The nominations for the Tony Awards, Broadway’s highest honor, were announced yesterday, the starting gun for a race that is considered one of the most wide open in years. Here’s what theater lovers will be debating and parsing until Sunday, June 9, when the awards will be doled out in a Radio City Music Hall ceremony, hosted by James Corden and aired on CBS-TV.
The three dozen or so nominators gave a tip of the hat to several risky productions, some of which were nurtured at nonprofit venues. “Hadestown,” developed at New York Theatre Workshop, topped all competitors with 14 nods, including Best Musical. Based on a 2010 concept album by Anaïs Mitchell, the musical, directed by Rachel Chavkin (“The Great Comet of 1812”), is a modern retelling of Orpheus’s descent into hell to rescue his beloved Eurydice. Having opened recently to rave reviews, “Hadestown” is now considered the frontrunner, though it may get some fierce competition for the top prize from “Tootsie” and “Ain’t Too Proud, The Temptations Musical.”
Even more radical among this season’s musicals is Daniel Fish’s production of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma,” which earned eight nominations and is a lock for Best Revival. It’s unlikely that the original creators ever envisioned that their stirring tribute to American optimism would be enhanced with video, miked scenes in blackouts, and dark shades of racism and deliberate lawlessness.
The big surprise was just how much love — seven nominations, including Best Play — was shown to “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” by downtown artist Taylor Mac and starring Nathan Lane, Julie White and Kristine Nielsen. Shakespeare’s bloodiest play ends with a stage littered with bodies and Mac has introduced a trio of misfits having to clean up the mess amid flatulence jokes, cannibalistic pie, gang rape, mutilation and rhyming couplets. The reviews were wildly mixed. Even the New York Times’s Jesse Green, otherwise positive, called it “a defiant and beautiful mess.” But now, with skin in the game, the show is likely to get a bounce in ticket sales, which have been lackluster. That it’s selling at all can probably be attributed to Broadway favorite Nathan Lane. His omission among the nominees caused some head-scratching, but it was a tough category. The list includes Jeff Daniels (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), Bryan Cranston (“Network”), Paddy Considine (“The Ferryman”) , Adam Driver (“Burn This”) and Jeremy Pope, who received double nominations for his performances in “Choir Boy” and “Ain’t Too Proud.”
The “Juke Box Musical” Keeps on Playing
A close runner-up in number of nominations to “Hadestown” is “Ain’t Too Proud,” the Temptations musical which garnered 12. The endorsement, not to mention the hot ticket sales, means that biographical musicals fashioned out of an existing songbook will continue to tempt producers. Upcoming shows about Tina Turner and Michael Jackson are part of the trend and this season also saw “The Cher Show,” towards which the nominators were parsimonious. They gave it only three nods, including one for Stephanie J. Block as the oldest of three Chers onstage, and another for Bob Mackie’s blindingly sequined costumes.
The Hollywood-Broadway Axis
Coming out of its Chicago tryout with a head of steam, “Tootsie” backed up its bonafides with 11 nominations. Based on the popular 1982 film starring Dustin Hoffman as a struggling actor who takes on a female identity, Dorothy Michaels, in order to work, the musical has top-shelf talent, including songwriter David Yazbek (“The Band’s Visit”), librettist Robert Horn, director Scott Ellis and star Santino Fontana — all of whom were nominated. Not too far behind with eight nominations is “Beetlejuice,” a late season entry which managed a deft turnaround after getting poor reviews out of town. This adaptation of the 1988 Tim Burton film about a ghoul who seeks to drive out unwelcome guests from a haunted home was initially slammed for its gross-out humor. But a sanitization coupled with an antic, often frenzied performance from Alex Brightman in the title role improved its fortunes to the tune of eight Tony nominations. Shut out by the nominators, however, was “Pretty Woman,” another film-to-stage transfer. And, in a reversal of the Hollywood-to-Broadway axis, producer Ryan Murphy recently announced that he intends to make a film version of the new musical “The Prom” for Netflix. Answering the common complaint that film adaptations eschew originality, “The Prom” — about a group of hammy Broadway stars who travel to the Midwest to fight homophobia — is not based on any source material and for its long-aborning pains earned seven nominations.
No Brexit With the Brits
From across the pond came three highly-welcomed productions: “The Ferryman,” “Ink” and “Network,” which were garlanded with nominations, although the latter, starring Bryan Cranston and based on the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film, failed to be included in the roster for Best Play. “The Ferryman,” Jez Butterworth’s drama about the Irish “troubles” in the time of Margaret Thatcher, led the honors directed to the non-musical sector with nine nominations. The six given to James Graham’s “Ink,” which opened just before the Tony deadline, reinforced the logistical wisdom of coming in late in the season when reviews and performances are fresh in the minds of the nominators. The electrifying drama, which ominously sketches the arrival of ruthless Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch to Britain, may well give “The Ferryman” a contest for Best Play. The media is equally excoriated in Ivo van Hove’s stirring adaptation of “Network,” which was nominated for five Tonys, including a nod for Cranston, who may be back on the podium after winning in 2014 for his portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in “All the Way.”
All Hail, Producer Scott Rudin
The striking news coming out of the nominations was that Aaron Sorkin’s new stage adaptation of the Harper Lee classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was not included among the Best Play contenders, though it otherwise matched “The Ferryman” with nine nominations. Speculation as to why quickly centered around the controversies that preceded its opening on Broadway: first, when lead producer Scott Rudin tangled with Harper Lee’s estate and then when he moved to protect the brand by closing down a couple of regional productions which were using the previous stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel. Were the nominators somehow penalizing the most powerful producer on Broadway who this season alone was represented by six other plays, including the innovative “Gary” and a controversial production of “King Lear”? If so, they didn’t take it out on the rest of his roster. The aggregate total of nominations that went to Rudin productions was an impressive 31, though “Lear” received only one, a featured actor nod for Ruth Wilson. An alternate theory was that the nominators may have felt the play was in the wrong category and should have been considered for Best Revival.
What Will the Tonys Telecast Look Like Post-Les Moonves?
Keenly watching the nominations were Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment, the veteran producers of the Tony Award telecast on CBS-TV. Ratings for the show have long trailed those of other award ceremonies, but the Tonys had a champion in theater lover Les Moonves, the former chairman and CEO of the network who resigned late last year under a cloud of scandal. The appeal of this year’s broadcast will lie with its popular host, James Corden, as well as familiar titles and bold-faced names dotting the season. You can expect dazzling numbers created around the brand names of Cher, The Temptations, “Beetlejuice,” “Tootsie,” “Oklahoma” and “King Kong” (which received three technical nominations). Even the shut-out “Pretty Woman” will no doubt be shoehorned in somehow. Expect that iconic red dress (redesigned by Gregg Barnes) to upstage whatever else is on display at that moment.
Top Image: Jewelle Blackman, Kay Trinidad and Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer in “Hadestown.” Photo: Matthew Murphy.