Tony nominees include daring, even oddball, subjects for musicals

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- It's been a swell season for Broadway musicals. Not only did an impressive 11 new musicals open, but two of the leading contenders for top honors at tonight's Tony Awards ceremony are as unconventional as they are seemingly uncommercial.

Consider the source material alone. Spring Awakening, widely regarded as the frontrunner for best musical, is an adaptation of a formerly banned 19th-century German play about adolescent sexual angst.

Grey Gardens, based on a 1975 documentary, focuses on two of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' reclusive, eccentric relatives, who shared their run-down East Hampton mansion with rabid raccoons and more than four dozen cats.

Furthermore, the creators of both shows have taken bold liberties with their sources, grafting new material onto proven products. In Spring Awakening, composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist / librettist Steven Sater pair a modern rock score with German playwright Frank Wedekind's period play. And in Grey Gardens, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) has crafted a first act that takes place three decades before the documentary.

Granted, these daringly artistic shows got their start on more adventuresome stages off-Broadway. But the fact that both transferred to Broadway, where they've not only stirred up audience interest, but a passel of Tony nominations -- 11 for Spring Awakening and 10 for Grey Gardens -- speaks well for the broadening tastes of the Great White Way.

Here's a closer look.

Awakening'

Along with the risque subject matter, the presentational style of Spring Awakening is audacious. As Sater explains in the notes to the CD, the show's songs don't advance the plot the way songs do in traditional musicals. Instead, they are interior monologues, windows into the adolescent brain.

Most of the actors wear hand-held microphones concealed in their jackets. When their feelings threaten to overwhelm them, they pull out the mikes and vent their emotions in song. No wonder so many young people identify with this musical. Not only are the characters their age, but who hasn't felt like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, acting out fantasies of rock stardom?

So, when Jonathan Groff's Melchior becomes infuriated at his teacher's treatment of a friend, Melchior belts out a defiant, "All That's Known" ("You watch me -- / Just watch me ... And one day all will know.") And when the friend, Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.), is overwhelmed with confusing sexual stirrings, he launches into "The Bitch of Living" and is quickly joined by his equally unsettled classmates.

In the frenzied production number that results, the boys leap on or roll off chairs and in one case, even climb the walls (OK, a ladder on the wall). All the while, the gap between adults and adolescents is accentuated by the teacher's frozen obliviousness. The highly stylized choreography is by MacArthur "genius" grant recipient Bill T. Jones, in his Broadway debut; the crisp direction is by former Marylander Michael Mayer. Both are nominated for Tonys.

The show's central intertwined stories concern the tragic outcome of Moritz's growing despair, and Melchior's relationship with a girl named Wendla (Lea Michele), whose pleas to have her mother teach her about sex go unanswered, to the girl's peril.

Indeed, so much of this musical is about the dangers of repression that the young people's musical outbursts form the perfect antithesis -- wild, unfettered expressions of inner turmoil and longing that even the strictest constraints cannot curb.

And, even a century-plus after Wedekind put pen to paper, the topics he explored -- including incest, masturbation and abortion -- can make the prudish squirm. But that's partly the point. Although the final number seems a bit too optimistic, Spring Awakening is a cautionary tale. It was when Wedekind wrote it in 1891, and it still is today.

Gardens'

The movie Grey Gardens is at least as eccentric a source for a musical as the pair of eccentric, down-at-heel aristocrats it is about. Though ostensibly part of a trend of movies adapted into musicals, Albert and David Maysles' 1975 cult documentary would not seem the most natural vehicle.

But composer Scott Frankel recognized something inherently musical in the material -- Edith Bouvier Beale (Jackie O's aunt) saw herself as a chanteuse in her youth, and her daughter, "Little" Edie Beale, engages in a fair amount of dancing, and even marching, in the film.

The next stroke of inspiration was beginning this account of mother-daughter co-dependency nearly 30 years before the documentary. Act One of Wright's script shows the two Edies in their prime. Their East Hampton mansion is as glamorous as the setting for a Cole Porter musical or a Noel Coward play as Big Edie makes the final preparations for a party celebrating her daughter's engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr.

