The annual “will/should” win predictions season is drawing to a close as Sunday’s Tony Awards nears. On Friday, the New York Times published its annual predictions based on interviews with selected Tony voters (there are 824). While the Tony awards focus only on a narrow collection of New York theatre offerings (plays and musicals that opened in theaters with more than 500 seats), it is still viewed as THE awards show for America’s theatre capitol. There are a number of other theatre-specific awards like the Village Voice’s Obies that focus on off-Broadway and a few inclusive awards, like the Drama Desk awards, that recognize outstanding achievement across all theatre venues and production circumstances.
But the Tonys are the only awards given national attention, partially due to CBS’s admirable commitment to broadcast the annual awards show in spite of the fact that the awards are still inherently a provincial New York event – most of the shows recognized will never be seen outside of the metropolitan area and those that do tour to major cities around the country usually do not bring the original cast with them. Touring musicals tend to reproduce the original production and frequently include major marquee stars (and sometimes some original cast members). Occasionally a particularly successful straight play tours under the guise of its original Broadway production, usually by the original producers. But more frequently, successful plays are the domain of respected regional theatres, given totally new productions.
This distinguishes the Tonys from its industry equivalents in film and television. The nominees for the Oscar and Emmy Awards are already in a broad public domain at the time of their respective awards shows and, not surprisingly, those shows draw far larger television audiences than their theatre brethren, even though commentators frequently find the Tony award shows much more engaging. The attraction of all of these awards shows is supposed to be the recognition of artists by their colleagues in the same art form (over the last 25 years a number of “consumer-based” award shows have emerged like the People’s Choice Awards).
However, each of these awards has their provincial qualities and each is distorted by economic- and self-interest. The politics of the Oscars are legendary and rather overt. Massive amounts of advertising and promotions take place once nominees are announced to secure votes for films, actors, and other principal contenders, not to mention the influence of studios, management agencies, and assorted other entities seeking financial gain rather colleague recognition. But even the most provincial of these awards, the Tonys, has its distortions. First, there are a mere 824 qualified voters. In addition to the expected representatives of various theatre crafts (actors, designers, directors, etc.), voters include other groups like press agents and casting directors. Until this year, the New York theatre critics were allowed to vote. The New York Times estimates that 15% of the voters are aligned with organizations responsible for touring shows outside of New York, suggesting that these voters may be guided more by future marketability than by artistic achievement.
So the annual “will/should” win lists are complicated. The “should win” category is simple. This is what the writer thinks is the most artistically deserving nominee (occasionally these lists include people who were not nominated but should have been in the opinion of the writer). On the other hand, the “will win” category is much more like laying odds in a horse race. Given all of the factors that play into the actual voting (and the extent to which the writer understands those factors), who is most likely to be recognized with an award?
In light of the amount of theatre I have seen this year (both Tony eligible and otherwise), I wish I had a better handle on the factors in the “will win” category. I just don’t travel in those circles and most of my predictions are based on my personal response to the show tempered by my somewhat limited knowledge of “how things work.” But like any good blogger, I cannot resist chiming in with my personal voting as well as taking a shot at prediction. [BTW – should you be interested in what the pros said in their “should and will” – NYT, Time Out, et al, thought — see a wonderful summary at www.stagegrade.com]
Best Play is a bit of a problem for me. While most of the critics list “War Horse” in their “will win” category (and I agree), there has been a lot of carping about the fact that the spectacular production overwhelms the script. These people say they wish there were a “Best Production of a Play” category so that the work of the playwright could be separated from the production (as is the case in the “Best Musical” category with awards for book and music as well as “Best Musical”). In fact, the Tony website describes this category as “Overall Production” and as such I have to go with “War Horse” as my “should win.” It was a very rare evening in the theatre.
