Theater News

Settling the Scores

A look at musical Tony winners and losers, plus a few scores that were egregiously overlooked.

Patricia Morison and Alfred Drakein the original Broadwayproduction of Kiss Me, Kate
Patricia Morison and Alfred Drake
in the original Broadway
production of Kiss Me, Kate

To look back on the history of Best Score Tonys is to gaze upon the collective wisdom of the Tony nominating committees through the decades–and it’s not a pretty sight. Aside from controversies over individual choices, which we’ll get to presently, there is the matter of consistency in the category itself: whether to have an award any given year, what the parameters should be, and what to call the thing. In these regards, the category has had more costume changes than Auntie Mame. Herewith, the brief but bonkers history of the Best Score Tony Award:

1947: No official Tony, but a Special Award to Kurt Weill, presumably for Street Scene (and in any case well deserved).

1948: No award for Best Score or Best Musical.

1949: “Composer and Lyricist” award to Cole Porter, for Kiss Me, Kate (would that he were eligible this year).

1950, 1951: “Outstanding Score” awards, respectively, to Richard Rodgers (South Pacific) and Irving Berlin (Call Me Madam).

Aha! Already, the anomalies are creeping in. First, the award is for composer only (sorry, Mr. Hammerstein). Second, winners are announced, but nominees aren’t–a practice that endured in all categories until 1956. Third, Call Me Madam over Guys and Dolls? It’s terrific late-career Berlin, but Guys and Dolls is…Guys and Dolls.

From here, we enter a black hole: Until 1962 there was no award for Best Score. I checked three different sources to verify this stunning fact. The best score was implicitly the one contained in the Outstanding Musical (or, after 1959, the Best Musical Play, to bring up another Tony category-naming nitpick). Songwriters were awarded within the Outstanding Musical citation–which means, for example, that Alexander Borodin picked up a Tony for Kismet, which at least kept the acceptance speech time down that year. So throughout the 1950s, an astonishingly rich decade for American musicals, we are denied the pleasure of dishing the Tonys for their Best Score choices.

Robert Preston and unidentified childin the original Broadwayproduction of The Music Man
Robert Preston and unidentified child
in the original Broadway
production of The Music Man

However, we can make up our own hypothetical nominees and winners, which is nearly as big a kick. For example: 1958, the year in which The Music Man notoriously trumped West Side Story for Best Musical (the other nominees were New Girl in Town, Jamaica, and Oh, Captain!). The imaginary nominees for Best Score are: West Side Story, The Music Man, New Girl in Town, and Say, Darling (sorry, Mr. Arlen, but you’ll have to do better than Jamaica). And the award goes to…West Side Story! This is fun, so let’s do one more: for the legendary 1959-60 season, when Fiorello! and The
Sound of Music
tied for Best Musical Play, and a little item called Gypsy was shut out. The Best Score nominees: The Sound of Music, Take Me Along, Fiorello!, and Gypsy. And the winner is…Gypsy! We could go on, but I’ll let you make up your own lists. Collect ’em. Trade ’em.

In 1962, the committee finally comes to its senses and splits the Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Composer categories. Lyricists are still left out in the cold but, as it happens, all four Best Composer nominees that year wrote their own words: winner Richard Rodgers (No Strings), Jerry Herman (Milk and Honey), Frank Loesser (How to Succeed…), and Richard Adler (Kwamina, a gratifying instance of the committee acknowledging a noble flop).

The following year is a high-water mark for Tony stupidity, in that Stephen Sondheim isn’t nominated in what is now, at last, the “Composer and Lyricist” category even though.A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is named Outstanding Musical! The winner in the Composer and Lyricist category was Lionel Bart for Oliver! and the other nominated scores were Little Me, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, and Bravo Giovanni. Bravo What? That Milton Schafer/ Ronny Graham musical comedy, a pleasant early-’60s flopperoo, did yield a fleeting hit song, the fake-Italian “Ah! Camminare,” while Sondheim’s work was thought at the time to be clever but not especially distinguished or notably tuneful. This is not to defend the committee’s choices, merely to attempt an explanation of them. Posterity corrects many mistakes, and these days any kid can recognize “Comedy Tonight,” while who but the most blighted buff can recall “Ah! Camminare”?

After 1964, the category names just become too quixotic to bother with year by year. The designations, briefly, are Musical Play, Outstanding Musical, Best Musical Play, Best Musical, Best Broadway Musical (as if the Tonys would dream of honoring anything else), Musical, and Best Musical again; and, in the writers’ corner, Composer and Lyricist (Musical Play), Outstanding Composer and Lyricist, Best Composer and Lyricist, Best Score of a Musical (as opposed to Best Score of a Nonmusical?), Best Score of a Broadway Musical, Score of a Musical, Outstanding Original Score, Original
Score, Original Musical Score, Best Original Score for a Musical, Best Original Score Written for the Theatre… I give up. It’s as if the award appellations were being managed by the Jack Nicholson character in As Good As It Gets.


