Tonight, it’s the 64th Annual Tony Awards! Can I get a huzzah up in here? Growing up in Paddock Lake, Wisconsin, the Tony Awards represented the very closest I ever got to seeing new Broadway shows. And, frankly, as someone who doesn’t really get out to New York all that much (umm, like, once… ever), it still is the very closest thing I ever get to seeing new Broadway shows. Moreover, in recent years, musicals seem to be making a comeback. It’s not necessarily a new golden age, but at least it’s not the like 90s when virtually every new musical that got produced got nominated – a nadir being the 94-95 season which only saw two new musicals hit Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s torpid adaptation of Sunset Boulevard, and a theme-park-calibre revue of Lieber & Stoller rock ‘n’ roll songs called Smokey Joe’s Cafe.
Thankfully, things started looking up almost immediately when the late Jonathan Larson’s Rent opened the following year; and with the sleak, minimalist revival of Kander & Ebb’s Chicago. Musicals just feel cooler, more relevant, now than they did 20 years ago, and a new generation of musical composers – Jeanine Tesori, Adam Guettel, Andrew Lippa, Tom Kitt and Jason Robert Brown, to name a few – seem to finally be coming out of their predecessors’ long shadows, re-creating the musical in their own images. Meanwhile pop songwriters like Duncan Sheik and Elton John are taking more than a vanity interest in musical theater as a form, and both have been rewarded for their efforts. Sheik’s Spring Awakening won Best Musical in 2007, and Elton’s scored two Best Musicals in The Lion King and last year’s winner Billy Elliot.
This year’s batch of nominees has a lot to offer fans of pop and rock music – most obviously, Green Day‘s American Idiot, a stage adaptation of the band’s 2004 masterpiece, which the band previewed with their performance of “21 Guns” at this year’s Grammy Awards.
This isn’t the first time a rock album has been adapted as Broadway musical. In 1993, The Who’s Tommy became a huge hit. It’s general lack of coherent plotting not only didn’t hinder it – it actually became a sort of selling point. It was a colorful rock spectacle no-brainer. Here’s a performance from that year’s Tony Awards, introduced by (of course) Liza Minnelli – only slightly more coherent than Pete Townshend’s story.
Another rocker who’s taken more than a passing interest in musical theater is Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, who wrote the score for this year’s Best Musical nominee Memphis, which originated as an Off-Broadway show 8 years ago.
Though the arrival of Memphis on Broadway has been a long time coming, Bryan continues to play in Bon Jovi and he’s most recently co-written another show, Toxic Avenger – The Musical, based on the horror film of the same name.
This year’s top Tony contender is the musical Fela!, based on the life of Nigerian composer, bandleader, and activist Fela Kuti, and set to his music. The show coincides with the Knitting Factory label’s recent Fela Kuti reissue campaign, and is notable not only for its 11 nominations, but for the fact that it could very possibly make Jay-Z – along with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, one of the show’s producers – a Tony Award winner.
Of course, Jay-Z signalled early on in his career that he might have a soft spot for Broadway musicals. Long before Gwen Stefani’s update on Fiddler on the Roof, Jay-Z was channeling the orphans from the 1977 Broadway musical Annie in “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” – a sample which, for me, established him as one of the smartest and ballsiest rappers to come out of the 90s. All of which makes me wonder: How long until “The Blueprint Trilogy: The Musical” hits the stage?