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Not Just Another Tony Year

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Another year, another Tony Awards. Except it’s not just another year for me. For the first time in at least 15 sun orbits, I have not seen every Broadway show of the season. That’s because the Drama Desk tightened its rules for eligibility, and my gig here at BwayTunes was no longer enough to qualify me for membership. As being a Drama Desk voter required me to see not only every Broadway show but also as many off- and off-off-Broadway shows as I could, it has meant a sizeable drop in my theatregoing. I went from attending nearly 100 shows to a little fewer than 25. Of course, that 100 was already a reduction from my days as theatre editor and head theatre critic for Backstage, when I would see as many as 250 shows in a season (and was also a Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award voter).

I confess I don’t miss the volume or the voting. Going to the theatre only when I want to has been a blessing, though it’s not so easy on the pocketbook, while deciding between two or more different but equally worthy efforts just for the sake of choosing was never fun. I prefer noncompetitive awards saluting excellence, such as the Obie and Theatre World awards.

However, not seeing all the nominated shows does make Tony prognostication harder. In recognition of that fact, I have eliminated the “should have been nominated” category, except in two instances in which I felt that an artist should have not only been nominated but should win the category as well. Both of those cases involve the musical revue Prince of Broadway, which was egregiously denied any nominations at all. For my money it should have been tapped in the categories I’m looking at here for Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical (Emily Skinner and Bryonha Marie Parham), Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical (Tony Yazbeck), Best Orchestrations (Jason Robert Brown), Best Choreography (Susan Stroman), Best Director of a Musical (Harold Prince), and Best Musical. To see which two I think it should have won, you’ll have to read below.

To be as transparent as possible, here are the shows nominated for the following awards that I have not seen: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2, Frozen, and the revival of Once on This Island (though I have heard the OBCRs of the last two). I also skipped Escape to Margaritaville, but so did the Tony committee when handing out nominations, so bullet dodged there. No doubt in part due to the lack of Tony love, the poorly reviewed Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical will be closing on July 1 after a run of only three-and-a-half months.

And now, without further ado…

Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Ariana DeBose, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Renée Fleming, Carousel
Lindsay Mendez, Carousel
Ashley Park, Mean Girls
Diana Rigg, My Fair Lady

Will Win: Lindsay Mendez
Should Have Been Nominated and Should Win: Emily Skinner

However good her work may be, DeBose is stuck in a badly reviewed jukebox musical. Rigg is superb, but it’s a very small role and she doesn’t sing. Park is appealing, but the part lacks definition and good songs. This brings it down to Fleming and Mendez. The former sings beautifully but fails to impress in the acting department. Mendez has been better elsewhere, but it’s a good role, she was well reviewed, and it’s her first time at the dance. That makes it Mendez by process of elimination. Also, she won the Outer Critics’ Circle and Drama Desk awards. Personally, I think Skinner’s consistently fresh and vital takes on “Waiting Around for the Girls Upstairs,” “You Must Meet My Wife,” “Send in the Clowns,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and especially a stunning reinvention of “Now You Know” constituted the best work I saw by a featured actress in a musical this season.

Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady
Alexander Gemignani, Carousel
Grey Henson, Mean Girls
Gavin Lee, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Ari’el Stachel, The Band’s Visit

Will Win: Norbert Leo Butz
Should Win: Ari’el Stachel

Gemignani is very good indeed as Enoch Snow, but director Jack O’Brien has cut the role to ribbons. Henson is agreeable but playing an awfully tired gay cliché. Lee is fine, but the role of Squidward Q. Tentacles is pretty much what it sounds like, and Lee was more impressive in Mary Poppins. I think it’s a race between Butz and Stachel, and I’m predicting Butz because he doesn’t just put the numbers over with style; he also absolutely nails Doolittle’s big scene with Higgins. Plus he’s a Broadway favorite. Still, he doesn’t banish my memories of Stanley Holloway and George Rose, while Stachel’s subtle and original take on a macho Egyptian ladies man cum musician was seriously compelling. Lee did take the Drama Desk, but in a field that included neither Butz (ridiculously not nominated) nor Stachel (nominated last year but lost to Gavin Creel for Hello, Dolly!), and Butz beat Lee for the Outer Critics’ Circle Award. So Butz it is. My vote, though, would be Stachel by a hair.

Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Lauren Ambrose, My Fair Lady
Hailey Kilgore, Once on This Island
LaChanze, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
Taylor Louderman, Mean Girls
Jessie Mueller, Carousel

Will Win: Katrina Lenk
Should Win: Lauren Ambrose

Six nominees. Really? Still, I shouldn’t be snarky, as I haven’t seen the work of LaChanze and Hailey Kilgore. For the former’s chances, though, see Ariana DeBose above. For the latter’s, she sounds charming on the OBCR, but LaChanze herself couldn’t win in the role back in 1991, when it was unaccountably in the featured category. Louderman should be in the featured category, and her performance, though certainly successful, is by requirement one loud note. Mueller isn’t doing her best work as Julie Jordan and already has her Tony. She did win the Drama Desk, but in a race that didn’t include either Lenk or Ambrose, the former inexplicably denied a nomination last year and the latter equally inexplicably denied one this year (see above for Norbert Leo Butz; those nominators really do seem to have had a bee in their bonnets when it came to My Fair Lady). Thus, once again, it’s a two-way race. Ambrose has the harder part and inhabits it more fully than any stage Eliza I’ve seen. Lenk is every bit as good, though, doing rich, flavorful, surprising work. Unfortunately, Ambrose missed at least four performances during peak Tony voter attendance (no word as to why), which won’t help her. Also, there seems to be a segment of the community that resents her for moving into musical theatre, despite the fact that she is clearly more than talented enough to do so. I’ll be happy with either winning, but my vote would go to Ambrose.

Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Harry Hadden-Paton, My Fair Lady
Joshua Henry, Carousel
Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit
Ethan Slater, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: Tony Shalhoub
Should Win: Tony Shalhoub and Harry Hadden-Paton in a tie

This, for me, is the hardest category in terms of predictions, because I think any of the four could take it. I don’t understand all the over-the-top raves for Ethan Slater’s helium-voiced sponge (he does the job well enough, but some job), but they exist, and he prevailed at the Drama Desk and Outer Critics’ Circle competitions and won a Theatre World Award, so he should certainly be considered a front-runner. Henry is done no favors by director Jack O’Brien’s defenestrating revival, which, between ill-advised cuts and head-scratching additions and alterations, definitely throws the show out the window. Nevertheless, Henry’s reviews were largely good, he sings the role impressively, and many think his hard-shelled, raging macho swagger is how Billy Bigelow should be played (I don’t). Over at the Gold Derby website practically none of the “experts” think Hadden-Paton has a chance. As his Henry Higgins is the first to make me forget Rex Harrison, I find that shocking and unpersuasive. But perhaps Higgins is not an award-winning role at this juncture in our social politics. Shalhoub was the heart and soul of The Band’s Visit, the glue that held everything together, and his reviews were stunning. Nevertheless, he only had one song, and it wasn’t a character song. Also, though he returned to do some performances for Tony voters in May, he’s now out of the part for good, which is never a good thing if you want to win a Tony. Slater won both times without Shalhoub in the mix, as he was eligible for the Drama Desk and Outer Critics’ Circle awards last year. I prefer to believe that the Tonys will go with substance over flash, but don’t bet the farm on it.

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theater
Adrian Sutton, Angels in America
David Yazbek, The Band’s Visit
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Frozen
Jeff Richmond and Neil Benjamin, Mean Girls
Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani & Lil’C, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: David Yazbek
Should Win: David Yazbek

I think Yazbek is a lock for best score. His only possible competition is the starry horde of pop tunesmiths for SpongeBob SquarePants (I think the nomination should ditch the long list and simply read “Far Too Many Writers”), but The Band’s Visit is the best work of his career, and he’s already been the bridesmaid for three fine scores.

