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8 Reasons Why The Gilded Age Needs a Musical Episode

Our pitch to Julian Fellowes and the show's writers.
  • Photo: HBO
    Photo: HBO

    If you've wondered how it is that HBO's The Gilded Age seems to feature every Tony-nominated Broadway star of the last 20 years, you needn't look any further than the show's opening credits. When Bernard Telsey is the casting director, theatre stars follow. Or, in the case of The Gilded Age, an entire chorus line of Broadway luminaries. The new series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes premiered last week with an ensemble cast that collectively boasts a whopping 21 Tony Awards and 39 nominations.

    Yet despite all that pedigree, not a single character sings. At least not yet. There’s extensive dialect work and period-appropriate bon mots to spare, but no belting maids or crooning aristocrats. At best this seems a missed opportunity. But it doesn't have to be! Assuming The Gilded Age gets a second season, it’s not too late to plan a musical episode. If Grey’s Anatomy can do it, so can The Gilded Age. And just in case Lord Fellowes isn't aware of the kind of talent he's got all trussed up in corsets and hats, we've taken the liberty of assembling his cast’s audition reel:

    Christine Baranski (Agnes van Rhijn)

    Baranski has two Tony Awards, both for straight dramas. But she frequently finds occasion to sing out, from a plethora of movie musicals (Mamma Mia!, Into the Woods, Chicago, et al.) to 2020’s virtual Sondheim celebration, where she performed a trio version of “The Ladies Who Lunch” alongside Gilded Age (and The Good Fight!) co-star Audra McDonald and the mother of another Gilded Age co-star. Here, Baranski’s majesty is in full force as she toasts fellow Sardonic Queen Lauren Bacall with a song from Applause, the musical adaptation of All About Eve.

    As for Agnes, she isn’t a driving character so much as a constant majestic presence. She’s mostly at home, but that doesn’t stop her from, in true Baranski fashion, wearing the hell out of some statement jewelry. There’s no point in doing a Gilded Age musical episode without a Baranski moment, so cue: a rapid-fire and delightful patter song. Among Agnes’s pastimes is letter dictating (of course it is). What happens when Agnes spouts off tongue twister names and alliterative anecdotes to a quill-equipped Peggy? Character actress comedy!

    Denée Benton (Peggy Scott)

    Benton, previously seen on the small screen on Lifetime’s UnREAL, marked her Broadway debut with a Tony-nominated turn in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 before going on to play Eliza in Hamilton. A highlight of the former was Natasha’s “I Want” aria of sorts: “No One Else” (above). Benton’s soprano and heady mix float beautifully through composer Dave Malloy’s score, conveying joy, longing, and optimism.

    In The Gilded Age, we’re building to the reveal of a big, terrible secret that Peggy’s hiding. And for someone who doesn’t want to spill, she sure likes making it clear there’s something to spill. But when that moment finally comes and all is out in the open, Peggy should absolutely sing about it. Imagine “Agatha All Along”, but with period clothing and wigs.

    Kelli O’Hara (Aurora Fane)

    Aurora is concerned about a nameless new music venue threatening to overshadow the Academy of Music (it’s the Metropolitan Opera —just say it’s the Metropolitan Opera). Perhaps Aurora should throw a function to rally support for the old-money establishment. And perhaps the entertainment she hired — some Academy starlet — doesn’t show. And perhaps Aurora decides to save the day at her own event. That’s right, a diegetic musical number!

    O’Hara, in addition to being a bona fide Broadway star, has appeared in two Met productions herself: The Merry Widow and, as seen above, Così fan tutte. If any Gilded Age character were to know Mozart repertoire, it’d be Aurora — so kudos, Bernie Telsey. Perhaps O’Hara can show off her soprano skills. For the sake of the Academy.

    Audra McDonald (Dorothy Scott)

    A mother-daughter duet between Peggy and Dorothy would be nice, but that alone would be a huge disservice to McDonald’s talents. In fact, if it weren’t for McDonald, the show’s cast would have a mere 15 Tonys instead of 21. Give Dorothy a solo about letting her daughter pursue her own passions instead of continuing her father’s legacy. Let her sing about what she was up against as a Black piano prodigy. Honestly, just let her sing whatever the 19th century equivalent of the phonebook is.

