Monday, April 17, 2023

When the "Best" Isn't Your "Favorite": Thoroughly Modern Millie vs Urinetown

When the "Best Musical" Isn't Your "Favorite":

Thoroughly Modern Millie vs Urinetown

It was the 2001-2002 season, and we were all still recovering from the shocking tragedy of 9/11. We were all looking for laughs and comfort, and Broadway was providing just that. That season, there were three big shows, all funny, all song and dance. As it all shook out in the long-run, Mamma Mia! ran for years even if it went home Tony-less. The other two shared in the Tony glory and had respectable runs: Thoroughly Modern Millie (903 performances) was crowned Best Musical, while Urinetown (965 performances) took home the triple crown of Best Book, Score and Direction. For months, pundits argued, "how could one have the best book, best score and best director, and not be the best musical?" No matter. It's all history, now.

While I will always have an affectionate spot in my heart, Mamma Mia! is a sugary treat and my go-to for comfort food theater. As for the other two, that year's Best Musical, was my least favorite of the whole season, while the runner-up is still one of my all-time favorites.

I can appreciate Millie, after all it made a star out of Sutton Foster, one of my favorite performers. The principal cast included some other greats including Gavin Creel, Marc Kudisch, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Harriet Harris. There were also some fantastic ensemblists, too; you may have heard of Anne L. Nathan, T. Oliver Reed, Kate Baldwin, JoAnn M. Hunter, and a guy named Casey Nicholaw

The dances, choreographed by Rob Ashford were splashy, tap dance and old school musical theater, jazz infused numbers. There were also new songs written for the score by Jeanine Tesori. Again, no slouches there.

Of course, a great deal of Millie would not pass muster today. It's cringe-worthy for its blatant sexism, and it's absolutely insane that even then, its overt racism involving Asian stereotypes played for laughs wasn't called out. Will this ever be revived? Not as originally scripted for certain.

No, that season's Best Musical was not my Favorite Musical. That honor goes to Urinetown. Why? Well, I love shows that push the boundaries of the art form. Okay, in this case it was more of a nudge than a push, but progress was made. Despite the profuse silliness of the entire premise, it still had something to say about capitalism, policing, gender expectation, and class warfare. I like my laughs with a side of meaning. Then, there was the reverence for musical theater history, with its nods to West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and others in its staging and choreography (by Tony-winner John Rando and John Carrafa, respectively). The environmental scenery was by a newbie you may have heard of, Scott Pask, who transformed the entirety of the Henry Miller's Theatre, inside and out into a dystopian (tongue in cheek) Hell-scape, from the leaky roof all the way down to the basement bathrooms. (Amazing how a show that sings about the privilege to pee makes you have to go at intermission - there was even a line for the men's room! It was there that they had free souvenirs: a series of postcards!

It was a battle of the Fosters that year: Sutton led Millie; her brother Hunter Foster, was the lead actor in Urinetown. He was a hilarious triple-threat. Other standouts included the always wonderful John Cullum, Jeff McCarthy, Spencer Kayden, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Ken Jennings (Sweeney Todd's original Tobias), and Nancy Opel. They even had several great replacements, including Carolee Carmello, Amy Spanger, Charles Shaughnessy, Tom Cavanagh and Victoria Clark.

The score, though, is probably my favorite part of the whole thing - I still, more than 20 years later, listen to the cast recording. Some of Greg Kotis (music) and Mark Hollmann 's (lyrics) gems include "It's a Privilege To Pee," "Cop Song," "Snuff That Girl," the rousing numbers, "Run Freedom Run" and "I See a River," and my favorite of them all, "Don't Be the Bunny." If you've never heard the score, I highly recommend that you get yourself a copy. And if you have heard it, I suggest you dust off your copy and revisit it. I think it really holds up.

Now, how about a revival? It seems as relevant as ever.

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