“Good People” is a well-written and very well acted play with characters we can relate to and a spot-on performance by Frances McDormand. It could deservedly be the upset winner. Unfortunately, we saw “The Mother**ker with a Hat” at least 10 days before it opened and the acting was still a bit rough (and Chris Rock was SOOOO out of place), but it still came across as a very interesting relationships drama that focused on populations rarely portrayed in plays on Broadway. I have written previously about my take on “Jerusalem,” a play that is redeemed primarily by an extraordinary performance.
Best Musical: No one in his right mind would predict any winner other than “The Book of Mormon.” For me, though, the choice is much harder. I certainly enjoyed BoM and can fully appreciate the raves it has elicited from critics and audiences. I found it original, inventive, and pulled off with amazing aplomb. I had some problems with its point of view – rather than self-reflective (seeing ourselves in these characters), the writers opted for outright ridicule too frequently for me to identify with this show. But I’m in a minority. Fortunately, there were two great musicals this season; unfortunately, the other great musical folded after only six weeks. That does not diminish the achievement of “The Scottsboro Boys.” Here was a show that meant to unnerve its audience while drawing them into a point of view that was very self-reflective. A good score, a thoroughly talented cast, and absolutely inspired direction by Susan Stroman made this as moving an experience as “War Horse” for me.
One note: “Priscilla, Queen of Desert” was passed over for virtually every award (the nominators just could not ignore the costumes and Tony Sheldon’s moving performance). While I certainly would not have rated it as my top pick, I think it suffered from the expectation that would the Broadway show would have the same qualities as its cinematic predecessor; it doesn’t, but it is still fun (unlike the other two movie-to-stage adaptations: “Sister Act’ and “Catch Me If You Can.”)
Revival-Play: While much attention has been focused on the fact that this year every one of the nominated new plays is of winning caliber, it was also a banner year for revivals. Brian Bedford created a near-perfect production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and the only reason he will not win an award for his Lady Bracknel is that he allowed the Tony committee to classify his performance as a “lead.” “Merchant of Venice” was every bit as stimulating and insightful as the raves suggested. I would have included “Born Yesterday” and eliminated “Arcadia” from the nominees – the former a beautifully styled, if not completely successful period piece, the latter a misguided and blandly acted restaging of one of Tom Stoppard’s more challenging “idea plays.”
But for me, and I think for the voters, there is no competition with “The Normal Heart.” I went to this play out of obligation. I had seen the first touring production of this play in Los Angeles shortly after its highly acclaimed NY premiere at the Public Theater in NYC. At the time, I thought the play was too much polemic and too little play. Seeing this production was a revelation. Not only is this a profound and well-crafted play that shows the strengths and weaknesses of its central character in a way that defines activism, it is an extraordinary portrait of that truly anxiety-ridden time when a mysterious disease was emerging and nobody seemed to care. In retrospect, Mr. Kramer’s play was downright prophetic in its analysis and predications, but it is also a social drama that might be ranked with the best of Ibsen or Miller.
Revival-Musical: Another sure winner: “Anything Goes.” I’d have to agree with the professional predictors that it tops “How to Succeed,” although I thought Rob Ashford’s approach to this show (ultra early 60s) almost made reviving it worthwhile. “Anything Goes” was given yet another revised book that made it flow much better but still seemed lumpy and drawn out. But this show has a score that justifies a regular revivals and Kathleen Marshall directed the production with an emphasis on period style – a little too stylish for me, but thoroughly entertaining none-the-less.
Leading-Actor Play: The actor who redeemed “Jerusalem” (to coin a phrase) was Mark Rylance and as many commentators have noted, he gave not one, but two amazing performances this season (the other was in the revival of “La Bete”). Therefore he is hard to beat. I’d have to acknowledge that while I found the plays in both cases to be interesting but unsatisfying, Rylance’s performances were totally captivating. As I noted in an earlier post, experiencing his “Jerusalem” was like watching an endurance test with the world champ – not the sort of thing you see too often. However, there is a chance that Joe Mantello will be the upset winner for “The Normal Heart.” He gives a truly masterful performance as Larry Kramer’s portrait of himself in the years before AIDS had a name. This is an extraordinary production of this play that caught me by surprise and Mantello is at the heart of that not so normal heart.
