So Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change, and Wicked will duke it out for this year's Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. (The Boy From Oz was also nominated in this category!) Chances are that Winnie Holzman's clever and astute adaptation of Gregory Maguire's dense novel will emerge victorious. But if that happens, what a shame that Jeff Whitty (and idea men Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) won't win for Avenue Q and that Tony Kushner won't take the prize for Caroline.

The three Avenue Q collaborators or Kushner could be winning and spinning awards on June 6, though, if the Tonys did what the Oscars do: Our counterparts in Hollywood give Academy Awards not only for Best Original Screenplay but also for Best Adapted Screenplay. Maybe Broadway should honor Best Original Book and Best Adapted Book.

I know, I know. There have been times when getting even one good book per season is a miracle and here I am urging that two Tonys be given. Yes, it's true that most musicals are adaptations, so how many would even be eligible to compete for Best Original Book? And, sure, squeezing in one more presenter, one more list of nominees, and one more winner bounding onto the stage would mean that every victor would have his/her acceptance speech cut short by an interruptive orchestra. But there have been seasons -- like this one -- when there have been superb examples of both original and adaptive bookwriting. Each could have been recognized if the Tony committee had said, "This year, we'll employ the two category rule."

The first award for the book of a musical (it actually honored "Authors of a Musical") came in 1948-49 when Bella and Sam Spewack won for Kiss Me, Kate. Under my criteria, that would have been Best Adapted Book: Although it's not a straight adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, it certainly owes its existence to that play and credits it proudly in its ads. That would have left the Best Original Book prize to Alan Jay Lerner for Love Life -- and, Lord knows, that was one original book!

Lerner might have had a number of other Tonys had the Best Original Book/Best Adapted Book system been in place. In 1965-66, when Man of La Mancha would have won for Best Adapted Book, Lerner might have snagged Best Original Book for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. In 1969-70, if Applause had won Best Adapted Book, Lerner could have won another Best Original Book prize for Coco. True, each book was flawed, but each had some wonderful things in it. Meanwhile, in the 1956-57 book race -- which Lerner did win, of course, for My Fair Lady -- Comden and Green could have taken home Best Original Book for Bells Are Ringing. (Never mind what you thought of the recent revival; that book was state-of-the-art terrific back when it was written.)

Of course, there might have been a problem in 1957-58, when Meredith Willson would have won Best Original Book for The Music Man. Would West Side Story have been eligible for Best Original Book, given that it has never acknowledged on any of its posters "based on Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare?" I wonder.

As someone who thinks there's a ton of merit in Oscar Hammerstein and Joseph Fields' adaptation of C.Y. Lee's The Flower Drum Song, I would have liked to have seen the ol' pros win for Best Adapted Book in 1958-59, while Redhead (the actual winner that season) could have taken home Best Original Book. The following season, my plan was essentially in effect as the authors of both The Sound of Music (an adaptation) and Fiorello! (an original) tied for a Best Book prize -- though I would have given the Best Adapted Book prize to Arthur Laurents for Gypsy, and I don't suspect that many people today would disagree with me.

What's fascinating about the 1960-61 race is that all three nominees for Best Musical -- Bye Bye Birdie (the winner), Do Re Mi, and Irma La Douce -- were originals. So what could have won the Best Adapted Book? Well, 20-20 hindsight now tells us Camelot but, at that time, Lerner's book was still on everyone's disappointment list and wouldn't have passed muster. Considering that the only other possible nominee would have been Tenderloin, I guess the category would have been eliminated that year. What an irony in a field where adaptations usually rule!

But two seasons later, when Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart would have won Best Adapted Book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse could have picked up a Best Original Book award for Stop the World -- I Want to Get Off. And they might have captured the same prize two seasons later for The Roar of the Greasepaint -- The Smell of the Crowd, while Fiddler on the Roof would have won for Best Adapted Book.

In 1969, Peter Stone would have won Best Original for 1776 while Neil Simon could have won Best Adaptation for Promises, Promises (which is based on the screenplay of the film The Apartment). And Simon could have won for Best Original Book in 1979 for They're Playing Our Song while Sweeney Todd would have won for Best Adapted Book.

For the 1971 race, I have no quarrel with Company, of course; but I greatly admire Sherman Yellen's adaptation of The Rothschilds, which would have been Best Adapted Book. That brings us to the 1972 awards, when Two Gentlemen of Verona famously upset Follies as Best Musical. Given that Two Gents won Best Book too, can you imagine our ire if the Tony voters decided that the Best Original Book that season was Grease?

Other losers that could have won: for Best Adapted Book, Chicago (1976), A History of the American Film (1978), Nine (1982), and Grand Hotel (1990); and for Best Original Book, Pippin (1973) and Sunday in the Park with George (1984). Yes, it was adapted from a painting, but I'd still call it an original -- in more ways than one.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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