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The Tony Robbery

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OK, let’s not beat about the bush: Matilda was robbed at this year’s Tony Awards on Sunday of the nod for Best Musical. And no, this isn’t a case of misplaced national pride, nor just a matter of my personal opinion, but simple fact.

I’m always saying that there’s no right and wrong in theatre criticism, as it is always a matter of opinion, but awards are something different: they’re arrived at not by opinion but by coercion and rigorous lobbying. And that’s partly because, at least with the Tony for Best Musical, they uniquely matter: it’s affords the winning show a branding that they it can celebrate both inside New York – and far beyond it, affecting the show’s commercial touring prospects directly.

As trade paper Variety noted in its report of the award results, the new musical trophy is “generally considered the only Tony Award that moves the needle at the box office”.

The live telecast, of course,  also helps – and Matilda did put in a good showing there, too, with the New York Times TV review of the telecast by Neil Genzlinger declaring, “If that show’s number didn’t produce an instant spike in ticket sales, there’s no hope for the theater.”

But Matilda lost the bigger prize of the Tony for Best Musical to Kinky Boots, an American-originated musical based on a 2005 British indie film, which similarly stars a man in drag in one of its lead roles, and led the New York Times critic Charles Isherwood to wryly comment on the paper’s live blog of the awards ceremony when the stars of both shows went head-to-head (or heel-to-heel) in the contest for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, “Here’s the drag-off … And it goes to the one wearing sequins.” So once again, Kinky Boots triumphed over Matilda, with the latter’s Bertie Carvel losing to Billy Porter; and Matilda’s London-based Australian composer Tim Minchin lost the award for Best Original Score to Cyndi Lauper for Kinky Boots, too.

But as I wrote in my weekly Sunday Express column when I reviewed both Matilda and Kinky Boots back in April,

Kinky Boots has been gently sanitised, like a cross between La Cage Aux Folles, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Hairspray, but not as gritty as any of them. Cyndi Lauper’s amiable pop disco score is fun, but Matilda is more genuinely subversive.

Perhaps Broadway and the all-important road that follows prefer the softer option of Kinky Boots, but the critics, myself included, obviously don’t. In his review for the New York Times when Matilda opened, Ben Brantley had dubbed it, “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”

And when he returned to write again about the production a month later, he wrote,

In a season when Broadway often seemed to be losing its mind and its mojo, the wisest advice came from a 5-year-old: “If you’re stuck in your story and want to get out/You don’t have to cry and you don’t have to shout!” Those calming words were uttered — or sung, to be exact — by the title character and all-conquering hero of Matilda the Musical… “

He goes on to quote another set of lyrics from Matilda’s mother, Mrs Wormwood: “The less you have to sell, the harder you sell it.” And: “What you know matters less/Than the volume with which what you don’t know’s expressed.”

And those words echo in the differences in the Tony campaigns waged by Kinky Boots and Matilda. As Michael Riedel noted in the New York Post last week,

Fearing a British backlash, the producers of Matilda, which comes from London, haven’t waged an aggressive Tony campaign. They may regret that.

Kinky Boots, on the other hand, has been relentless. Leading the parade is Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book. He’s been talking up his musical everywhere. He even showed up at the Brooklyn Diner to accept one of the season’s more unusual awards, a 15-bite hot dog. Since the stunt came on the heels of Anthony Weiner’s first day campaigning for mayor, photos of Fierstein agog at his special wiener were all over the place. Shameless, old-school p.r. nonsense — but fun and effective.

I’ll be analysing some more of the Tony results in this week’s print edition of The Stage. But for now, I’m sad for Matilda – but not surprised.

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