Leading-Actress Play: There seems to be consensus that Frances McDormand will take this award and I would have no problem with that. It’s a role she was born to play, but she uses all of her frumpy sardonic resources on a character that just seems so real. But for me, the most brilliant performance by a woman was Nina Arianda in “Born Yesterday.” She took a stereotype dumb blond immortalized by another actress and made her into a study in transformation that was funny and moving.
Featured Actor Play: The predictions on this one are diverse. Given the excitement that “The Normal Heart” has generated, I think the likely winner will be John Benjamin Hickey who gives a low-key but heart-rending performance as Ned’s lover who dies of AIDS. It’s tough to make an impression on an audience when the other character in all of your scenes is constantly ranting with the energy of an exploding bomb, but Hickey succeeds. Mackenzie Cook as Rylance’s sidekick in “Jerusalem” and Yul Vasquez, the swishy (though straight) cousin in MFwHat are also given reasonable odds – but Hickey is my winner.
Featured Actress Play: Ellen Barkin gives one of those “best of career” performances in “The Normal Heart.” Most of the predictions are that she will win and if she does not, something went wrong in the ballot count.
Lead Actress-Musical: Another sure bet: Sutton Foster who makes “Anything Goes” go. She is a very talented lady and Kathleen Marshall’s production lets her show off all of those talents. Patina Miller does a great job with weak material as the would-be sister in “Sister Act.” [Note. I did not see two of the performances nominated in this category, Donna Murphy in “The People in the Picture” and Beth Leavel in “Baby It’s You.”]
Lead Actor-Musical: This is a very competitive category. So much so that Harry Potter, oops, Daniel Radcliffe did not even get nominated for a very good, if not entirely satisfying, portrayal of J. Pierpont Finch in “How to Succeed.” “The Book of Mormon” will likely sweep most of its categories, but the two male leads in this show are both nominated and could well cancel each other out. I think the likely winner will be Leo Norbert Butz who is the only aspect of “Catch Me If You Can” that comes close to being entertaining (although Aaron Tveit is wonderful in the lead; he just has a lot of silly and uninspired material to deliver). I was not as taken with Butz as other commentators, although he certainly proved himself as an old-fashioned song-and-dance man. My pick is Tony Sheldon as the transgender drag star-of-old in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Much like last year’s winner, Douglas Hodge in “La Cage Aux Folles,” Sheldon lets the audience see the world the way his character sees it and in the process brings those worlds closer together. Unfortunately, narrow minds will see too much similarity in the “La Cage” and “Priscilla” characters and that will work against Sheldon (imagine if this principle was applied to young romantic leads with beautiful voices; there might have been years that no one could win this award for fear of duplicating the previous year’s results).
Featured Actor-Musical: There is little question that John Larroquette is going to win this award partially because he carries off the role fairly well, but also because he is a very popular TV actor making his Broadway debut and the voters are likely to feel the show has to win something. For me, Coleman Domingo in “The Scottsboro Boys” was the key performance that embodied the unique Minstrel Show turned docudrama style of the show and caused the audience the most joy and discomfiture, a truly memorable performance.
Featured Actress-Musical: This category is probably the “most up for grabs” in the whole awards show. My guess is Laura Benanti is the likely winner. The critics seemed to think she was the highlight of “Women on the Verge a Nervous Breakdown;” I failed to see any highlights in this show, not even Patti Lupone’s predictable Act Two “Don’t Cry for Me” rip-off ballad that could get her this award. In was impressed by Tammy Blanchard as classic ingénue in “How to Succeed” and Victoria Clark was good in the thankless (and humorless) roles of the Mother Superior in “Sister Act.” But I would have to vote for Nikki M. James in “BoM.” She is saddled with playing the role I found most objectionable in “BoM”: the gullible African native who becomes captivated by “The Book” and acts as the go-between for the proselytizing Mormons and the “innocent natives.” If you can forget the underlying racism and jingoism inherent in the plot (and most people seem to think that is the show’s point), James’ performance provides the classic musical plot device in which a secondary character is responsible for the plays “happy” resolution. She pulls this off with no self-consciousness and lots of talent.
