In spite of not having either an original score or any live vocals, this odd but brilliant dance piece won the ‘Best Musical’ Tony in 2000, sparking a wave of controversy that may seem confusing if you don’t know much about the mindset of most Broadway critics. It’s interesting to note that, while I’ve never heard anyone seriously suggest that this is a bad piece, many of the Broadway intelligentsia have taken a strong irrational dislike to it.
This is, in the larger scheme, because they resent it for challenging the pedantic genre boundaries they like to obsess over, and more specifically, because most of them were outraged when this piece that doesn’t meet their arbitrary criteria for a ‘musical’ wound up winning an award for ‘Best Musical’ at the theater’s most prestigious awards ceremony.
Of course, this debate is just as big a waste of time as the endless haggling over whether this work or that work is an ‘opera’ or a ‘musical’. I’d argue that the quality of a work matters far more than what genre it technically falls into. After all, this is exactly how new genres are invented in the first place…by breaking the rules of genre convention. Remember that many people refused to acknowledge Wagner’s music dramas as ‘operas’ at the time because of their lack of traditional arias and recitative, a debate that is now totally forgotten because all the people who cared about the distinction are dead.
Contact is an utterly one-of-a-kind work that does not fit neatly into any established genre, which I’d argue should be considered an enormous point in its favor, rather than a reason to resent and demean it. And in terms of structure, it actually does bear a strong resemblance to a musical apart from its lack of live singing: the first of its three acts contains only one line of dialogue, but the next two are basically plays with dance breaks. And if Saturday Night Fever can be a ‘musical’ movie (as virtually everyone seems to agree that it is), why should this near-equivalent work on stage be denied that title?
The first entry is an acrobatic swing routine, followed by a poignant sequence based largely on stately ballet. The third act, which takes up the entire second half of the show, is the most interesting. Called “The Girl in the Yellow Dress”, it begins with a bitterly comic scene where a man tries repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to kill himself, followed by a string of sizzling Swing dances and closing out the show with a life-affirming message.
Even the curtain call features memorable dancing, an ensemble number for the entire cast to Van Morrison’s “Moondance”. The choreography is eye-popping throughout…Susan Stroman had already made a fairly impressive name for herself as a choreographer, but this is the show that really established her as one of the all-time geniuses of musical-theater staging and dance. And the cast of dancers were uniformly superb, especially Charlotte D’amboise in the second act and Deborah Yates in the key role of “The Girl In the Yellow Dress” in the third.
And if you do consider Contact a musical, then there is no question that it was the best one of the season. For one thing, while I will never support the ‘Broadway is Dead’ sentiment, the art form was experiencing a bit of a lull at the time. The Nineties brought their share of wonderful shows, but the second half of the decade was a bit thin, with both Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber having done their last top-drawer shows in ’94 and ’95, respectively.
And 1999-2000 in particular was a weak season, coming as it did just before The Producers came along to revitalize the genre. The only other music-based stage piece of any kind to really score a hit that year was the Elton John/Tim Rice Aida. Meanwhile, the closest thing to critical successes among that year’s shows were two enraged avant-garde tirades by Michael John Lachiusa which were, perhaps understandably, absolutely hated by most mainstream audiences.
It would be easy to compare this Tony race to the one at the beginning of the previous decade, where the worst season in Broadway history had resulted in a Tony for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. But that decision was the result of genuine desperation, whereas I imagine Contact‘s victory was largely the result of the voters simply not caring very much about the technicalities of genre barriers. And I can understand their logic, especially since this brilliance piece didn’t fit any more neatly into any of the other standard categories, and they certainly had to give it some kind of award. Musical or not, this is one of the best things to play Broadway in the last twenty years, and if you care enough about the debate regarding its genre credentials to ignore its genius, then frankly I pity you.