The way the heated contest for top musical honors is shaping up, this could be another year of the underdog. Ever since modestly scaled downtown upstart “Avenue Q” snatched the gold from big-budget behemoth “Wicked,” producers of traditional Broadway crowdpleasers have lived in fear of being upstaged by their small and quirky competitors.
On the latter team this season, Off Broadway transfer “In the Heights” brought a shot of exuberant Latino spirit, wild dance energy and foot-tapping Hispanic rhythms to the Rialto. The chief strength in the Tony race of this ensemble piece about a close-knit, low-income community in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights is the success of composer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda in harnessing hip-hop, rap and other styles not exactly overexposed on Broadway to a firm knowledge of — and affection for — classic musical structure. That marriage of old and new may prove hard to beat.
Also a strong contender is “Passing Strange,” the autobiographical odyssey of self-discovery penned and performed by rock troubadour Stew with a versatile ensemble that had critics grasping for superlatives. A transfer from the Public Theater, the tuner is an unclassifiable hybrid of cabaret, concert and musical, but as they showed last year by endorsing “Spring Awakening,” Tony voters may no longer be afraid of work that breaks boundaries.
The unloved Olivia Newton-John clunker from 1980, “Xanadu,” would seem an unlikely source for a show with critical and cult appeal, but Douglas Carter Beane’s witty deconstruction of the craptastic movie got everyone on its side. Ancient Greek mythology turned out to be much more fun on roller skates.
Another intimate-sized show in a more sober vein, “A Catered Affair” marks the musical theater bow of composer John Bucchino, whose songs are beloved staples of cabaret performers. He teams with book writer (and co-star) Harvey Fierstein to adapt Paddy Chayefsky’s 1950s teleplay and Gore Vidal’s subsequent screenplay about a Bronx family’s struggles to meet the financial burdens of a daughter’s wedding. Early buzz centers on Faith Prince’s perf as the embattled housewife.
An eleventh-hour season addition is “Glory Days,” a pop tuner about the reunion of four high school chums that had a well-received run earlier this year at D.C.’s Signature Theater.
That leaves the big guys. Neither Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” nor Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” inspired much love from critics, so while they may score recognition in perf or craft categories, they are long shots for the big prize.
Yet to open is “Cry-Baby,” the creative team for which draws from the unorthodox well of “The Daily Show” (David Javerbaum) and Fountains of Wayne (Adam Schlesinger) along with book writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who teamed on “Hairspray.” Like that show, “Cry-Baby” derives from a John Waters pic, this time swapping the integrationist 1960s for 1950s bikers and squares.