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Story of the Week: Could Stereophonic Win the Tony for Best Score?

TheaterMania considers the implications of a play winning a prize that typical goes to new musicals.

Andrew R. Butler and Eli Gelb appear in David Adjmi’s Stereophonic, directed by Daniel Aukin, at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

On Tuesday, David Adjmi’s Stereophonic became the most-nominated play in the history of the Tony Awards, with 13 nominations including Best Play, Best Performance nods for five of its actors, all of the applicable design awards, Best Direction, Best Orchestrations, and Best Original Score.

Those last two categories are typically won by new musicals. In fact, all the other nominees this year in Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations are musicals. But Stereophonic is a play — so how did it end up here?

Story of the Week will answer that question, weigh its prospects of winning, and analyze what that victory might mean for the Broadway musical and the unstable nomenclature of the theater. But to cover the basics …

What is Stereophonic?

Set in 1976-77, David Adjmi’s new play is about a band of British and American musicians, very much like Fleetwood Mac, on the cusp of superstardom. Following the success of their last album, Columbia Records has tripled the budget for the next one, allowing them to linger in the recording studio for over a year as they chase perfection. At the same time, the relationships among the various members deepen, evolve, and occasionally disintegrate. The play is three hours long and completely riveting.

Some of that has to do with the voyeuristic role played by the audience. Stereophonic takes place entirely within the confines of the recording studio, on a hyper-realistic period set by David Zinn. It feels as though director Daniel Aukin ripped a wall from this 1970s Sausalito doll house, allowing us to peer inside and witness the most intimate moments in the lives of these characters about to cross the border of celebrity. Somewhere Ibsen is beaming.

And since this is a recording studio, we also get to hear several original songs by the band, written by Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, including the stirring anthem “Bright Light” and the earworm “Masquerade” (see video below).

 

It’s a play with songs…that makes it a musical, right?

No. In general, musicals are works of theater that use songs to drive the story forward, following in the footsteps of Show Boat and Oklahoma!  Those shows broke with what was at the time conventional on Broadway: Songs were an excuse to showcase beautiful chorus girls and splashy dances but had only a marginal relationship to the plot — if there even was a plot. By contrast, the creatives behind Show Boat and Oklahoma! (in particular Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote book and lyrics for both) used the songs as an opportunity to further the story but engage the audience on a deeper emotional level.

For that innovation, the musical is considered a unique American art form which has merited its own category (Best Musical) at the Tony Awards since 1949, the year Kiss Me, Kate won. Best Musical was not, it should be noted, a category during the first two years of the awards, 1947 and ’48, which should give you a sense of just how relatively modern the idea of the “book musical” is.

While Stereophonic has several songs, all of them are presented within the context of a recording session, and they do not drive the plot forward with more information, nor are they prompted by an overflow of emotion that can only be expressed in song (although superfans are welcome to mine Butler’s lyrics for meaning to dispute this point). Neither Adjmi nor anyone associated with the production has described Stereophonic as a musical, and it is clearly not a tradition the show is looking to influence — although I suspect it just might in the coming years.

For the purposes of the Tony Awards, Stereophonic has been categorized as a play, which is the right call. But that doesn’t mean the show cannot be considered for categories that are typically dominated by musicals, which is why Stereophonic is currently nominated for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations.

The cast of David Adjmi’s Stereophonic appears on the stage of Broadway’s John Golden Theatre.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

 Could it actually win?

I think it could. I would rather listen to the handful of songs in Stereophonic than the cast recordings of any of the other nominated shows, with the possible exception of Here Lies Love, which closed in November and faces tough odds to win this category.

I’m told that the small vinyl record the producers had pressed of “Bright Light” and “Masquerade” regularly sells out from the merch stand at the Golden Theatre (I attended a recent performance with TheaterMania’s Rachel Graham, who made the mistake of waiting until intermission to buy, by which time they were all gone). A longer album will be available on streaming platforms on May 10, with a physical album out June 14 (you can pre-order both here). I intend to immediately add it to my regular rotation.

There is precedent for a play winning this category, but it’s a strange one: In 2020, the year of the pandemic, Christopher Nightingale’s music for A Christmas Carol beat a category that featured only incidental music from other plays. It was a weird year, and the March 12 shutdown of Broadway meant that the typical April bonanza, when a boatload of new musicals open right before the cutoff for Tony consideration, did not happen.

Stereophonic will obviously be facing competition from actual musicals including Suffs, The Outsiders, and Days of Wine and Roses. While plays occasionally do appear in this category (To Kill a Mockingbird in 2019, Angels in American in 2018), a play has never triumphed over a musical.

214 The cast of STEREOPHONIC Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Sarah Pidgeon, Juliana Canfield, and Tom Pecinka star in the Broadway debut of David Adjmi’s Stereophonic. All three are nominated for Tony Awards.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

What will it mean if Stereophonic wins Best Original Score?

It will mean that the Tony voters were convinced that Butler’s collection of songs is the best Broadway has to offer this season. One could choose to see that as a damning indictment of the state of musical theater songwriting (at least on Broadway), or a statement about the extraordinary quality of Butler’s work. I prefer to look at it in a slightly different way.

One of the things that makes Stereophonic so exciting is how it uses music in unexpected ways on a Broadway stage. The songs do illuminate the inner lives of the characters (they wrote them, after all), but they also become battlefields for simmering conflicts, leaving a rich topsoil of emotional carnage and subtext. We watch as they quibble over tempo, endlessly stopping and restarting for their umpteenth take. We see how Diana’s stadium-ready performance of “Bright Light” is instantly torn to shreds by perfectionist Peter, who is clearly struggling with his own demons. It has nothing to do with the tradition of the American book musical, and thrillingly proves that this is not the only avenue for musical drama on Broadway.

We critics tend to find comfort in rules and categories, and there is a certain amount of death that comes with being able to perfectly catalogue a work of theater within the taxonomy established by previous generations. Worst of all is when artists start creating to fit that mold, forcing their voices into a prepackaged notion of what theater should and shoudn’t be. Adjmi and Butler succeed so astonishingly because they ignore those arbitrary limits to tell the story they really want to tell.

They’re not the only ones this season: Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise was nominated as one of the five Best Musicals of 2024, even though its songs don’t always drive the story forward and their lyrics often have only a causal relationship to the stage action. It’s more of a ballet, and I suspect that the show’s branding as “a new Broadway musical” is a naked effort by producers to force Illinoise into the Best Musical category (mission accomplished). Still, I admire director Justin Peck and writer Jackie Sibblies Drury for refusing to allow their artistic vision to be forced into the established parameters of what a musical should look like.

Those boundaries are not fixed and finite, and often shift when a new show comes along to redefine them (see Show Boat and Oklahoma!). The fact that we have multiple shows doing that on Broadway is a sign that this artform is far from dead, and audiences are more than ready to embrace something new and different provided it captures the imagination.

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Stereophonic

Final performance: January 5, 2025

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