Special Tonys for Special People:And the Winner Is …

As we excitedly approach the

Tony Awards on June 3, few people realize that one Tony winner has already been


I refer to the 60 proud, manic

members of the marching band from Bloomington, Ind., whose mastery in motion of

the trombonium, the mellophone, the euphonium and the didgeridoo in Blast! on

Broadway has already won the first Special Tony Award in history.

But while we certainly don’t

begrudge the marching band that was born on athletic fields across the nation

its historic award from the Broadway community, we must ask a specially

important question.

What is a Special Tony?

Perhaps it’s too soon to tell.

But this seems to be the rule of thumb: A Special Tony is something so special

that no one can define it. A Special Tony fits into no previously known

theatrical category. If, for example, you happened to be strolling down Broadway

whistling “Dixie,” you too could win one, provided the Tony Award nominating

committee thought it was a good idea at the time. We can always rely on the

good old Tony Award folks to do the right thing.

The new award came about

because of last season’s Best Musical, Contact, which isn’t really a musical.

But those of us who timidly suggested that a musical that doesn’t have a score,

an orchestra or anyone singing can’t be a musical were declared legally insane.

Be that as it may, the Tony folks, wishing to avoid controversy, therefore

invented the Special Tony to cover all bases-including, it turns out, the

marching band based on the Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps that, in 1991,

won the coveted Drum Corps International Championship.

Though rousing marching-band

renditions of Leonard Bernstein’s “Gee, Officer Krupke!” and Ravel’s Bolero

have thus far been strangers to the Broadway stage, ours is not to reason why.

In fact, diligent research informs me that any man who underestimates the

drawing power of marching bands doesn’t know the difference between a piccolo

trumpet and a flugelhorn. The Bands of America newsletter, for example, is sent

out to 24,000 bandleaders of high school, junior high and middle school. Let’s

say that each band averages about 20 members. We now have 480,000 members of

school marching bands-excluding all college bands, all military bands and their

relatives. So, by my reckoning, we have at least 1.5 billion core fans of

marching bands in the United States alone. And those numbers are not chicken

feed, my friends. Those numbers are big, which begins with “B,” which rhymes

with “C,” right here, right here in River City.

Blast!, the half-time stadium

show that is playing on Broadway in the theater recently vacated by Miss

Saigon, is produced by Cook Group Incorporated, a global company that designs,

manufactures and markets diagnostic and minimally invasive surgical devices and

instruments. Playbill helpfully informs us that the company was the first to

mass-produce peripheral arterial-balloon-dilation catheters and

balloon-inflated coronary-artery stents. Indiana University School of Music

bears the Cook name, and their marching-band sponsorship is philanthropic, “a

life-changing positive experience.” In my modest opinion, only your typical New

York cynic would fail to be impressed by the life-changing contribution of

unicycle trombonists zooming round the stage as trumpets are hurled into the

air, or the touching flag-waving ballet version of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian

Spring to xylophones that is performed with the all the piety of Radio City

Music Hall’s annual recreation of the Nativity.

The director of Blast! is

named James Mason, an avid fly fisherman and painter who began his musical

career at age 7 playing the saxophone in band, and then the bugle in drum

corps. He marched with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps in 1975, which

won the World Championship, and he went on to become founding director of Star

of Indiana as well as a founder and director of the Drum Corps All Stars. So

Mr. Mason knows what he’s doing, even if we don’t.

So does Donnie Vandoren, the

associate producer who, I learn, has been involved in drum and bugle activity

for more than 35 years and was inducted into Star of Indiana’s Wall of Fame.

The only thing that troubles me a little about his legendary leadership as a

brass manager-developing several World Championship programs along the way-is

that Mr. Vandoren has become noted for his “relentless pursuit of perfection.”

As a rule, I do not care much for relentless pursuits of anything, let alone

excellence in brass performance. But having caught a recent matinee of Blast!,

I can certainly appreciate the dedication involved.

The average age of the

audience was about 12 that afternoon. As they say in marching band circles: Get

’em young. Hearing aids aren’t necessary, anyway. There was much to take in, as

the band-member graduates of such places as East Carolina University,

University of Kentucky, University of Central Florida and De Anza College,

Performing Arts, came marching exuberantly onstage in perfect synchronized

precision to prove that the nation’s educational resources are never misspent.

Dance itself didn’t appear at first sight to suit the strapping lads and lasses

who look like lads, for it is no simple task to dance like a Baryshnikov when

you’re blowing your brains out on a tuba.

I liked it best when everyone

started to run insanely in circles for no apparent reason, or better still,

jumped up and down as they marched to their own tune, which was entitled “Land

of Make Believe,” or “Medea,” or “Marimba Spiritual.” The virtuoso numbers

involved impressive flag-tossing displays, rifle-twirling, and more

flag-tossing. No one seemed to make a mistake, except just the once when a

twirler dropped a blurry baton. The shame! It was the equivalent of chewing in

class. But the twirler took it in stride.

There were feverish drumming

duels with karate kicks, comic crashing cymbals, green sprites and

fluorescent-stick twirls in darkness. At one high point, a trumpeter played

something solemn while suspended mid-air standing on a chair. Why mid-air? Why

a chair? Why not? As President Roosevelt says in Pearl Harbor, when he stands

up miraculously to swear vengeance on the dastardly Japs: “Do not tell me it

can’t be done!”

And all this was to the good,

as members of the company ventured out into the audience-having tired, perhaps,

of marching in circles-to blow on their Aboriginal didgeridoos and their

trombones and shake our hands. They’re thrilled to be on Broadway. Everyone

always is. But not everyone-not even Mel Brooks-takes home a Special Tony. Special Tonys for Special People:And the Winner Is …