Then it all turns sour, and the engagement breaks up. Just how sour is revealed in Act Two when we see the magnificent mansion transformed into the ramshackle wreck captured in the Maysles' movie (the set is by Allen Moyer). There are even projections (by Wendall K. Harrington) of roaming cats and marauding raccoons.

But most ingenious of all is the double casting of Christine Ebersole as Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second. Ebersole -- who should win the Tony for her tour-de-force portrayals -- delivers too nuanced a performance to allow this casting to suggest that mother and daughter are the same. What she shows instead are the similarities between the two and, most important, their inescapable bond.

The second act is also populated with ghosts of the supporting characters from the first -- little cousins Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier; Big Edie's stern father; and George Gould Strong, the gay songwriter Big Edie turned into a kept man. In a way, the two Edies are also ghosts of their younger selves. But at the same time, the musical, like the movie, portrays them as such vibrant, independent individuals, they earn our fascination, not our pity.

Set in what becomes a haunted house, this entire musical -- which has lyrics by Michael Korie, direction by Michael Grief and choreography by Jeff Calhoun -- is haunting. Its melodies, its images (complete with Little Edie's bizarre second-act fashion statements, re-created by William Ivey Long) and, especially, its underlying sentiments, get under your skin and linger.

For the record, Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens share the best musical category with two much more traditional musicals -- Disney's Mary Poppins and Curtains, a backstage murder mystery that was one of the final collaborations between John Kander and the late Fred Ebb.

Like the Beales, however, this year's best musical award will dance away from convention and honor the idiosyncratic. Count on it to be a spring awakening.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

For video footage, song excerpts from Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening, and a full list of Tony nominees, go to baltimoresun.com / tonys

Select Tony Awards nominees

Musical

Curtains, Grey Gardens, Mary Poppins, Spring Awakening.

Play

The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard; Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan; The Little Dog Laughed, Douglas Carter Beane; Radio Golf, August Wilson.

Revival, musical

The Apple Tree, A Chorus Line, Company, 110 in the Shade.

Revival, play

Inherit the Wind, Journey's End, Talk Radio, Translations.

Book (musical)

Curtains, Rupert Holmes and Peter Stone; Grey Gardens, Doug Wright; Legally Blonde The Musical, Heather Hach; Spring Awakening, Steven Sater.

Original score (music and/or lyrics)

Curtains (music: John Kander; lyrics: Fred Ebb, John Kander and Rupert Holmes); Grey Gardens (music: Scott Frankel; lyrics: Michael Korie); Legally Blonde The Musical (music and lyrics: Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin); Spring Awakening (music: Duncan Sheik; lyrics: Steven Sater).

Best actor, musical

Michael Cerveris, LoveMusik; Raul Esparza, Company; Jonathan Groff, Spring Awakening; Gavin Lee, Mary Poppins; David Hyde Pierce, Curtains.

Best actress, musical

Laura Bell Bundy, Legally Blonde The Musical; Christine Ebersole, Grey Gardens; Audra McDonald, 110 in the Shade; Debra Monk, Curtains; Donna Murphy, LoveMusik.

Actor, play

Boyd Gaines, Journey's End; Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon; Brian F. O'Byrne, The Coast of Utopia; Christopher Plummer, Inherit the Wind; Liev Schreiber, Talk Radio.

Actress, play

Eve Best, A Moon for the Misbegotten; Swoosie Kurtz, Heartbreak House; Angela Lansbury, Deuce; Vanessa Redgrave, The Year of Magical Thinking; Julie White, The Little Dog Laughed.

Direction, musical

John Doyle, Company; Scott Ellis, Curtains; Michael Greif, Grey Gardens; Michael Mayer, Spring Awakening.

Direction, play

Michael Grandage, Frost/Nixon; David Grindley, Journey's End; Jack O'Brien, The Coast of Utopia; Melly Still, Coram Boy.

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