    Of McDonald’s myriad vocal triumphs available on YouTube, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to spotlight the historic “Ladies in Red” portion of the New York Philharmonic’s celebration of Sondheim’s 80th birthday, where the Tony winner sang “The Glamorous Life” from (the movie version of) A Little Night Music. Catch Gilded Age co-star Donna Murphy in red behind her. Elaine Stritch and Marin Mazzie are no longer with us, but if Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone don’t show up in The Gilded Age eventually, we riot.

    Donna Murphy as Mrs. Astor

    Mrs. Astor’s company is what Park Avenue elites covet most, which is entirely understandable if they’ve heard her belt. Give her a show-stopper that breaks down exactly what makes a social gathering one worth attending. And let it straddle the line between regality and brass — the balance that makes Murphy’s timbre so unique, as heard in her portrayal of Follies’ Phyllis Rogers Stone above.

    Mrs. Astor is a bit of an elusive figure, and unfortunately, that means Murphy is — at least for now — severely underused. Which would make a song (and dance) all the more memorable.

    Debra Monk as Armstrong

    It’s strange that, starting out, the closest thing this show has to a proper antagonist is… Debra Monk as a racist maid. She deserves more, the audience deserves more, Peggy Scott certainly deserves more. But here we are, and if everyone’s singing, Deb shouldn’t be left out. Grant her a redemption solo in which she comes to understand the error of her ways. You know it’d be jazzy. And deeply problematic.

    Speaking of jazzy and problematic, this clip was not chosen for its similarly bizarre racial insensitivities (or whatever you’d call Debra Monk doing Flamenco shtick), but rather for her impeccable physical comedy and gleeful descent into full-blown Ethel Merman madness (she snaps at 02:12). Did this performance earn Monk Tony and Drama Desk nominations? You know it did. Is that Drama Desk nomination certificate hanging on a wall in this writer’s apartment? Long story, but yes.

    Michael Cerveris, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Douglas Sills, and Patrick Page (Watson, Bruce, Baudin, and Clay)

    “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum might be a bit on the nose. Still, the staff at the Russell house is comprised of several musical notables, potentially setting the scene for a delightful ensemble number. Michael Cerveris’ Watson might be no-nonsense, but surely he has some feelings bottled up that can’t be expressed any other way than through song. That’s just what Cerveris masters in this performance of “Marry Me a Little” from Company. (Yes, it’s another Sondheim clip. Get over it.)

    Throw in Celia Keenan-Bolger’s childlike charm, Patrick Page’s booming bass-baritone, and Douglas Sills in a toque and French accent and we’ve got a hit.

    Jeanne Tripplehorn (Sylvia Chamberlain)

    The Emmy nominee may not have quite the Broadway bonafides shared by so many of her Gilded Age colleagues, but Tripplehorn did start her career on the stage. And she can sing… sort of. Here she is, inexplicably singing a Rolling Stones cover with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder — and even more inexplicably, as Julie Andrews. Okay, it’s less “singing” and more “melodic speaking with a vague Mid-Atlantic accent,” but is that not the true spirit of The Gilded Age?

    Cast aside from the social scene due to some not-to-be-uttered scandal, Sylvia is often kept company by her immaculate painting collection than by other women. Julie Andrews singing about art? We already know it works.

    And that’s just the tip of The Gilded Age’s singing iceberg. We also have Claybourne Elder! Katie Finneran! A heavily accented Nathan Lane! Let them sing out already!

    The Gilded Age airs Monday nights on HBO and HBO Max at 9:00 PM ET.

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    Ryan McPhee is a culture writer and editor who specializes in theatre and the culinary arts. Follow him on Twitter at @rdmcphee.

    TOPICS: The Gilded Age, Audra McDonald, Christine Baranski, Debra Monk, Denée Benton, Donna Murphy, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Kelli O'Hara