Now that the Tony Awards are finally over, pundits and professionals alike can start scratching their heads over what is bound to be an open question for years to come: Why did Kinky Boots win Best New Musical over Matilda, which everyone assumed would take the prize until just days before the ceremony? It was the first major upset over the Best New Musical prize since Avenue Q beat Wicked back in 2004. But in that case, Avenue Q deserved to win. Kinky Boots did not.
The easiest, and perhaps valid, answer would be that it’s a backlash by American producers against the British. For even though Kinky Boots is based on a British film, its creative team (director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, songwriter Cyndi Lauper, librettist Harvey Fierstein) is as American as blueberry pie. The producers and press agents of Kinky Boots also waged an ambitious campaign for the prize, with the cast, Lauper and Fierstein making rounds all around town for weeks.
Perhaps there were simply too many musicals this year about (or at least marketed to) children, producing a kind of fatigue and eagerness to give the award to a musical that did not involve a young girl who manages to overcome mean and uncaring figures of authority. Just imagine seeing Cinderella, Annie and Matilda in a single weekend, as I recently did.
There are other theories, like Matilda being too dark (for what it’s worth, the “Temper, Temper” scene in Mary Poppins is far more disturbing) or its accents too heavy and unintelligible for a mainstream audience.
If it’s any consolation, Matilda, which is an innovative musical with catchy, memorable songs, will join the likes of West Side Story, Gypsy, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Parade and Urinetown, other great musicals that were unfairly robbed of the Best Musical prize. (For more about these shows, check out "Strippers, Showgirls and Sharks," Peter Filichia’s new book on the musicals that were most infamously snubbed for Best Musical by Tony voters.)
While it’s nice and all that Lauper is now the first female who wrote both music and lyrics to win Best Score (as opposed to writing just music or lyrics with a partner), her pop songs in Kinky Boots are tacky and generic. Her winning that prize over Tim Minchin for Matilda is even more egregious than it winning Best Musical. Jerry Mitchell’s win for the choreography of Kinky Boots is also puzzling. However, I’ll admit that Billy Porter, who plays the drag queen Lola in Kinky Boots, deservedly won Best Actor in a Musical over Bertie Carvel, who ought to have been nominated in the featured category for his irreplaceable turn as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda.
What damage, if any, will this cause for Matilda? Although the show is still selling out nightly at the Shubert Theatre, its grosses are sure to deflate after the summertime. The loss of the Best Musical Tony could have serious implications over its ability to sustain a long run down the line or attract interest in an inevitable national tour. The show will probably still earn back its investment, and maybe even make a small profit, but it probably won’t run as long as its producers were hoping. Of course, even if Matilda had won Best Musical, it was never going to be Mary Poppins. It’s too original and daring to eke out a six-year run.
In spite of the shock of the Kinky Boots victory, many of the other predictions made by pundits came true, including the multiple victories for Pippin (Best Musical Revival, Diane Paulus for Best Director of a Musical, Andrea Martin for Best Featured Actress in a Musical), Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike receiving Best New Play and Cicely Tyson winning Best Actress in a Play for her luminous turn in The Trip to Bountiful. (Another Tyson – Mike Tyson – got to make a cameo in the opening number.)
Although the short-lived Steppenwolf revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was expected by many to win Best Revival of a Play, the production also scored Best Actor in a Play for Tracy Letts (defeating Tom Hanks, who everyone had readily assumed would win for Lucky Guy), and Best Director for Pam MacKinnon.
In terms of entertainment value, Neil Patrick Harris (hosting the ceremony for the fourth time) more than delivered, performing original, very funny songs (including a closing-up rap). The best portion of the evening involved Andrew Rannells, Megan Hilty and Laura Benanti all commiserating to parody lyrics about their cancelled television series. It turns out that Benanti has suffered through two canceled television shows.
Long-running musicals were also heavily featured this year. And while that did take time and attention away from the new musicals, it helped build a sense of both community and excitement. And chances are that Middle America would rather watch The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King than Kinky Boots. (Speaking of Phantom, the obvious lip-synching of the title number was as embarrassing as last year’s performance of highlights from Hairspray on a cruise ship.)