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10 Best Musical Tony Winners from the Last 10 Years

Category Broadway

|by Garth Wingfield |

It’s a wide-open race for the 2014 Tony for Best Musical -- can looking back at the last decade of top shows give us clues as to who will be the big winner?

It’s anyone’s guess as to which show will take home the Best Musical Tony on June 8th. Will it be Aladdin, based on the hit Disney animated feature? Beautiful, which tells the life and times of Carole King through her biggest hits? After Midnight, the plotless Cotton Club review? Or A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a cheeky farce that earned the most Tony nominations of any show this season. Even The New York Times won’t speculate a winner, calling out the cons of each (Disney has had its ups and downs with the Tonys, Beautiful lacks an original score, After Midnight lacks a traditional book, Gentleman’s Guide was more of a hit with critics than audiences). To get a handle on the race, we took a look back at the last 10 years of Tony winners to see if history would be a guide. Turns out the previous winners are a diverse group, with surprise winners as well as sure-things. Four were based on movies. Three were wholly original. Two were loosely inspired by the lives of real people. And one was adapted from an obscure German play. Whichever show wins this year will hopefully continue on for a long run. Longevity is a trend, with four still open on Broadway, and a fifth enjoying a continuously successful run Off-Broadway.

Stark Sands and Billy Porter in ‘Kinky Boots’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Stark Sands and Billy Porter in ‘Kinky Boots’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

2013: Kinky Boots
Kinky Boots got solid reviews during the out-of-town tryout in Chicago, but the Broadway in-crowd wasn’t sure what to make of it when it opened on the Great White Way. A musical with a score by Cyndi Lauper based on an indie British movie about a struggling shoemaker who forms an unlikely partnership with a flamboyant drag queen? Huh? Yes, the book was by two-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein (La Cage Aux Folles), but there were no bankable stars in the leading roles, and frankly, not that many people saw the original film. But it landed on Broadway, got solid reviews and brought home six Tonys, including not only Best Musical but also Best Actor in a Musical for Billy Porter, the season’s breakout star. The toughest competition that night was with Matlida, while the other Best Musical nominees were Bring it On! and A Christmas Story, The Musical, both of which were closed by Tony time. 

2012: Once
Another musical based on a relatively obscure independent movie, Once is a show that pulls on the heartstrings, weaving the tale of a guy and girl who fall in love in a Dublin pub, collaborate and make beautiful music together. This show is an unusual one for Broadway, in that it has a relatively small cast size, and the actors play all of their own instruments. The Times’ Ben Brantley raved, calling it “as vital and surprising as the early spring that has crept up on Manhattan.” And on Tony night the show beat out more traditional musicals Newsiesand Nice Work If You Can Get It to take home the top prize.

2011: The Book of Mormon
This is one of those shows that generated buzz the minute people started talking about it. For one thing, it has an impeccable pedigree. Its creators are Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park) and Robert Lopez, best known at the time for being one of the creators of Avenue Q(and now an Oscar winner for his Frozen songwriting). The story of two wide-eyed Mormon missionaries who see things they never thought they’d believe in their quest to find converts, this in-your-face, over-the-top show has won over audiences big time. And it continues to be one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. Back on Tony night its win seemed to be a foregone conclusion. The competing shows, Catch Me if You CanThe Scottsboro Boys and Sister Act, found that it was a pleasure to be nominated. 

2010: Memphis
Never underestimate the power of a crowd pleaser. Memphis was a big-hearted musical that was a hit with audiences, though not necessarily with critics. And it beat out Green Day’s American Idiot, Fela and Million Dollar Quartet to take home the big prize in 2010. The interracial love story set in the 1950s featured a book by Joe DePietro, who penned the long-running Off-Broadway smash I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Based on the lives of the singers who created a total musical vibe, this show wowed theatergoers with its energy, songs and unforgettable spirit. Memphis had a healthy run on the Great White Way, closing in August of 2012.

