Oscar vs. Tony: A Race of Show Vehicles

Music and musical theater are getting a strong hearing in this year’s Oscars race. From Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cameo-loaded “tick…tick…Boom!” to Steven Spielberg’s remastered “West Side Story,” the Academy Awards have gotten so showy that moviegoers might start expecting playbills and intermissions.

I sure needed an intermission for “Drive My Car,” that Japanese import clocking in at three hours and one of 10 best picture nominees this year. Although it’s not a musical, it borrows heavily from the theater. It’s the saga of a stage actor-director tasked with directing a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at a theater festival in Hiroshima soon after the death of his wife. Four-time Oscar-winning “Driving Miss Daisy” it’s not, but we witness Mr. Kafuku studiously internalizing the lines of the play while in transit, and — when the theater company insists on assigning him a driver because of a fatal accident that occurred in bygone days — his young driver, Misaki, is also transformed by hearing the work over and over again. Any devotee of theater would devour this film as the ultimate life-imitates-art vehicle.

A momentary detour: Who could miss the parallels between these “Drive My Car” scenes and the Oscar-nominated animation feature “Shang Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings,” in which Katy (Awkwafina) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) make their living as valets? Katy, a daredevil driver, is tasked late in the film with driving the gang through an enchanted forest that’s hell-bent on swallowing them up.

If I were Billy Crystal trying to frame an opening number for the Oscars, I’d capitalize on this chauffeur-charged theme, somehow hitching it to the famous truck scene in “Licorice Pizza,” in which Alana is behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler, driving BACKWARDS, with soulmate Gary (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s real-life son, Cooper) egging her on.

Piling on with the behind-the-wheel vignettes this awards season is the live-action short “Ala Kachuu – Take and Run,” about a Kyrgyz woman with higher-ed aspirations who is kidnapped into marriage. Without giving too much away, the scene in which her equally independent-minded mentor teaches her to drive proves a most valuable life lesson.

But back to this post’s driving theme: how live theater, aka Tony, has merged into this year’s Oscar lane. Are we Broadway-bound or in La-La Land?

Among best picture nominees with songs at their heart, besides “West Side Story,” is “CODA,” about a girl who is the only hearing person in her family who listens to her inner voice to pursue a career in singing, by way of her high school show choir. Lots of gleeful (and tearful) moments. (Ed: In music, a “coda” is a passage that brings a piece or a movement to an end. But this one I didn’t want to end.)

Prancing through the costume design category is “Cyrano,” a de facto, if lackluster, musical. “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage showcases his stunted four- or five-note range in a score that, frankly, bores to tears. Skip it, if you can. But don’t dare miss Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magic as he showcases his connections and MT chops in both “tick…tick…Boom! and “Encanto.”

Do any of these showtune-fueled flicks have a chance of winning? Let’s harken back to that tragi-comic moment at the end of the 2017 Academy Awards telecast when the producers of “La La Land” were giving their acceptance speeches for best picture before the show-stopping realization that Warren Beatty had announced the wrong winner? (Cue “Moonlight.”)

A “La La Land” win would have been plausible, because Americans do dig their movie musicals. If you also dig lists, check this out: At least 132 movie musicals — including so-called jukebox musicals — have won some sort of Oscar over the years, starting with 1929’s “The Broadway Melody” (Outstanding Picture award) and most recently 2017’s “Coco,” which won both for animated feature film and for original song, “Remember Me” — which bodes well for “Encanto.”

Closely aligned with jukebox musicals this year are those movies that celebrate and elevate karaoke to an art form. (Any musical theater nerd is known to practice karaoke devoutly.) Katy and Shang in “Shang Chi” blow off steam by hitting the karaoke bars after work — to viewers’ and listeners’ delight. And the tender-hearted live-action short from Denmark, “On My Mind,” is about a man driven to sing Elvis’ version of “Always on My Mind” as if on a life-or-death mission. Although this man-vs.-machine saga has slim chance of winning, if you have 18 minutes to spare, it’s gorgeous and well worth your time — and will leave you with an endearing earworm. (Lead actor Rasmus Hammerich does all his own singing; bartender Camilla Bendix is also blisteringly authentic, down to her makeup.) Showing here:

The curtain rises, in just four short nights …

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