The 2015 Tony Awards Make History, and Why We’re Still Talking about 2004

Last Sunday night was a historic night in theater, and I don’t just say that because it was the 69th Annual Tony Awards.  Something incredible happened.  As a theater student, I have spent more hours than I’d like to admit studying theater history.  So, to add to the books, a few noteworthy things that happened on Sunday night:

  • Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron became the first all-female songwriting team to win Best Original Score
  • Fun Home took home Best Musical

If you are reading this, you may have seen (and signed!) the viral petition to broadcast the Tonys for Best Book and Best Score to show women filling these roles – specifically, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron.  These two awards, along with the awards for Best Costume Design, Best Scenic Design, Best Orchestrations, and Best Lighting Design, are traditionally given before the Tony telecast or during commercial breaks and are known as the Creative Arts Tony Awards.  With the tagline “people need to see change happening in the biggest spotlight available to the theatre industry, and girls need to see what is possible,” The Interval, a website for women in theater, argued that girls need to see the potential for women in the realm of theatrical design, writing and composition.  The petition brilliantly straddled between two worlds: feminists and theater connoisseurs, resulting in over 2200 signatures. Unfortunately, to my and many others’ dismay, these awards were not broadcast, and can only be viewed online.

As Lisa Kron so beautifully stated during her acceptance speech, “wouldn’t it be so great if after this season, we didn’t all just go back into the living room?” In Kron’s analogy, the “living room” is a safe space filled with musicals that don’t defy convention – musicals that are “Broadway” in the most stereotypical way, including those with all-male creative teams. But because “this season, some lights got turned on in some other rooms,” we are no longer just sitting in the “room” of the mega-musical spectacle.  And, as if Ms. Kron prophesied for us, Fun Home took home the Tony for Best Musical, showing us that good theater is not only about size, spectacle, or familiar stories.  Of course, An American in Paris, Something Rotten, and The Visit are all incredible works of art as well.  But, do they open the door to a new room in musical theater history, as Fun Home does?

Watch this video on YouTube.

If you are reading this, you have also probably already read upwards on fifteen articles that told you that everyone thought An American in Paris would win the Tony Award for Best Musical, and with good reason.  This $11.5 million musical has been grossing over a million dollars each week since mid-April, which is not particularly surprising given the record breaking yearly gross on Broadway this past year (over $1.3 billion, compared to the previous record at $1.193 last year).

The widespread predicting of American in Paris to take home the Best Musical prize is why when I woke up Monday morning, my Facebook news feed was clogged with articles not about the 2015 Tony Awards but about the 2004 awards instead.  2004 was the year of one of the biggest Tony Award surprises to date.  Up against the favored Wicked (as well as The Boy from Oz and Caroline, or Change), the smaller, quirkier show Avenue Q came out on top, winning Best Musical.  Was Fun Home’s win equally surprising?  By the time the Best Musical award was announced, Fun Home had already received the awards for Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Leading Actor in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical, an eerily similar outcome to Avenue Q’s Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score.  However, Avenue Q ended its Broadway run in 2009 and moved to its current Off-Broadway home at New World Stages, where it is still sustaining a successful run, while Wicked lives on at the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway, continuing to be one of the most successful Broadway shows in musical theater history. Time will tell how long Fun Home and An American in Paris will run on Broadway – whether or not history will again repeat itself with the winning show closing or downsizing first.

Comparing 2004 and 2015 shows that the future of musical theater is not only in the mega-musical spectacle.  Avenue Q’s win gave us a taste of small, nontraditional contemporary shows winning Best Musical in 2004, and Fun Home further proved this point.  Contemporary musical theater is becoming mainstream, with women filling creative roles traditionally filled by men and smaller, riskier shows succeeding on Broadway.  And, I wouldn’t be surprised if next year, some of the Creative Arts Tonys are broadcast, too.

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