2009: Billy Elliot the Musical
Featuring a score by none other than Sir Elton John, Billy Elliot packed a huge emotional punch. Broadway audiences flocked to see this tale of a miner’s son in Thatcher-era England who had an unexpected talent for dance (the show is based on the 2000 independent film of the same name). Critics loved the show as well: Ben Brantley of The New York Times hailed it as “smashingly realized.” The show was a sure-thing going into the Tonys with 15 nominations, and was up against Next to NormalShrek the Musical and [title of show] for the Best Musical prize. Billy Elliott ended up taking home a total of 10 Tonys, including an award for the three boys who alternated in the title role of Billy (they won a single Tony as a group). Though the Broadway production closed in January 2012, it has been going strong on London’s West End since 2005.

2008: In the Heights
In the Heights took a long road to Broadway, with lots of out-of-town tryouts, an acclaimed Off-Broadway run and finally a home at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, opening in February 2008, for almost three years. It was an ensemble show with no stars on stage or behind the scenes, and it was completely original, telling the story of a young man coming of age in Manhattan’s Washington Heights with its largely Dominican-American population. The competitors that year were Cry-Baby (a big musical from the creators of Hairspray)Passing Strange, a concert-style musical that both thrilled and confused audiences, and Xanadu, a very funny show based on a very bad movie. Ultimately, In the Heights nabbed not only won the Tony but for Best Musical, but was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

2007: Spring Awakening
Spring Awakening wasn’t an easy sell with audiences. Based on an obscure German play from the 1890s, the plot follows a group of teenagers dealing with sexuality, suicide, rape, abuse and abortion (not exactly light musical comedy). And it was also a rock musical of all things. But Duncan Sheik’s score not only resonated with audiences but also with Tony voters, who honored him with a Best Score award. And the show itself beat out against Disney powerhouse Mary Poppins and critical darling Grey Gardens for the Best Musical Tony. The cast may have had something to do with that: The show starred a pre-Glee Lea Michele, a pre-Pitch Perfect Skylar Astin and pre-Frozen Jonathan Groff. Spring Awakening played at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre until January 2009.

2006: Jersey Boys
If Beautiful takes home the Tony this year, it owes an awful lot to this hit, still running on Broadway. Musicals weaving in popular songs to tell an unrelated story (like Mamma Mia!) or the tale of the performer who made the songs famous (Lennon) were not knew to Broadway when Jersey Boys opened in November 2005. But the warts-and-all telling of the story behind the music to bring the origin — and rocky history — of The Four Seasons to the stage via their greatest hits worked. The show was the popular favorite on Tony night, beating out the competition of The Color PurpleThe Drowsy Chaperone and The Wedding SingerJersey Boysalso featured a career-making star performance by John Lloyd Young, who won the Tony for his role as Frankie Valli and will repeat it in the upcoming movie. 

2005: Monty Python’s Spamalot
Clever, ingenious and cheeky, Spamalot took an offbeat movie and gave it Broadway legs (the Times’ Ben Brantley called it “resplendently silly”). Audiences howled at the songs and script based on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It helped that Monty Python legend Eric Idle collaborated on the lyrics, score and book. And it was directed by none other than Mike Nichols, who has helmed countless successful Broadway shows as well as Oscar nominated films like The Graduate and Working Girl. Who doesn’t like to see naughty done right? On Tony night, the competitors were two other comedies (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) as well as The Light in the Piazza, a more traditional musical. The Monty Python farce won out, and went on to have a healthy Broadway run, closing in January 2009 (reportedly grossing $175 million).

2004: Avenue Q
The self-proclaimed “little musical that could,” Avenue Q pulled off one of the biggest coups in Broadway history. The puppet musical loosely based on a certain PBS children’s show (but with dirty words and adult situations), this original work tells an existential tale of a recent college grad trying to find his purpose in a confusing, big-city world. It took on mammoth hit Wicked Tony night, and against all odds it won the big prize. After a long run on Broadway, Avenue Q transferred to Off-Broadway’s New World Stages in 2009 and continues to delight audiences with its PG-13 musical fare. 

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