Breaking It Down: The 65th Annual Tony Awards: Best Musical

Four musicals are vying for the honor of being named the best new musical of the 2010-2011 Broadway season. What are they, who made them, what do they have going for them, and which will win the big prize? The Book of Mormon

What is it?

The Book of Mormon is an original comedy musical about an oddly paired couple of Mormon missionaries sent to AIDS-stricken Uganda on a mission. The mission will be shut down if they do not get a substantial amount of new baptisms in the near future and their home village will be destroyed by a vicious warlord who believes only circumcising all virginal women can ward off the AIDS epidemic. Perfect Mormon Elder Price does everything by the book, but fails to garner any attention for the cause. His bumbling partner Elder Cunningham is placed in an unanticipated position of power when young village woman Nabalungi convinces her friends and family to give Mormonism a try. Too bad Elder Cunningham is a compulsive liar who never read The Book of Mormon.

Who made it?

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of one of the all-time great movie musicals South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, collaborated with Avenue Q composer/lyricist Robert Lopez to bring this madcap tale of missions gone wrong to life.

What's so special?

Not only is The Book of Mormon arguably the funniest and most polished original stage musical since The Producers, it's also the most traditional musical nominated for the big prize. The progression of the story and use of music would place it closer to Rodgers & Hammerstein than Hollman & Kotis (Urinetown). There are copious dance breaks, beautifully hand-painted backdrops, and simple suggestive sets that would be almost impossible to break down. The Book of Mormon has been selling to sold-out crowds since the first preview and you now have to book months ahead of time to get a seat. Finally, the show will be touring starting next year, a feat that some thought was impossible due to the more adult humor in the show.

Catch Me If You Can

What is it?

Catch Me If You Can tells the story of the greatest con-artist you never really knew about: Frank Abangale, Jr. Time and again he talks his way out of trouble by assuming a new identity. From teacher to pilot to doctor to charismatic thief, Abangale, Jr. can convince anyone of anything. Catch Me If You Can starts and ends with his final capture, telling his life story. Carl Hanratty is the FBI Agent one step behind Abangale Jr.'s latest scam.

Who made it?

Terrence McNally, Marc Shaiman, and Scott Witmann collaborated on the book, music, and lyrics of Catch Me If You Can. McNally wrote the books to Ragtime and The Full Monty, while Shaiman and Witmann previously collaborated on Hairspray.

What's so special?

Spectacle and scale. No other nominee this year is this big and splashy in its presentation. The full orchestra is onstage as a life-size plane is rolled on and off the stage. Chorus lines abound. Popular actors Aaron Tveit and Norbert Leo Butz are living in these dual leading roles tailor-made to their strengths.

The Scottsboro Boys

What is it?

Kander & Ebb's final collaboration, The Scottsboro Boys, deconstructs the minstrel show to explore the horrible treatment of nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama. Even after their accuser recounts her testimony, the Alabama legal system will not release the boys. They spend the prime of their lives trapped behind bars for a crime they didn't commit. The innovative show uses ten chairs and a big open stage to create everything from the train to a nightmare vision of the electric chair.

Who made it?

Kander & Ebb wrote the music and lyrics in full on provocative Cabaret mode. Susan Stroman stepped in after Frank Ebb's death to help book writer David Thompson and John Kander bring the show to Broadway. There is such synergy between the four collaborators that it would be a shame to not include director Stroman's creative input on the piece.

What's so special?

Nostalgia and merit. The Scottsboro Boys limped through a barely 6 week run from November to December despite glowing reviews and the chance to see Kander & Ebb's last show. It was just too challenging to be run on such a shoestring marketing campaign and needed a much bigger push to last through December. The show is well-remembered and a San Francisco production is happening. A feature film might also be in the works. There's even talk of bringing the show back for a limited run on Broadway again. Merit wise, it's sharp, political, highly theatrical, historical, and one of the tightest and most powerful pieces of theater I've ever had the pleasure of seeing (Off-Broadway, I was waiting to get my tickets for a January performance on Broadway and missed out).

Sister Act

What is it?

Sister Act is an adaptation of the hit Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name about singer Delores von Cartier forced into a nunnery to hide her from the mob. This stage adaptation resets the action to the 1970s, where Delores is a rising disco diva. Every song in the show is original, replacing the classic Motown tracks with Delores' disco soon-to-be-hits when the nuns start swinging. It's a madcap comedy with lots of energy and audience appeal.

Who made it?

Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) and Glen Slater (Love Never Dies, Tangled) wrote the music and lyrics. Cheri and Bill Steinkellner wrote the book.

What's so special?

Middle of the road audience appeal. Sister Act is a safe show. It's not going to offend anyone and the score is tuneful without any vulgarities. Its message is one of acceptance, not some highly political stance. It's a good show that will easily tour and can play for years on the marquee value of the name alone.

Which will win?

The Book of Mormon is the safe choice. It's still running and the reviews are fantastic. Plus, the show is sold out for months. The Scottsboro Boys can play a spoiler if the Tony voters are particularly nostalgic about Kander & Ebb and remember how powerful and provocative the production was. If it was still running, it would probably win without an issue. Since it's closed, it'll be an uphill battle.