Showy? Rich? Nu­anced? What vot­ers con­sider


The world isn’t a mer­i­toc­racy, the prize doesn’t al­ways go to the most de­serv­ing and Vin­cent van Gogh isn’t the only artist to have gone to his grave un­her­alded.

Awards can con­ceal but not erad­i­cate their es­sen­tial ar­bi­trari­ness. Still, noth­ing con­cen­trates the mind quite like the spec­ta­cle of stars glam­orously gath­ered for the priv­i­lege of hav­ing a se­lect few in­vid­i­ously sin­gled out while the un­cho­sen smile oh-so-sin­cerely for the cam­eras.

The Tony Awards, which will be doled out on Sun­day, have a few con­tests that are too close to call. But rather than sim­ply spec­u­late on which capri­cious way the vot­ing might go, I thought it might be pro­duc­tive to ref lect on the kinds of de­ci­sions Tony vot­ers have faced in de­ter­min­ing this year’s win­ners.

For mu­si­cal, the race is largely be­tween “An Amer­i­can in Paris” and “Fun Home,” each of which re­ceived 12 nom­i­na­tions, the most of any pro­duc­tion. (“Some­thing Rot­ten!” could

play a spoiler role, though the odds of this giddy back­stage mu­si­cal set in Shake­speare’s cut­throat era cap­tur­ing this most lu­cra­tive of awards are long.)

A dance mu­si­cal based on the Os­car-win­ning film star­ring a dash­ing Gene Kelly, “An Amer­i­can in Paris” has cer­tain built-in ad­van­tages. It is a vis­ually daz­zling ro­man­tic crowd­pleaser, set aloft on fas­ci­nat­ing Gersh­win rhythms and drip­ping in baby boomer nos­tal­gia. More to the point, it’s do­ing killer busi­ness at the box of­fice, a de­tail that hasn’t es­caped out-of-town Tony vot­ers look­ing for a share of the tour­ing jack­pot.

“Fun Home,” writ­ten by com­poser Jea­nine Te­sori and play­wright Lisa Kron, is made of sterner stuff. The show, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic mem­oir, cen­ters on a les­bian car­toon­ist who combs through her past to shed light on the mys­tery of her clos­eted gay fa­ther’s ap­par­ent sui­cide. Although en­livened by hu­mor and a few sprightly num­bers, this mu­si­cal drama grap­ples with the se­crets and lies, the com­pro­mises and com­plic­i­ties, of fam­ily life.

No one, in short, leaves the theater tap-danc­ing back to New Jer­sey. Dis­cern­ing the­ater­go­ers, how­ever, will be haunted by the work’s del­i­cate com­plex­ity. Whether this dra­matic rich­ness is enough to over­come the showier, mon­ey­mak­ing charms of “An Amer­i­can in Paris” re­mains to be seen.

One sign will be whether the di­rect­ing award goes to Sam Gold for “Fun Home” or Christo­pher Wheeldon for “An Amer­i­can in Paris.” Gold, who elicited the kind of mul­ti­lay­ered per­for­mance from his cast nor­mally found in ma­jor dra­mas, would be my choice. But Bartlett Sher (“The King and I”) and Casey Ni­cholaw (“Some­thing Rot­ten!”) also did in­com­pa­ra­ble work — in­com­pa­ra­ble be­ing le mot juste for a cat­e­gory crammed with un­matched win­ners.

“The Cu­ri­ous In­ci­dent of the Dog in the Night-Time” ap­pears to have a lock on the best play award. A crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess, it is gal­lop­ing to the win­ner’s cir­cle with the speed of “War Horse.” And like that fel­low Bri­tish awards-mag­net, its de­sign and di­rec­tion are far more in­ge­nious than its script.

Per­haps my def­i­ni­tion of “play” is too nar­row, but “Cu­ri­ous In­ci­dent,” adapted from Mark Had­don’s novel by Simon Stephens, doesn’t seem all that im­pres­sive as a work of dra­matic lit­er­a­ture. If this were the sole cri­te­rion, the hands-down choice would be Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning “Dis­graced.” Nick Payne’s boldly in­ven­tive “Con­stel­la­tions” is un­ac­count­ably not in the run­ning, hav­ing been passed over for “Hand to God,” Robert Askins’ pitch-black com­edy about a trou­bled ado­les­cent con­trolled by a de­mon sock pup­pet, and “Wolf Hall,” Mike Poul­ton and Hi­lary Man­tel’s marathon drama­ti­za­tion of her Booker Prize-win­ning nov­els.

Tony vot­ers don’t seem to mind rec­og­niz­ing an out­stand­ing dra­matic pro­duc­tion with the best play award, though vot­ers in the fu­ture might want to con­sider that the di­rect­ing and de­sign prizes are a more ap­pro­pri­ate way of hon­or­ing ex­cel­lence in stage­craft. Play­writ­ing de­serves an ac­co­lade all its own.