Direction-Play: Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe are the likely and deserving winners for “The Normal Heart.” However, since “War Horse” is the likely choice for best play because of its overall theatrical experience, if not best play, it is hard not to recognize Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. For me, this is a dead heat and rightly so. These two theatre experiences are so terribly different that it is unreasonable to distinguish between works at this level of accomplishment. BTW – the other two nominees were certainly praiseworthy (Anna D. Shapiro for “MFwHat” and Daniel Sullivan for a fascinating take on “The Merchant of Venice”).
Direction-Musical: Like the play directing category, I feel there are two equally deserving achievements in this category. Ironically, however, these two shows have startling similarities, at least in the outrageousness of their style. Susan Stroman embraces the “The Scottsboro Boys” core conceit – telling the story of one of the great miscarriages of justice in civil rights history in the form of a minstrel show performed by an (almost) all-black cast – with inventiveness, startling dance, and an unsettling truthfulness in every respect. Casey Nicholow and Trey Parker craft a satire with grossly exaggerated characters, offensive (but hysterical) humor, and a set of entertaining musical numbers into a stylish, almost traditional, musical that seems to entertain all types of theatre-goers (even Mormons!). Stroman is a well-established Broadway director; Nicholow, and Parker are new to this medium but their work does not suffer any loss for their lack of experience. My expectation is that Nicholow and Parker will win. BTW- Rob Ashford did a great job with the revival of “How to Succeed” (even if this show really did not need another revival) and in any other year, Kathleen Marshall would be a shoo-in for “Anything Goes,” even though I found it a little too smartly done.
Book and Music: I am half way through reading the first installment of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful commentary on his own lyrics in Finishing the Hat and he emphasizes the importance of, and the usual dismissal of, the book writer. As someone who has directed musicals with less-than-great books, I certainly have to second Mr. Sondheim’s observation and he should know since several of his shows are plagued with book problems. As much as I loved “The Scottsboro Boys,” I have to admit the book by David Thompson was its weakest link. It had difficulty balancing the shows in-your-face humor and Minstrel style with the necessary true story docudrama. I do not know what changes were made in the hit London version of “Sister Act” by Douglas Carter Beane for the Broadway, but what remains is silly and as much a distortion of the charm of it cinematic predecessor as “Catch Me If You Can,” which did not even get nominated.
The music category is a challenge. There is little doubt that “BoM” will win this category, although many believe the Kander and Ebb will win out of sentimentality – this being their last show before Ebb passed away (although there are rumors of others in the trunk). Frankly, I do not think it’s a matter of sentimentality. “The Scottsboro Boys” has a wonderful score with songs that inspire, elucidate, and entertain. There are several songs that sting and stimulate the listener like the ode to the electric chair sung to the youngest boy in jail or the production number about the “Jew lawyer.” Coincidentally, and in a totally different context, “BoM” is also full of satirical numbers that make the audience smile and grimace. And to their credit, Messrs.’ Parker, Lopez and Stone have created several homages to classic musicals within their score that is always fun, if not always as pointed as Lopez’s “Avenue Q,” one of my all-time favorite musicals.
Choreography: Another hotly contested category although I think the likely winner is Kathleen Marshall for “Anything Goes.” It’s hard to beat the panoply of styles represented in this show, especially a full company of tap-dancers. But for me, I thought both Stroman’s fluid story-telling dance and Rob Ashford’s work on “How to Succeed” were equally distinguished. I’d probably vote for Ashford, but only in light of my other raves for Stroman’s accomplishments.
