Tony Treasures: Five Forgotten Best Musical Winners
Written by Jackson Upperco
June 5, 2017
There are more than a few musicals we’d love to see make a comeback on the Broadway stage. Below are five fantastic Tony Award-winning musicals we’re pining for again and again.
1. Redhead (1959) [M: Albert Hague; L: Dorothy Fields]
Set in Victorian London, this murder mystery musical comedy starring three-time Tony winner Gwen Verdon (who’d win a fourth for her performance in this production), told the story of a wax museum figure-maker who becomes a target for the city’s notorious strangler (inspired by Jack the Ripper). The score – which included nine dance sequences choreographed by Verdon’s future husband, the legendary Bob Fosse – was tuneful and rapturous. But the bulk of the reviews were most enthused with the atmospheric production, defined by Fosse’s movement and Verdon’s talent. Unjustly neglected, with the right vision and a knock-‘em-dead star, Redhead would make for a great revival.
Tony Awards Won (1959): Best Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Gwen Verdon), Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Richard Kiley), Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Leonard Stone), Best Choreography (Bob Fosse), and Best Costume Design
Other Notable Best Musical Contenders: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (1958)
2. Fiorello! (1959) [M: Jerry Bock; L: Sheldon Harnick]
In addition to tying The Sound Of Music (1959) for the year’s Best Musical, this colorful production about New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia also won the distinguished Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Covering his early career – particularly his attempts to rid the city of its crooked Tammany Hall political machine – Fiorello!’s book was sharp, and the score, (despite, perhaps, shortchanging its title character) even better. Today, with fewer people knowing of LaGuardia (beyond the airport with the same name) and less of an understanding for references to 90-year old New York politics, the show is not performed as often as it should. Yet it’s dramatically solid and musically charming – very Golden Age.
Tony Awards Won (1960): Best Musical (tied with The Sound of Music), Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Tom Bosley), Best Direction of a Musical (George Abbott)
Other Notable Best Musical Contenders: Gypsy (1959) and Once Upon A Mattress (1959)
Duets: “Marie’s Law“
3. Hallelujah, Baby! (1967) [M: Jule Styne; L: Betty Comden & Adolph Green]
Critical opinion on this Tony winner generally regards Hallelujah, Baby! as being thematically ambitious, but narratively, not ambitious enough. A “concept musical,” this show aimed to examine race relations in the first 67 years of the 20th century while following an actress (Leslie Uggams), her family, and her lovers – who stay the same age throughout the proceedings. However, the snappy score by Styne, Comden, and Green belied what many critics considered the simplistic approach it took to racism – shying away from saying anything weighty in favor of its routine “backstage” story and love triangle. Nevertheless, the starry performances were hot and the songs were catchy. =
Tony Awards Won (1968): Best Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Leslie Uggams), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Lillian Hayman), Best Original Score, Best Producer of a Musical
Other Notable Best Musical Contenders: Kander and Ebb’s The Happy Time (1968)
4. Applause (1970) [M: Charles Strouse; L: Lee Adams]
If this musical adaptation of one of the greatest show biz pictures of all time, All About Eve (1950), failed to reach the same dramatic heights as its source material, it still boasted a memorable headlining performance by movie star Lauren Bacall, and kitshy, hummable songs that remain – in this author’s opinion – underrated in most post-Golden Age surveys. With then-contemporary sounds meeting a traditional Broadway joie de vivre, the production guaranteed an evening of fun. In the decades since its original run, several attempts at reviving and revising the work have been attempted, but they’ve all lacked one thing: a star as magnetic as Lauren Bacall in the Margo Channing role.
Tony Awards Won (1970): Best Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Lauren Bacall), Best Direction of a Musical, Best Choreography
Other Notable Best Musical Contenders: Coco (1969) – starring Katharine Hepburn
Male solos: “The Loneliest Man In Town“
5. Two Gentlemen Of Verona (1971) [M: Galt MacDermot; L: John Guare]
Today, it may seem shocking that this fairly forgotten musical adaptation of a lesser Shakespearian comedy – with a score composed by the man behind Hair (1968) – would beat Sondheim’s cult classic Follies (1971) and the commercially triumphant Grease (1972) as the Best Musical. But critics took to its eclectic, modern, and infectious fun, only retroactively decrying it as lyrically juvenile and dramatically campy. Once again, several performances were deemed partly responsible for its initial reception – and today, if it’s not worthy enough of a large scale revival, the score still offers a wealth of material that provides valuable insight as to what well-received rock musicals sounded like in 1971.
Tony Awards Won (1972): Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical
Other Notable Best Musical Contenders: Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (1971) and Grease (1972)
Female solo: “Love Me“
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