This Broadway season, only one musical started from scratch, so to speak. “Memphis,” loosely based on the life of DJ “Daddy-O” Dewey Phillips, is otherwise based on … nothing. Writers Joe DiPietro and David Bryan relied on no previous bio, novel, play, movie, rock album, TV show or catalog of songs. Not that Tony voters honor that creative process.
In the past decade, only two other totally original tuners, “In the Heights” and “Avenue Q”, have walked off with the best musical Tony. Turning a beloved movie into a stage musical is the much more likely route to winning the big Tony. No fewer than five shows (“Billy Elliot,” “Spamalot,” “Hairspray,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “The Producers”) having taken this road in the past decade. Which bodes well for “The Addams Family,” the sole pic-to-stage musical to open in 2009-10. (Or is this one based on cartoons or the TV series?)
Jukeboxers came of commercial age with “Mamma Mia!” and won critical respect (finally) with “Jersey Boys,” which won the 2006 Tony. This season, shows fashioned from pre-existing songs have received some of the year’s best reviews as noted by the critical receptions of “Fela!,” based on the life of Fela Kuti; “Come Fly Away,” Twyla Tharp’s ode to Frank Sinatra; and “Million Dollar Quartet,” which revisits a most historic day in rock. Jukebox lightning might strike a fourth time: Opening this week is Green Day’s “American Idiot,” which wowed them in San Fran. Could this year deliver a jukebox sweep in the tuner category? For these shows, it’s not necessarily good news that the crix won’t be part of the Tony-voter mix in 2010.
Speaking of journos, “Come Fly Away” produced the season’s biggest smackdown in, of all places, the pages of the New York Times. While the Old Gray Lady’s theater critic Charles Isherwood praised the show as “a major new work of pop dance theater,” its chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, protected his terp turf by delivering the following pan in the very next edition: “less sensational than sensationalistic … this is intimacy perverted into exhibitionism.” Smelling a good story, the two scribes’ editor gave the boys space to slug it out in blogs the following week. David Merrick would have approved.
In the end, the Tony isn’t everything. A visit from the first kids, Malia and Sasha Obama, recently blessed both “Memphis” and “The Addams Family.” It was good news for those tuners, and even better news for Broadway’s national rep.