Scene Design-Play: As the warning to designers goes, “if the audience leaves the show thinking about the scenery, you’re in trouble.” Todd Rosenthal’s set for “MFwHat” is very inventive, using turntables and trapped scenery to not only to define the several New York apartments in the script but also to consistently remind the audience of the confines of the world in which these characters live. Mark Wendland’s rotating wrought iron gallery for “Merchant of Venice” managed to maintain the unit set demands of Shakespeare’s physical theatre while giving the audience the sense of time and place so critical to making this play alive and relevant. I found Ultz’s (one name designer) English-park-with-trailer set for “Jerusalem” appropriate, but certainly not particularly inspired or enlightening. I guess life-sized trees impressed the nominators. But there is no way around the impact of “War Horse’s” physical production. It uses a Les Miz style structural set enhanced by the most effective projections that together give this production a cinematic feel that is inherently theatrical. It’s entirely appropriate that the Tony powers-that-be decided to give a special award to the Handspring Puppet Company for their extraordinary work on the horses (and assorted other creatures).
Scene Design-Musical: I was truly surprised but very pleased when I learned that Beowolf Boritt was nominated for “The Scottsboro Boys.” This show used a set of interlocking straight-back chairs and boards to create its various scenes with a simplicity that matched the black and white issues of the play. “Anything Goes” had a splendid ship, but there was little to distinguish this revival set from previous versions. I had seen “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” at the Public Theater last spring, so I did not see how Donyale Werle’s environmental set was transferred to the giant Shubert Theater. At the Public, the environmental design made you feel like you had walked into a 200 year old memorabilia shop and it set the perfect tone for the mixed bag of styles in the musical. But there is little doubt that Scott Pask is going to win for “The Book of Mormon.” His sets were very much a part of the fun (and the pointed pokes) of this musical satire with the Mormon Temple framing (figuratively and literally) the struggling African’s village.
Other Design: There is little question in my mind that Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner should win for their outlandish costumes for “Priscilla.” These costumes are meant to be a primary focus for the audience and they certainly get that focus. However, it’s altogether possible that Ann Roth (a Broadway veteran) will win for her white shirts and black ties (not to mention the demeaning stereotypical African garb) in “BoM.” Desmond Heeley’s “Earnest” costumes were as perfectly styled as the production (although I thought Algernon’s clothes made him a bit too flamboyant even for a Bumbriest). Catherine Zuber made the most of her early 1950s period style for “Born Yesterday,” especially the bold and sexy wardrobe for the lead. Jess Goldstein’s Edwardian costumes for “Merchant of Venice” were central to Daniel Sullivan’s vision for the play and never drew attention away from the play’s action and character development. In yet another tight race, I’d vote for Heeley’s “Earnest,” although I would note that Wilde’s play is a toy box for period designers.
In lighting design, Brian MacDevitt of “BoM” is the likely winner, although I felt Ken Billington’s evocative atmospheres for “The Scottsboro Boys” were particularly dramatic. “War Horse is so visual that Paule Constable is the deserving favorite for lighting of a play. However, Kenneth Posner’s work on “Merchant of Venice” was equally atmospheric, if less in the forefront of the experience.
There has been some discontent in the chat rooms and in the press about the selection of Neil Patrick Harris as the host for the show. It seems that his one previous gig as host has made him “old hat.” There was lots of buzz that Daniel Radcliffe would/should host – a sort of consolation prize for not being nominated, not to mention his potential power in promoting the telecast. Alas, we’ll have settle for one of his big production numbers, “The Brotherhood of Man.” We’re also going to see a number from N.Y. Philharmonic’s gala staged concert version of “Company” starring Neil Patrick Harris on the Tony show. Harris has Broadway credentials in addition to his TV gigs and his last Tony hosting went well – how many times did Bob Hope do the Oscars?
So, that’s my take on “should/will.” For years, I could only fill in my guesses for “will,” not having seen most of the nominated shows because I lived far from NYC. That handicap never made me less interested in Tony Awards shows. And I guess if you got this far in this long and somewhat self-indulgent essay, you will be glued to your TV as I will be when the Tony’s are awarded “down the block” from my current residence.