Breaking It Down: Best Original Score at the 2011 Tony Awards

Best Original Score is one of my favorite categories in any awards show. I've grown up around music. It's always been a major part of my life. I love listening to it, performing it, writing it, and analyzing it. So when an awards body like the Tony Awards decide to recognize a composer or composing team for writing the best score in a given year, I'm intrigued. This year, the nominated scores are about as diverse as they can be. There's a throwback classic American musical comedy score with some outrageous lyrics, a political score based in the minstrel tradition, a modern pop score tinged with disco flourishes, and a Spanish dance hued score all competing for the big prize. I can easily see any of these scores winning the prize. They're all incredible. It's going to come down to personal preference and familiarity on the big night.

So who is nominated, what is the score like, and what are some of the musical highlights of the production?

The Book of Mormon, original score by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Bobby Lopez

The Book of Mormon is a legitimate musical comedy score in the style of the era of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Parker, Stone, and Lopez play with puns, metaphors, and straight up jokes to keep the audience laughing the whole way through the show. The show, about Mormon missionaries, uses the old constructs of musical theater to create a squeaky clean musical vocabulary for the pious stars serving their faith in Uganda. Once they interact with the villagers, the show makes great use of African dances, rhythms, and harmonies to regulate the cultural divide.

Highlights

Note: I would include some of the villager's songs, but they are the funniest moments in the show and I wouldn't want to spoil them for anyone who hasn't seen the show.

The Scottsboro Boys, original score by John Kander and Frank Ebb

The Scottsboro Boys uses, subverts, and re-contextualizes the American minstrel show to tell the tragic story of the Scottsboro Boys. There are moments in the score that feel like a traditional American musical, but the real influence is constructs of the touring minstrel show, which beget Vaudeville, which beget American musical theater. There is a shadow dance, many tap numbers, slapstick songs, a cakewalk, an introduction, and even a train song. It's an intelligent score that can also feel very uncomfortable because of the subject matter.

Highlights

Sister Act, original score by Alan Menken and Glen Slater

Sister Act is a modern pop theater score that uses the vocabulary of 1970s disco to tell the story of a rising disco diva forced to hide in a convent. It takes a very different approach than the original film, actually using music to create the music the nuns become famous for. It's a really fun and sweet score that gets caught in your head very easily. The nun numbers steal the show, as they should.

Highlights

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, original score by David Yazbek

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown keeps the original 1980s Spain setting of Pedro Almodovar's film in its staging and musical style. There's a distinct 80s feel to the sound quality of many moments in the score. Skipping radio players, scratchy pay phones, and even manual rewind answering machines are used to great effect. Even more impressive is the integration of syncopated flamenco rhythms and lots of guitar to really make the show.

Highlights

Sadly, a lot of this score isn't uploaded anywhere for easy sharing. I'm amazed I found the full version of "Lovesick."

Who will win?

I can tell you that I would personally vote for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, though the fact that the show isn't still playing to see these songs in context hurts. Sister Act is the safe choice, but is there enough going on to beat critical and commercial judggernauts? If The Book of Mormon sweeps, it will win this category.

I have a strange feeling The Scottsboro Boys will win here as a final tribute to the late Frank Ebb. It's a great score and unlike The Book of Mormon, the critics took note of its quality in their reviews.