AND THE WINNER SHOULD BE…
Our theater writer dishes on who is really Tony-worthy this year.
FOR 10 OR SO YEARS, I was a Tony Award voter—a privilege that I took seriously. Very seriously. My choices weren’t always in sync with those of my fellow voters (members of the press, producers and industry insiders), but that was OK: I voted as I saw fit. Now, as an interested theatergoer free of all Tony obligations, I judge a Broadway play or musical not only on the basis of its artistic merits but also on how much bang for the buck it delivers. So, as the awards gala on June 11 at Radio City Music Hall nears, let me put on my Tony voter hat again. These are the shows and artists that, I believe, should win a Tony. More importantly, these are the shows and artists from the 2016–17 season that—win, lose or draw—deserve your time and dime.
But first, an observation. When the Tony nominations were announced on May 2, shock waves of disappointment could be felt from one end of the Theater District to the other. My main beefs? The total absence of recognition for “A Bronx Tale” and the dismissal of “Anastasia” and “Bandstand” with only two nods each. These are musicals with proven crowd appeal (standing ovations at every performance) and songs that, in a melodically unmemorable season, audiences walk out humming. They should have been contenders.
Those shows that are in the running for Best Musical—“Come From Away,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Groundhog Day” and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” (with the season’s longest title and most nominations, 12)—are a mixed bag. This category usually draws the greatest attention, and certainly there is something for every theatergoer in this year’s nominees.
“The Great Comet,” a sweeping, romantic spectacle derived from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” makes capital of its literary credentials. “Groundhog Day” is a clever, fast-paced adaptation of a popular movie, featuring a magnetic performance by Andy Karl that puts him in the first rank of leading men. Karl should take home the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. Millennials, if not always their elders (like me), enthusiastically embrace “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Great White Way’s first social-media musical.
As to “Come From Away,” it is the sleeper hit of the season. Fluidly staged, economic in its construction and consummately performed, the show is an unlikely musical. The plot follows planeloads of travelers, who are rerouted on 9/11 to a remote part of Canada, where they pick up the pieces of their lives with the help of sympathetic and generous locals. The authors have based their characters on real-life people, focusing the narrative perhaps too narrowly on obvious stereotypes among the stranded passengers—the bickering gay couple, the rabbi, the Muslim, the romantic middle-aged twosome, the first female captain of a U. S. airline. But the cumulative effect is a resounding and joyous affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit. By the finale, the theater is awash in feel-good tears. This show gets my vote.
So does Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” in spite of fierce competition from “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” “Indecent” and “Oslo” in the Best Play category. Rarely does elitist Broadway hold the mirror up to how the other half— America’s working class—lives. “Sweat” is that wake-up call: a realistic, gut-wrenching, no-holds-barred, compassionate look at how Pennsylvania factory workers fall victim to circumstances beyond their control. Nottage’s dialogue crackles as delivered by an exemplary cast, whose work proves that the time is long overdue for the Tonys to initiate an award for Best Ensemble. Until then, Michelle Wilson and Johanna Day have been singled out from the cast and are up against each other for Best Featured Actress in a Play honors. If it were up to me, they would share the award. Inexplicably, Kate Whoriskey, the play’s peerless coordinator, has been denied a Best Director nom. Shame on the nominating committee.
In life, two things are certain: death and taxes. On Broadway, there is a third certainty: Bette Midler. The Divine Miss M is a shoo-in to win the 2017 Tony as Best Actress in a Musical for her turn in “Hello, Dolly!” Thanks to reams of critical acclaim, an outpouring of public affection and millions of dollars generated in ticket sales, the wind is beneath her wings. She will ascend to Mount Olympus on Tony night.
(From top) Jenn Colella and the cast of “Come From Away;” Andy Karl in “Groundhog Day;” Michelle Wilson (standing) and Johanna Day in “Sweat.”