But turn that frown upside down, put Game of Thrones and Mad Men on temporary hold (they are rerun), and let the 67th Annual Tony Awards razzle dazzle you tonight. I have my differences with the organization–relegating the design honors to a cameo appearance irritates me no end years later, and perhaps there’s no satisfying way to excerpt or encapsulate the nominated plays, thin as the crop was this season. Still, unlike most televised awards shows, it’s fun. This year’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the hugely popular Motown the Musical (what else could it be?) left Tony nominators sitting on their hands, yet any one of its high-energy numbers (59 songs!), shorn of hitmaker Berry Gordy’s barely functional book, should make for great TV. (It doesn’t make for a bad show, either; think of the Supremes parts as an answer to Dreamgirls, with the rest signed, sealed, and delivering decent guest impersonations of Smokey Robinson, young Michael Jackson, and the rest of the roster.)
Seeing the shows beforehand does of course give you more of a rooting interest in the award outcomes, and here’s a ballot for following along. It’s unneccessary, however. Pull up a chair, enjoy some great stage performers strutting their stuff, and jot down a few shows for your next New York visit or to see on tour.
As everyone likes a winner, however, here’s a few contests to watch for.
Best Musical brings two short-lived movies-into-musicals used to round out the category, and two more competitive British imports, Matilda (pictured) and…well, OK, Kinky Boots isn’t a British import, though it retains the UK setting of the glummer 2005 film, which struck me as odd, given how successfully the similar Full Monty musical was Americanized. Similar, and better; the Harvey Fierstein/Cyndi Lauper confection has its charms, notably some of her songs, yet it’s almost completely derivative, and its leading “lady,” Billy Porter, pushes too hard to be both fierce and ingratiating. Which isn’t to say I liked Matilda any more–the cast album, which gives Tim Minchin’s excellent lyrics a fairer hearing, was for me a far more pleasant experience than the cacaphonous production, a stuffed-to-the-gills “entertainment” that works in fits and starts, mostly when not trying to wow us. (It’s so English musical that way.) With no dog in this hunt (and neither show doing boffo, Book of Mormon business) I predict the family-friendlier, easier to tour Matilda the winner…and wish David Byrne/Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love had made it to Broadway instead.
Best Musical Revival: Diane Paulus’ incredible, circus-set Pippin is the talk of the town. A reworking, and a rethinking; “revival” isn’t a strong enough word. The show to see right now. Paulus, who revivified Hair and Porgy and Bess, should cinch Best Direction of a Musical.
Lead Actress in a Musical must be the incredible Patina Miller in Pippin, working those Fosse-ish moves down to the core of her being…but I hear Laura Osnes’ Cinderella has the glass slippers this year. Valisia LeKae is fun as Diana Ross in Motown, too, particularly in an audience participation bit that I can’t believe Ross ever did in real life.
Annaleigh Ashford is the most winning element of Kinky Boots, with a delightful number all her own. Yet Featured Actress in a Musical is the great Andrea Martin’s to lose. A performer I’ve loved since SCTV here passes into legend, and as her scene concluded I stood up, tears in my eyes, and applauded. One of the greats (pictured). Sorry, Featured Actors in a Musical, none of you really ring the bell, though Will Chase was amusingly two-faced in the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a show brought back pretty much how I saw it in the mid-80s.
Lead Actor in a Musical is kind of a blah category for me this year, too. It’s between the two “wo-men,” the effortful Porter and the gimmicky Bertie Carvel, whose songs I tend to skip on the Matilda CD. Grating…yet I thought he must be some UK veteran I had never heard of before, only to find that he’s 35 and has appeared on Sherlock and Doctor Who. Could’ve fooled me.
Best Play: Another snooze. Last season’s Jewish issues plays, Other Desert Cities and The Lyons, were a lot more fun and bracing than Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties, which doesn’t hang in the memory. Tom Hanks and a skilled production give Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy a heft it otherwise lacks. The Testament of Mary was one no one wanted to hear; it closed before I could see it, and probably claimed a slot better filled by Douglas Carter Beane’s uneven, ambitious The Nance. Which leaves Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and not by default; it’s great fun, Durang is more than deserving, and it’s always good to see a comedy win.
I’d love to see Amy Morton bring home a Tony for Lead Actress in a Play for Virginia Woolf?, in an unusual interpretation of Martha that works. But I suspect sentiment will reward Cicely Tyson for The Trip to Bountiful. True, she lapses into drawing audience sympathy for her and not her character, yet she has us in the palm of her hand from her entrance. And the show was a superb choice for a “non-traditional” production, one also graced by the gifted Condola Rashad, my choice for Featured Actress in a Play. (Judith Light won just last season, playing a harder version of her Assembled Parties character in Other Desert Cities.)
Lead Actor in a Play is the contest of the night. Will the Tony go to movie star making an assured theatrical debut? (Tom Hanks, Lucky Guy.) A theatre legend in a brilliant dramatic performance? (Nathan Lane, The Nance.) A great writer wowing us with his onstage chops in his Broadway debut? (Tracy Letts, Virginia Woolf?) David Hyde Pierce being fall down funny in Vanya? Or…the other guy, the one who leapt on couches in a vain attempt to keep us lucid during the dud revival of the lifeless Orphans, the one where nodding-off audiences looked like bobbleheads? (Tom Sturridge.) Not him. Hanks has the edge (how are you going to win a Grammy, Tom, for EGOT status?) yet Lane and Letts were simply shattering this season. (And Pierce has the most side-splitting scene.)
Featured Actor in a Play should go to Richard Kind, whose cutthroat Hollywood bigwig is the best thing about Clifford Odets’ off-to-the-glue-factory The Big Knife, a play much better served by Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film adaptation. (Danny Burstein and Tony Shalhoub, of the life-giving encore of Odets’ Golden Boy, likely cancel each other out.) My guess is that the fine Courtney B. Vance will ride Hanks’ coattails and emerge a lucky guy himself.
Virginia Woolf? won’t return to the bar empty-handed, however. Pam McKinnon is a first-rate director of Edward Albee, and should win for Direction of a Play, though its closing months ago leaves it at a disadvantage. This would I believe be the first time two women directors have won since 1997, when Julie Taymor (The Lion King) and Garry Hynes (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) were the first two women ever to win in those categories.
The Strangest Contest of the Night: Lighting designer Kenneth Posner (Kinky Boots), Kenneth Posner (Pippin), and Kenneth Posner (Cinderella) vs. Hugh Vanstone (Matilda). How’d that happen? In a not-great season for musicals, Posner lit three of the best received, and Vanstone the other. I’ve interviewed them both, they do great work, and if Vanstone doesn’t break the Posner knot, the LD should win for his enchanting circus lighting for Pippin.
Best Score: Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots, who has a home court advantage over Minchin;
Book of a Musical: Dennis Kelly, Matilda, over Fierstein.
Choreography: Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots.
Orchestrations: Chris Nightingale, Matilda.
Sound Design of a Play: Leon Rothenberg, The Nance (pictured)
Sound Design of a Musical: Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm, Pippin.
Scenic Design of a Play: John Lee Beatty, The Nance.
Scenic Design of a Musical: Rob Howell, Matilda.
Costume Design of a Play: Catherine Zuber, Golden Boy.
Costume Design of a Musical: Gregg Barnes, Kinky Boots.
Lighting Design of a Play: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Lucky Guy.
Break a leg, Neil Patrick Harris! I’ll return with a scorecard and comments later tonight.