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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews

 
REVIEW OF STRIPPERS, SHOWGIRLS AND SHARKS: A VERY OPINIONATED HISTORY OF THE BROADWAY MUSICALS THAT DID NOT WIN THE TONY AWARD

THE UNSUNG
By MATT WINDMAN

  Review of Strippers, Showgirls and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award, by Peter Filichia; St. Martin's Press, 288 pages, $26.99.

As of the conclusion of the 2012 Broadway season, there were no less than 166 musicals that had been nominated for Best Musical and did not win the prize, ranging from Fanny, Peter Pan, Plain and Fancy and Silk Stockings in 1955 to Leap of Faith, Newsies and Nice Work if You Can Get It in 2012. It turns out that from 1949, the first year the Tony Awards were given out, through 1954, only Tony winners were announced. Who knows what other shows were considered by the nominators during those years. 

That is just one of many juicy tidbits packed into Peter Filichia’s smart and chatty Strippers, Showgirls and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award, which examines virtually every Best Musical loser (in varying degrees of analysis of course) and considers why those shows did not win the prize. Sometimes the answer is easy and other times it is complicated. For instance, it is unlikely anyone actually believed that Merlin would win. But interesting, is it not, how Merlin was even nominated in 1983 while Camelot was snubbed for a nomination in 1961. Standards have certainly changed.  

Filichia begins by exploring the three most notorious upsets for Best Musical: West Side Story losing to The Music Man, Gypsy losing to both Fiorello! and The Sound of Music, and (most unbelievable of all) Follies losing to Two Gentlemen of Verona. Although he offers very vivid deconstructions of all three shows, the bottom line in all their cases, Filichia argues, is that Tony voters were unprepared for or turned off by the content of these musicals.

Needless to say, Filichia can’t say for sure why these and other musicals failed to win Best Musical. He can only speculate as to what Tony voters wanted or were looking for. For instance, he claims that, to this day, employees of major theatrical companies vote strictly down the party line. At times, he suggests that voters are often motivated to not vote for musicals helmed by certain producers, whether out of spite or jealousy. For instance, David Merrick’s competitors surely had little incentive to vote for any of Merrick’s shows, given his incredible level of self-love and contempt for others. Filichia also offers a lot of “what if”s, especially as to whether certain musicals would have won Best Musical had they opened in a season with less competition.

But for the most part, Filichia explores how these musicals measure up in terms of craft. At one point, he points out how two Jule Styne musicals, Bells are Ringing and Sugar, display lapses in logic. Filichia goes so far as to offer suggestions as to how many shows supposedly could have been improved. He suggests that the book of Funny Girl should have been truer to the real-life history of Fannie Brice and Nick Arnstein. As for Parade, he claims that the mother of Mary Phagen should have confronted Leo Frank right after she learned of her daughter’s death. Sometimes his suggestions are on target. Other times they feel unnecessary and perhaps arrogant.

Filichia can also be unapologetically harsh. He accuses Clive Barnes of destroying the “traditional Broadway musical” during his tenure as critic for The New York Times. He says that Carole Bayer Sager was “terribly inept at the lyric-writing craft” based on her work in They’re Playing Our Song. He attacks such recent shows as The Producers, Fela!, Passing Strange and Rock of Ages, the last of which he describes as “the latest in the parade of stupid musicals meant for crowds that think musicals are innately moronic.”

What most sets Filichia apart as a very valuable critic is the incredible amount of attention he pays to music and lyric writing. Too many of today’s reviewers do not take the time – or do not have the talent – to dissect a score with great care. He notes that Spring Awakening contains dozens of imperfect rhymes and, to give just one example, points out how “Hello, Hello There” from Bells Are Ringing is “probably the only charm song set to an oom-pah-pah waltz.”

One can’t help but compare Filichia with fellow musical theater historian Ethan Mordden, who himself reviewed Filichia’s book in The Wall Street Journal. Although I absolutely treasure Mordden’s incredible, multi-tome history of the Broadway musical, it is often difficult to follow Mordden’s prose, especially when he talks about shows you are not already familiar with. Filichia, on the other hand, is extremely user-friendly, which is especially helpful when he explores neglected, rarely seen musicals such as The Lieutenant and Jelly’s Last Jam.

Trivia is offered in abundance about both the shows being explored and about the Tony Awards, such as Hallelujah, Baby! being the only musical that had already closed to win Best Musical; the fact that Tony nominees used to have to pay for their tickets to attend the Tony Awards ceremony until Stephen Schwartz complained to Alexander Cohen about having to pay up for the honor of losing to Stephen Sondheim; and that Grease is the only musical to not win Best Musical to become, at least at one point, the longest-running musical in Broadway history.

 


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