On Broadway, we now have three Alan Menken musicals, three Andrew Lloyd Webbers, two Stephen Schwartzes, five musicals about faith, two lowbrow British farces adapted or translated from old plays and set in the ’60s, and four big black ladies trying to stop the show. But they’re all totally original.
There are also four new film-to-stage tuners, two of which are fighting for the top Tony awards with contrasting amounts of sparkle and soul. At the nominees reception at the Millennium last week, the undercurrent was the big showdown between Disney’s exuberant Newsies and the bittersweet leap of faith Once, the realization being that feel-good usually battles artsy at the Tonys, and feel-good usually wins.
“I love that we’re not wrapping it up with a pretty bow,” Once‘s leading man, Steve Kazee, told me about his show’s poignancy level. “Sadness is a real emotion.” And Kazee has been experiencing it big time since his mother died a few weeks ago—shades of his character, Guy. “To get up there every night and speak about your mother passing away,” Kazee said, “it’s cathartic and also terrible.”
Newsies, on the other hand, has been accused of having too much upbeat singing and dancing, a critique that I find absurd. It’s a musical! “It was too much happiness,” nominated director Jeff Calhoun sardonically said when I brought this up. “How dare we continue to entertain people—even during the bows? Sometimes it’s just jaw dropping,” he moaned about the criticisms.
Brightening up, Calhoun noted: “Twelve people are making their Broadway debut in the show. There’s something infectious about that. You’re watching these young people lose their virginity.” “And crowds of people wait outside for them,” I added. “And it’s not even Hugh Jackman!” he gushed.
Newsies’ breakout star, Jeremy Jordan, lost his virginity three shows ago, but how does he summon the energy for this one? “It’s sort of a rev up and explode,” he told me. “It’s the only way to get through such a massive show. When I’m not on stage, I’m a zombie. My friends know I’m not normally a zombie.”
Well, until we get Zombie the Musical—or Jackie Hoffman in Jewsies—we have Ghost the Musical, which one adorable cynic called “transparent.” The flashy adaptation got nominations for Da’Vine Joy Randolph (in the Whoopi role) and the set, which are definitely its two stars. At the event, Randolph told me that for her big number, her sunglasses are bedazzled, “so the light hits, and the rhinestones shine in my eyes. When I first saw the choreography, I said: ‘I’m doing what? And with a mink coat?’ The set is like another beast in itself. It’s like ice skating: ‘Oh, my God, is she gonna fall?’ But it’s a great asset that we have a real ensemble.” And Randolph told me they all do precision work moving stuff around as she dances around.
Meanwhile, the most bedazzled star in Evita, Ricky Martin, wasn’t nominated, but his choreographer, Rob Ashford, was. Ashford told me, “Ricky’s one of these creatures who comes alive on the stage. It’s not like he needs the audience for completion, but when he’s up there sharing, he just thrives.”
The same went for Judy Garland—and Tracie Bennett, who plays her in End of the Rainbow with a “rev up and explode” approach. Michael Cumpsty—nominated as the accompanist who wants to save Judy—told me he finds the play “extremely compassionate” and “celebratory.” And it has even more meaning for him than that. “It’s the first time since grad school that I’ve played a gay character,” Cumpsty said. “It’s really refreshing and extremely liberating in a way—to play me!”
Completely bald in Wit—in every way—Best Actress nominee Cynthia Nixon played a woman whose medical experience leads to her find her own humanity. “She’s given up trying to get the A-plus all the time,” Nixon told me. “It’s a lesson we can learn. To get caught up in this—the Tonys—is fine, but is it that important? I don’t think so.” Still, I want one!
“The audience was so devastated at the end,” Nixon recalled about Wit. “Sometimes they’d come see me afterward, and I’d be jolly, offering them chocolates.” Once should give out large bags of the stuff.
That old bonbon Jekyll & Hyde is coming back in a “reimagining” with some new songs, as composer Frank Wildhorn reminded me. Said Wildhorn (nominated for Bonnie & Clyde): “All the Jekylls have been baritones with high ranges, but Constantine Maroulis is a screaming-rock tenor, and Deborah Cox—who’s Lucy—reminds me of a young Gladys Knight.” Maybe they should call it Jekyll, Hyde, & the Pips.
As you know, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess keeps the characters black but adds a feminist arc for Bess. Said nominated Norm Lewis: “She’s gonna burn her bra! She takes what people consider the archetype of a cocaine-addicted whore and shows you her journey.”
And my own narcotized trek ended by schmoozing Douglas Carter Beane, nominated for the short-lived romp Lysistrata Jones. In Beane’s mind, is the show still running? “We had a huge sale for stock and amateur productions last year,” he replied, “so it doesn’t have to be inside my mind. Kids just out of college will be doing it. I think they’ll have to pay their own bus fare.” (He laughed.) While we wait for the inevitable shows called Twice and Alan Menken’s Mo’ Better Newsies, Beane is also writing the Cinderella reimagining starring Bonnie & Clyde‘s Laura Osnes. “She has a tommy gun,” he cracked. “Is that a problem?”
Read more Michael Musto at La Dolce Musto