Like any other award given to popular art, the Tonys can be divisive. The awards, handed out by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League, honor a select number of American theatre performances — productions must take place within the eligibility period (roughly, the Broadway season that runs from June to April) and in a Broadway house, which is defined not by location but by size (a theatre must have 500 seats or more). Considering the limited number of eligible productions, the small nominating committee of 42 theatre professionals, and the continuous commercialization of Broadway productions, it’s understandable that many critics see the Tony not as a respectable award but rather as an internal marketing tactic.
This year’s nominations were surprisingly lacking in Hollywood bold-faced names. While Catherine Zeta-Jones, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, and Denzel Washington have all picked up awards in recent years, only one A-lister was honored with a nomination this year: Tom Hanks, who made his Broadway debut in Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy. Passed over for nods were Alec Baldwin, Sigourney Weaver, Scarlett Johansson, Bette Midler, Jessica Chastain, and Al Pacino. Plenty of former television actors, like David Hyde Pearce, Judith Light, Tony Shalhoub, and Laurie Metcalf, received nominations, but all of them have become know for their serious stage work in the last decade. (Light, best known for her starring role on Who’s the Boss, earned her third consecutive nomination this year and won her first Tony last year.) It’s a nice change, as Hollywood’s infiltration of New York theatre is loved by producers hoping the recognizable names on marquees will bring in the casual theatregoer eager for the chance to see a celebrity in real life, while the hardworking New York theatre professionals find the trend, albeit near-silently, repugnant.
Another trend nearly ignored by the Tony committee this year was the proliferation of solo shows. There were four productions carried by a single performer this season: Ann, in which Holland Taylor portrayed Texas governor Ann Richards (a monologue she also wrote herself); The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin’s play centered on the mother of Jesus, delivered with ferocity by Irish actress Fiona Shaw; Alan Cumming’s one-man Macbeth, which the Tony winner performed in the context of a mental institution; and I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, in which Bette Midler returned to Broadway for the first time in 30 years to portray the infamous Hollywood agent. Except for Taylor’s acting nomination and The Testament of Mary’s nod for Best Play and two technical awards, the four solo performances were shut out of the race. The biggest surprise is the lack of a nomination for Midler, whose 90-minute performance may not have required the toughest work (she sits on a couch — in a muumuu, no less — for its entirety), but is perhaps one of the more believable (and, more importantly, entertaining) portrayals of the season.
The four solo performances have the star power, of course, to fill seats (well, except for The Testament of Mary, which will close prematurely this weekend; the news of its closing was announced the same day it received its three Tony nominations), and the other nominated plays (those that are still open, at least) also have the benefit of famous cast members. Broadway’s offering of straight plays often includes recognizable movie stars in an effort to grab the attention of celeb-hungry audiences, as the majority of theatregoers flock to the musicals. After all, “Broadway” is synonymous with musicals, and it’s those flashy production numbers that perhaps bring in the most viewers when the ceremony are broadcast live in June.
It’s interesting, then, that only five of the eight nominated musicals are still open — The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a revival, ended its limited engagement at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 space last month, and A Christmas Story and Bring It On, both nominated for Best Musical, closed last fall. The remaining nominees — fan favorites Pippin, Annie, and Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, as well as the new productions Kinky Boots and Matilda — will likely continue to bring in theatre patrons for months and earn extended runs. With the latter two musicals vying for the most awards (they received 13 and 12 nominations each, respectively), the narrative surrounding this year’s Tony Awards will be focused on which grand musical production will win the top honors.
The underlying plot, however, is the revived interest in the seasoned performers and writers who have been making great theatre for decades — veteran writers Christopher Durang and Harvey Fierstein; Chicago-based Steppenwolf ensemble members Tracy Letts and Amy Morton — as well as up-and-coming musical theatre elite (Pippin’s Patina Miller, Kinky Boots’s Stark Sands and Annaleigh Ashford, Cinderella’s Laura Osnes, and A Christmas Story scribes Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Hollywood’s expats might be invading, but it’s the New York theatre pros who have the staying power on Broadway.