Nearly three years ago, I wrote a blog post about the “death of the original musical.” Little did I know that in 2018, all four of the Best Musical Tony nominations would be completely unoriginal – the most original show being the SpongeBob SquarePants musical, which has an original story, just not characters. The SpongeBob SquarePants Musical. Am I a sorcerer? Or is this just where we’ve ended up?
Don’t get me wrong, I actually super love the SpongeBob musical. I think it’s joyful and creative and I even think there are some Tony-worthy performances in there. But the most high-profile stage in the world should attract the best stories. Now, here we stand with four musicals up for the big prize, all of them adapted from movies or the aforementioned animated aquatic pals: Frozen, Mean Girls, The Band’s Visit, and SpongeBob. Three-quarters of these shows received mixed reviews, so if we’re going by critics’ praise alone, Band’s Visit is destined to be the winner this year.
Over in the play hemisphere, if the award doesn’t go to Angels in America or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, it will be a surprise, with the exception of Glenda Jackson in Three Tall Women, who just won the once-in-a-lifetime Drama League award. Angels even has a best score nomination – that’s how weak the musicals are this year. So why are we even doing this?
On the surface, the batch this year isn’t the greatest or most original. But it’s this season’s performances that are worth celebrating. Those are hard to share if you can’t make it to New York, but all seven musicals up for Best Musical or Best Revival of a Musical have received or will receive a cast recording – something that doesn’t happen every season.
The Tonys this year are worth celebrating because of the performances. On the surface, this season’s shows may seem unoriginal and un-innovative as a whole, but we have to peel back the vacuum seal packaging to reveal the feast inside. This season, we celebrate Ethan Slater’s ripped real-life SpongeBob. We celebrate the first black Billy Bigelow on Broadway, Joshua Henry, becoming a father during previews and bringing a whole new spin to the “Soliloquy.” We celebrate Katrina Lenk’s incredible “Omar Sherif” in The Band’s Visit. We celebrate Andrew Garfield screaming his lungs out for a collective six hours in Angels as a hilarious and heartbreaking Prior Walter.
It’s difficult to celebrate these performances when you can’t see them in person – so I predict that this Tonys will be one of the lowest-viewed in recent history (they had a slight uptick in 2016, the Hamilton year, but otherwise, they’re generally low to begin with). Despite this, the theatre community quietly persists, knowing it has well-kept secrets. But will they translate to TV? Unlikely.