The biggest beneficiary of Tony Awards attention this year could well turn out to be “Bright Star,” the original musical penned by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.
The show that opened March 24 at the Cort Theater garnered five bids, including noms for best musical and lead actress for star Carmen Cusack, in the role that marks her Broadway debut. Martin is nommed for the tuner’s book, and he and Brickell are up for music and lyrics honors.
“Bright Star” has been slow out of the gate at the box office, but producer Joey Parnes said Tuesday that sales were definitely reflecting a Tony bounce within hours of the nominations announcement.
Martin and Brickell (yes, the company gets a kick out of calling them “Steve and Edie”) are also Broadway newbies. The pair teamed up more than four years ago to tackle a form of storytelling that was new for both of them. Director Mike Nichols helped them guide the show in its workshop and Old Globe productions prior to his death in November 2014.
“Bright Star” is set in the post-World War II era. Cusack plays Alice Murphy, a literary editor whose life is changed when she meets a soldier just home from the war.
“I thought doing movies was a collaborative process — but a musical is even more collaborative than anything I’ve ever been involved with,” Martin told Variety. “Everybody contributes equally — the actors, the set designer, the lighting designer, the choreographer — all of these are equal forces impinging on the center. It’s really very hard to do.”
Brickell said the process of seeing their songs come to life on stage was incredibly fulfilling for her as a writer.
“It was the most joyous kind of work, to build this show one song at a time and hand it to a great creative team,” she said. “I don’t consider myself much of a performer but I love to write. To be given the gift of seeing real performers interpret your work — it was so exciting that it never felt like a great labor.”
Brickell added that she was most excited by the nom for Cusack. “I wanted this for her so badly,” she said. “Working with these people so closely, you just fall in love with them.”
Martin noted that they were disappointed director Walter Bobbie did not make the helmer’s race, but the best musical attention — given the stiff competition this year from “Hamilton” and others — helps the entire company’s cause.
“We feel like we served everyone well for their hard work,” Martin said. “It’s a great honor to be a Tony nominee, when you look at the level of talent that is also nominated. I’m proud to be in a category with ‘Hamilton.’ “
In a Broadway season packed with high-wattage new and revival musicals, “Bright Star” has had a hard time grabbing a portion of the spotlight. That’s why the Tony attention is so vital.
“This gets us in the conversation,” Parnes said. “It’s not a secret that we’ve been struggling at the box office. But it’s not that people don’t like the show. This show has the best word-of-mouth among (Broadway) people of any show that I’ve worked on in years.”
An original property is always going to be a harder sell to ticket buyers than something with built-in recognition factor.
That was the quality that attracted Parnes to “Bright Star” in the first place. (Parnes’ extremely busy production banner raked in some 33 nominations this year, 28 of them from his collaborations with uber-producer Scott Rudin.)
“The show is utterly original,” Parnes said. “It’s heartfelt. It’s very emotional. It’s one of the things that appealed to me about it. We need to do more original things on Broadway.”