20-Day Countdown! The Top 20 Tony Performances of My Lifetime: #4: THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, 1998

Four days until the Tony Awards! We are at #4 on my 20-day Countdown of the Top 20 Tony Performances of My Lifetime.

The number four slot goes to an unlikely candidate, since the usually utterly ridiculous Frank Wildhorn has proven that even the darkest, most-intense shows are unworthy of anything but heartfelt belted love ballad after heartfelt belted love ballad.  But sometimes the passionate belted ballad pays off.  In today's case, it does.  Enter Douglas Sills, the man who -- yes, indeed, is STILL holding out that end note! -- can make any mundane thing into something fantastic, and you've got yourself an on-again/off-again version of the lukewarm Scarlet Pimpernel.

The show was standard Wildhorn.  When it gets to the point where someone can hear any random song and say, “That sounds like a Frank Wildhorn ballad," then you know your writing style has fallen into a predictable pattern.  But still, this show sparkles, even if not with self-awareness.  And luckily, in this performance, you get only the wonderful men and not the nearly unlistenable, wobbly, uncontrolled vibrato of Christine Andreas (How they chose her over the workshopped-cast choice of Carolee Carmello -- see yesterday's Parade if you need proof -- is just beyond me!), so that helps make this performance a true keeper.

The show opened in October 1997, in true Frank Wildhorn fashion, which is to say unfinished and unpolished and had to undergo several revisions throughout its run.  But with Douglas Sills, who won a Theatre World Award for Best Broadway Debut Performance and was nominated for the Best Actor Tony, and the-utterly-perfect-in-everything-he-ever-touches Terrence Mann, the original cast (minus Christine Andreas!) couldn't be beat.  The show was swiftly a victim of rapidly falling ticket sales, however, and it was slated to close before the Tonys, until some Frankophiles decided to give it another shot at another theater with a new cast (big mistake to get rid of Terrence Mann, people!) and a revised script, so it opened again in October 1998.  After changing-in three more leads (this time even getting rid of the perfect Douglas Sills, WTF?) and rewriting the show again (Jekyll & Hyde redux, anyone?), another version of it opened up at another theater in September 1999, then closed less than four months later.  And after all this, if you ask me, the first version with Sills and Mann is still the best, even though we finally got Carolee Carmello back on the third try.  Sigh.  (Read that as: There are multiple cast recordings of this musical, but the Original 1998 Broadway Cast Recording is the only one you need.)  And, like Frank Wildhorn's two previous shows to this point, Jekyll & Hyde and The Civil War (Who even remembers that show?  I saw it at the Fox Theater in Detroit!), the show closed having lost money.  The Scarlet Pimpernel was nominated for three Tony Awards, but I doubt that poor Wildhorn will ever win one.  When all your shows close without making money, you don't tend to be an academy favorite.

But the show has some seriously glorious moments, like the one I'm about to show you.  And with this show and the classic 1776 revival competing in the same year, I think everyone was left feeling a little bit 18th-century nostalgic at this awards show.  So button up your breeches, fluff some ruffles at your chin, and whatever you do, hold out until that long note at the end!  It's worth it just to see where Douglas Sills keeps all that air!

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