The act­ing races are where things re­ally get juicy. Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara are run­ning neck and neck in the lead actress in a mu­si­cal cat­e­gory. And this con­test, which pits su­per­charged the­atri­cal ex­u­ber­ance against dra­matic care, har­mony and dis­cre­tion, has turned out to be an emo­tional roller coaster for th­ese di­vas’ die-hard fans.

Chenoweth’s spark plug vir­tu­os­ity is on splen­dif­er­ous dis­play in “On the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury.” She plays the glam­orously imp­ish Lily Gar­land, who is be­ing ag­gres­sively ca­joled by an old paramour, a theater im­pre­sario down on his luck, to re­turn to the stage while rid­ing a train bound for New York with her lat­est boy toy. It’s a role Chenoweth was born to play — and she never lets you for­get it.

O’Hara brings a ra­di­ant pathos and dig­nity to her por­trayal of Anna Leonowens, the wid­owed teacher who goes to Bangkok with her son to ed­u­cate the King’s many chil­dren and ends up chan­nel­ing the monarch’s pas­sion for her into com­pas­sion for his peo­ple and sym­pa­thy for demo­cratic fair play. It’s a dif­fi­cult part to make work in the 21st cen­tury — the mu­si­cal’s Orien- tal­ism can­not be over­looked — but O’Hara’s gen­tle soul­ful­ness al­lows us to ap­pre­ci­ate the time­less beauty of this Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein fa­vorite.

Will the vot­ers go with lus­cious over­state­ment or grace­ful un­der­state­ment? Does a flam­boy­ant role in a sec­ond-tier yet re­lent­lessly ef­fer­ves­cent mu­si­cal have the edge over a less f lashy part in a beloved yet po­lit­i­cally prob­lem­atic clas­sic? Does the fact that Chenoweth al­ready has a Tony (for her fea­tured per­for­mance in “Char­lie Brown”) sway things in fa­vor of O’Hara, one of the great Broad­way lead­ing ladies who has yet to win a Tony de­spite mul­ti­ple nom­i­na­tions? Th­ese are mat­ters that no rule book can sort out.

Less com­pli­cated is the ques­tion of whether it is bet­ter to give the Tony to a new­comer fresh out of Juil­liard (Alex Sharp) or a movie star earnestly testing his met­tle (Bradley Cooper) in the lead ac­tor in a play con­test. Sharp’s ag­ile per­for­mance in “Cu­ri­ous In­ci­dent” is clearly the more de­serv­ing. If some vot­ers balk at the idea of be­stow­ing this pres­ti­gious honor to an un­known mak­ing his Broad­way de­but, oth­ers will want to val­i­date an hon­est por­trait of a char­ac­ter with Asperger’s syn­drome that has been largely met with grat­i­tude by the autism com­mu­nity. Still, no one would be shocked if Steven Boyer (“Hand to God”), Bill Nighy (“Sky­light”) or Ben Miles (“Wolf Hall”) were called to the podium. A case could be made for each of th­ese three. (Cooper’s cham­pi­ons have a tougher chal­lenge.)

He­len Mir­ren, nom­i­nated twice be­fore, will likely pick up her first Tony, best­ing her com­pa­tri­ots Ruth Wil­son (“Con­stel­la­tions”) and Carey Mul­li­gan (“Sky­light”), both of whom were lu­mi­nous this sea­son. Loy­alty of­ten tips the bal­ance. Dame He­len is not only a muchloved vet­eran, but she’s play­ing a char­ac­ter in “The Au­di­ence” for which she has al­ready earned an Os­car and cin­e­matic im­mor­tal­ity. Who could deny this nat­u­rally re- gal actress this bonus trib­ute?

Th­ese are the kinds of per­fectly ex­cus­able ra­tio­nales vot­ers are likely to half-con­sciously em­ploy. What would be in­ex­cus­able is Michael Cerveris not re­ceiv­ing the Tony for his lead per­for­mance in “Fun Home.”

The debonair dancer Robert Fairchild has been feted for his el­e­gant turn in “An Amer­i­can in Paris,” but Cerveris’ fas­ci­nat­ingly mer­cu­rial por­trait of a fa­ther un­able to come to terms with his iden­tity is a dra­matic por­trait so psy­cho­log­i­cally acute it could have been con­sid­ered in the lead per­for­mance in a play cat­e­gory as well.

Cerveris has al­ready won through the un­com­pro­mis­ing truth of his work. But this is an in­stance in which proper grat­i­tude needs to be shown. The Tonys, like all awards, have a capri­cious spirit. But lim­its must be set if we’re still to take them se­ri­ously.

An­gela Ster­ling Broad­way ’s Palace Theatre


stars in the mu­si­cal “An Amer­i­can in Paris,” which has re­ceived 12 nom­i­na­tions.

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