Want to complicate things further? In 1971 only, the committee sensibly set up separate nominations for composer and lyricist. Both awards went to Sondheim, for Company, but the split-up could have been useful in other seasons–like anytime Andrew Lloyd Webber was afflicted with Charles Hart or Don Black. Also, the Best Score category was again eliminated in 1969 and 1970, and once more in 1989. It made sense that last year, when the Best Musical was Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and the other nominees were Black and Blue and Starmites, but the 1969-70 blackout robbed such potential Tony winners as Kander and Ebb (Zorba), Sherman Edwards (1776), Gary Geld and Peter Udell (Purlie), and Burt Bacharach and Hal David (Promises, Promises).

The most famous upset of the past 30 years or so was in 1984, when Sondheimites howled as the score of Sunday in the Park With George lost to Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux Folles. Herman made matters worse in his acceptance speech by thanking Tony voters for favoring simple, hummable melodies, which Sondheim worshipers took as a direct slap at their god. (Nonsense: Herman was merely pulling a Sally Field, touched that voters liked him, really liked him. The fact is, he and Sondheim are not and never have been adversaries. They’re not handball buddies either, but any actual feud between them is an imagined one. Personally, I’d have shut out both scores
that year in favor of the undersung classic of the 1980s, Maltby and Shire’s Baby: wonderfully melodic yet contemporary, funny and intelligent but not showy, deeply felt rather than cheaply sentimental. The recently remastered CD is a must-have. This is not a paid advertisement.)

A scene from Miss Saigon
A scene from Miss Saigon

Another “what-were-they-thinking” year was 1991, when The Will Rogers Follies edged Miss Saigon in both the Musical and Original Musical Score categories. Not to belittle Comden, Green, or Coleman (a winner the previous year, for City of Angels), but Miss Saigon was the hot show of that season, and is rumored to have done pretty well since then. This Tony was probably an Anglophobic act: Remember, this was the height of the British invasion that had begun in 1980, when Evita won, and the Tonys were a useful vehicle for telling Cameron Mackintosh, “Look, we can grow our own.” In retrospect, no one’s going to call The Will Rogers Follies anybody’s finest hour.

Leafing through the nominee lists of the ’80s and ’90s, it’s hard not to feel pity for the committee. God, they must have been desperate! Check out some of the Best Score nominees during this period: Shakespeare’s Cabaret, The Lieutenant, Copperfield, Merlin, Quilters, The News, The Wind in the Willows, Nick and Nora, Metro, The Song of Jacob Zulu, Letter to Queen Victoria (what the heck was that?), Anna Karenina, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Meet Me in St. Louis. It became an article of faith that any movie musical transferred to the stage with a few new songs would merit at least a nomination, and Lerner and Loewe actually won for their slightly augmented score for Gigi (admittedly in a year when the competition was Raisin, Seesaw, and The Good Doctor. (The Good Doctor??)

Another trend of the time was toward nominating dead people, like Kurt Weill for Sting’s Threepenny Opera revival, or Rodgers and Hammerstein for State Fair, or Eubie Blake or Scott Joplin. Great gentlemen of the theater, all; but you can sense the nominators’ panic in arguing that State Fair was a new score. Finally, going back from 1971 to the present, there are the hits, near-misses, and fascinating failures that curiously weren’t even nominated for best score: Two By Two, Grease, Over Here!, Mack and Mabel, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Ballroom, The Goodbye Girl, and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Except for 1995, when Sunset Boulevard ran for Best Score unopposed, things have improved in recent years. It was a real race in 1997, when Titanic won over The Life, Steel Pier, and Juan Darien; and even more in 1998, when Ragtime beat out The Lion King for score (but not, alas, for musical). Last season was leaner, when Jason Robert Brown’s Tony for Parade was practically a coronation vs. Footloose, The Civil War, and Jeanine Tesori’s lovely but skimpy incidental songs for Twelfth Night. (Fosse, of course, had no original score.)

Which brings us to 2000. Any guesses? Michael John La Chiusa’s pushy, self-important score for The Wild Party is up against Michael John La Chiusa’s pushy, self-important score for Marie Christine, so to my mind the race is really between Sir Elton John and Tim Rice (Aida) and Shaun Davey and Richard Nelson James Joyce’s The Dead). The former offers a flat-out-commercial, big-Broadway sound, while the latter is a beguiling bouquet of Irish pastiche. Aida has all those Disney advertising dollars behind it, not to mention the advantage of being alive: Tony seldom smiles on musicals that closed months ago. On the other hand, Aida was slammed by the press, and more theatergoers exit the Palace giggling at its excesses than humming its tunes. Would Tony dare?

The envelope, please…