Traditional divide eludes Tonys

David vs. Goliath battle isn't clear cut this year

It seems like every year there’s a David vs. Goliath battle on Broadway, with a small-scale, indie-style musical cast as David opposite a big-budget, old-fashioned razzle-dazzler in the role of Goliath.

But among this year’s slate of new musical Tony nominations, it’s not so easy to tell who’s who.

Take nominee “Newsies.” Since it comes from Disney Theatrical Prods., the producer of supersized spectacles “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins,” it’ll be playing the part of Goliath, right? Not quite — at least not when you consider the Mouse House’s initially modest expectations for the tuner.

And isn’t it easy to peg new musical contender “Once,” the bittersweet stage adaptation of the 2006 indie sleeper, as this season’s David? Sure — but only sorta. It was developed by producers who always had commercial broadway in their sights.

For the past decade, the topdog/underdog divide has been much clearer cut as legiters began with increasing frequency to explore the stage potential of edgier, less traditional fare.

The iconic battle royale came in 2004, when strong commercial contender “Wicked” was challenged by provocative puppet tuner “Avenue Q.” (The puppets took the top tuner award; consolation prize for “Wicked” was global B.O. dominance.)

The 2005 spread of nominees was equally easy to divide into commercial tentpoles (“Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) and indie critical darlings (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “The Light in the Piazza”); ditto 2007, when “Mary Poppins” and “Curtains” vied for the trophy against riskier offerings “Spring Awakening” and “Grey Gardens.” The trend continued in 2009, with big Brit crowdpleaser “Billy Elliot” vs. intimate mental-illness drama “Next to Normal,” and in 2010 as arty Afrobeat bio “Fela!” faced off against accessible heart-warmer “Memphis.”

Last year the wall crumbled a bit with “The Book of Mormon,” which mixes old-fashioned song-and-dance and commercial power with an edgy sense of humor that freely pushes boundaries.

And this season, all bets are off. Two of the top tuner nominees, “Nice Work if You Can Get It” ( 10 noms) and “Leap of Faith” (one), clearly fit a more traditional mold. “Nice Work” aims for broad-demo appeal as a frothy comedy centered on familiar Gershwin tunes, while “Leap” goes for gospel uplift.

In terms of traditional musical-theater stories, “Newsies” (eight noms), with its tale of scrappy ragamuffins challenging a newspaper magnate, is front-page stuff. Energetic dance sequences and hummable tunes (many of which are drawn from the cult-fave flop that inspired the musical) also fall squarely within Broadway’s wheelhouse.

But to hear Disney Theatrical execs tell it, the property was never cultivated with the idea it would land on Broadway and turn into a commercial powerhouse a la “Lion King.” Instead the adaptation was created to fill demand from regional, stock and amateur companies, with the revenue plan based on licensed productions around the country.

The initial Paper Mill Playhouse production was funded on a relative shoestring, according to Disney Theatrical exec VP and managing director David Schrader. Even the set was designed to be modular, so that it could easily be rented out to other companies producing the show.

Despite some skepticism from observers, Disney insists the opportunity to move to Broadway — where the show transferred with the same set and most of the same cast — came as a surprise, as did the strength of the title’s following.

“I can tell you there was never a plan where we said, ‘Let’s make $1 million a week,’ ” Schrader says, referring to the mid-April frame when the show joined the millionaires’ club.

Schrader cites the unusual fact that the musical had managed to log advance sales from ticketbuyers in all 50 states just a few weeks after ducats went on sale. “It was well beyond what we expected,” he says.

Even now, Disney is trying to keep commercial expectations modest: Execs won’t cop to extending the show’s Broadway run past its current Aug. 19 closing date, likely as that may seem.

“Once” (11 noms), on the other hand, exudes a more indie style with its muted, evocative dance sequences and its intimate, wistful tale of a romance without a happy ending. But unlike most of the legit world’s less-traditional fare, “Once” was backed by a team of producers whose commercial ambitions for the piece were anything but small scale. That much was clear when they announced a Broadway transfer even before reviews of the show’s pre-Rialto stint at Off Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop had hit. Their plans were rooted, in part, in their confidence in the piece: “Fifteen minutes into the first reading, I said, ‘We can go right to Broadway,’?” says Fred Zollo, a lead producer of “Once” alongside Barbara Broccoli, John N. Hart Jr. and Patrick Milling Smith.

But the producer says he also was aware that, as the past decade has shown, Broadway has room for less traditional fare. “There are no rules,” Zollo says. “The American theater is extremely democratic, I think. Anything that’s great, the audiences are going to respond to.”

And Tony voters as well.

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