Drama tunes out musicals

NEW YORK — May is awards-glut month in the theater, with the Tonys capping the season on June 5. This column has traditionally poked fun at all the critics orgs that honor legit’s finest by honoring themselves with self-aggrandizing awards shows: the Drama League, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Obies, you name it.

The annual ritual of ceremonies inevitably finds actors, writers, directors, designers and, above all, their agents bent out of shape over an omission, which everyone promptly forgets in time to attend the next awards gala.

Rising well above this foray is the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle, which includes the city’s major, most influential reviewers. (The exception, of course, is the Times, which recently withdrew its crix from such orgs, declaring a conflict of interest.) This year, the Circle carefully parsed out its two awards to “Doubt,” for American play, and “The Pillowman,” for foreign play, each of them winning by a clear majority.

Over on the tuner side, the Circle critics deemed it best not to dilute the prestige of their award by handing out any extra honors this season, and that included one for musical.

The voting was eight for “The Light in the Piazza,” five for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and four for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” with scattered single votes and abstentions. But without a majority of the org’s 21 members, the award (an optional nod bestowed most years in addition to the traditional play prizes) was nixed. (Apparently, politicking emerged to prevent a win for “Piazza.”)

Carry me back to the OCC! Even though the Outer Critics gave the tuner prize to “Spamalot,” its initial 11 noms for “Piazza” goosed B.O. there and helped jumpstart a summer extension at Lincoln Center Theater. What else are awards good for?

Truth be told, after a weak start, 2004-05 turned into one of Broadway’s stronger seasons for new musicals. Recently released CDs for the four Tony-nommed shows — “Piazza,” “Bee,” “Scoundrels” and “Spamalot” — bear out the good news that there’s not a revue or a ringer in the group. When did that last happen at the Tonys?

Beyond the Drama Critics Circle, “Piazza” has enjoyed the biggest, quickest reversal in critical fortunes in recent memory. From its multiple award noms to Frank Rich‘s glowing CD liner notes to Stephen Holden‘s Times rave for the Nonesuch Recording (“the most intensely romantic score of any Broadway musical since ‘West Side Story’ “), “Piazza” suddenly has a real shot at the tuner Tony.

Repeated listenings not only bring out the melancholy tunes of Adam Guettel‘s “Piazza,” they also benefit the more eclectic offerings of David Yazbek‘s “Scoundrels.”

Ted Sperling is an orchestrator on both shows. On “Scoundrels,” he mentions its Latin influences and Yazbek’s nods to Henry Mancini. Norbert Leo Butz‘s songs are more pop and rock, while John Lithgow‘s songs are jazz-tinged. But rarely is the music simply a parody a la Mel Brooks or Eric Idle. “As any art form, (Yazbek’s) score draws from everything in the past but adds new elements to keep current with the culture,” says Sperling.

“Piazza” has its own eclecticism. At first listening, it sounds operatic. But the creatives on the project are careful to call its dozen songs not “arias” but simply “songs.”

“Adam Guettel is interested in having the operatic or the legitimate tempered with the rigorous underpinnings of a pop groove,” says Sperling. “It’s no coincidence that Adam and David used to play in the same band.”

Opera singers were auditioned for “Piazza,” but they didn’t quite make the cut. Sperling explains, “There is something they didn’t quite do that is part of Adam’s music — an inner motor, a great attention to lyric and diction. And how to belt. Opera singers’ training is not to do that.”

Still, Met singers have been making the trek across the Lincoln Center plaza, perhaps in hopes of finding a new contempo vehicle. An early fan of the show, Renee Fleming, praises Guettel’s “sophistication and tenderness,” and adds, “I was equally pleased to hear singers adding their high voices to the belt we’ve come to expect on Broadway.”

Victoria Clark, Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Morrison have definitely raised the vocal standards on Broadway. This season they are joined by such other vocal standouts as Jose Llana in “Spelling Bee,” Sherie Rene Scott in “Scoundrels,” Sara Ramirez in “Spamalot” and Jennifer Gambatese in “All Shook Up.”

Gone are the days, it is hoped, when Nicholas Hytner can cast two vocal washouts as leads in “Carousel.” And maybe someday “Follies” will be cast with people who can sing.

“The vocal standards have improved,” says Paul Gemignani, new music director of the Encores! concert revival series. “You can find better singers, they are better trained and prepared than in the 1970s. But it’s different today,” he says of today’s pop-oriented scores. “What Norbert Leo Butz does in ‘Scoundrels,’ nobody was doing that 30 years ago.”

Of course, there’s a caveat from this music legend, whose Broadway career started in 1972 as musical director on “Follies.” Clearly, he prefers legit to pop. “Today, there’s less for performers to sing, really sing,” he says, referring to classics like “Sweeney Todd.” Gemignani makes an exception for “The Light in the Piazza.”

But then, the best is always the exception.

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