Friday, June 10, 2016

Dramaturgy vs. Dialogue

With the Tony Awards coming up on Sunday, I thought I'd clear up a question that seems to be confusing a lot of people. Specifically the matter of why Hamilton is eligible for the award for best book of a musical. The confusion stems from the fact that people read "book," are told it means "script," and immediately think "dialogue." Hamilton, being almost entirely sung, has minimal spoken dialogue, and so logic dictates that its "book" should really be considered as "lyrics," which are covered under the award for best score. (Which is also flawed -- it should really be two separate awards for music and lyrics, as the Drama Desk awards do. I assume the reason it isn't done is because the one year they tried it, Stephen Sondheim won both awards for Company.)

But the book of a musical is not just the dialogue. It also concerns the pacing, the dramatic structure, and the plot itself if original, and the adaptation from the source if not. In this sense, Hamilton should be considered for its book, as should Les Miserables and Evita and other sung-through musicals -- or even operas. Verdi himself adapted the libretto for his opera Simon Boccanegra, adapting it from a previously existing play. But while Verdi's is the drama, the actual words Piave's to whom Verdi gave the prose drama he had adapted to be turned into poetry for setting as an opera. In this case, I would argue that Verdi and Piave may both be considered the librettists for Simon Boccanegra. Verdi plotted out the scenes, the structure, and the pacing, and Piave wrote the words.

It is easy to conceive of a playwright who can come up with marvelous plots and execute them fantastically, but fails in writing natural dialogue. At the same time, it is not hard to imagine a playwright who excels in writing witty and entertaining dialogue, but fails in pacing and structure. Obviously the best playwrights are good at both, I think it makes sense to distinguish between the two skill sets, and it wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea for playwrights to pull a Verdi/Piave and collaborate with one on structure, and one on script. It therefore might be prudent to eliminate the Tony Award for best book of a musical, and replace it with two awards, one for best dramaturgy of a musical -- for which Hamilton would be eligible -- and one for best dialogue of a musical -- for which Hamilton would not be eligible.

You'll notice I left the Tony Awards for plays alone, even though this is something that is significantly more relevant to theater sans singing. The reason for this is that there is no Tony Award for best script of a play. It is assumed that the award for best play goes to the play with the best script, and therefore the best playwright. But best musical doesn't go by default to whatever show wins two out of three from best book, best score, and best direction. Best musical (theoretically) goes to the musical in the season with the best cross-section of all production elements. This includes dialogue, dramaturgy, music, lyrics, sets, costumes, choreography, lighting, and so on and so forth. Very often the musical that wins best musical is not the same musical that wins best book or score. And that should be the case as well for plays. Best play goes to the play with the best cross-section of all production elements, and there is introduced a new award for best script of a play -- or two, for best dramaturgy and best dialogue.

My last scruple with the Tony Awards (which I have to hastily insert here as it didn't insert naturally earlier) deals with orchestrations. I am of the opinion that for a new musical, with an original score, the award for best score should include orchestrations by default. Therefore, Lin-Manuel Miranda should not be the sole nominee for best score, but him and Alexander Lacamoire. A separate award for orchestrations should be considered for revivals and other musicals which use previously existing music, and other such cases where the songs had already been written, but the orchestrations of those songs differ from the original. But then, based on the fact that The Visit was not even nominated for orchestrations has me suspicious as to whether or not the Tony judges know what orchestrations are.

But at least dramaturgy and dialogue should be easier to distinguish.

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