Best Orchestrations
John Clancy, Mean Girls
Tom Kitt, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Annmarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin, Once on This Island
Jamshied Sharifi, The Band’s Visit
Jonathan Tunick, Carousel

Will Win: Jamshied Sharifi
Should Win: Jamshied Sharifi

The majority of Tony voters don’t really understand what an orchestration is and generally end up voting for whatever they choose for best score. However, this is a tough category, with only John Clancy’s bland work on a generic score not, I think, in the hunt. Kitt amazingly made SpongeBob almost sound like a coherent, and theatrical, score; Milazzo and Starobin brought a whole new, more acoustic approach to Island using found objects as instruments; and Broadway legend Tunick elegantly reduced the size of Carousel’s orchestra without sacrificing (well, not too much) the lush sound of Don Walker’s classic original charts. Sharifi’s hypnotic scoring of Middle Eastern–flavored sounds not normally heard on Broadway is exhilarating, and, when the band plays without vocals, positively electric. If he doesn’t win, I think Tunick, who won the Drama Desk, though without Sharifi in the race, is most likely to take it away from him.

Best Book of a Musical
Itamar Moses, The Band’s Visit
Jennifer Lee, Frozen
Tina Fey, Mean Girls
Kyle Jarrow, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: Tina Fey
Should Win: Itamar Moses

Lee is there merely to fill out the category (the Tony committee did that to the Disney production in each of Frozen’s three nominations), while Jarrow’s picaresque cultural pastiche is pretty ramshackle. Moses’ work is light years ahead of Fey’s in craft, but she is a big name and can write good one-liners. Plus the voters are going to want to give something to Mean Girls, and this is the most likely category. However, I really hope I’m wrong.

Best Choreography
Christopher Gattelli, My Fair Lady
Christopher Gattelli, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Steven Hoggett: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls
Justin Peck, Carousel

Will Win: Justin Peck
Should Have Been Nominated and Should Win: Susan Stroman

This is only the second category so far that I think is a lock, and that would be Justin Peck’s highly lauded work on Carousel. It’s big and showy, but it also unbalances the musical and comes up short in the storytelling and character departments. Nicholaw is repeating himself to lesser effect; Gattelli admirably displays his command of two very distinct vocabularies, but dance is not centrally important to either show; and Hoggett is not going to win for movement in a play. Stroman did yeoman work rethinking classic numbers in Prince of Broadway in fresh ways that honored the originals. Her wrenching staging of “The Right Girl” alone, particularly as interpreted by the astonishing Tony Yazbeck, should have brought her the prize. Yazbeck, by the way, just won the 2018 Chita Rivera Award for Outstanding Male Dancer in a Broadway Show for his work in Prince of Broadway.

Best Direction of a Musical
Michael Arden, Once on This Island
David Cromer, The Band’s Visit
Tina Landau, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls
Bartlett Sher, My Fair Lady

Will Win: David Cromer
Should Win: David Cromer and Bartlett Sher in a tie

I see this as a three-person race among Landau, Cromer, and Sher. For Nicholaw’s chances, see choreography above. Arden’s conceptual reimagining of Island was critically praised, but the show is struggling to break even in a small theatre. Landau gets points for bringing her avant-garde sensibilities to commercial material without alienating audiences, and she tied with Sher for the Outer Critics’ Circle Award and beat him for the Drama Desk. However, SpongeBob, underperforming at the box office for six months now, is not milking its brand. Sher has once again made a classic Golden Age musical bracingly relevant and fresh, while Cromer performed that hardest of all tasks: shepherding a new and unconventional musical to commercial success. Also, Cromer won the 2017 Drama Desk Award for best director of a musical when The Band’s Visit debuted at the Atlantic Theatre Company, a rare Drama Desk win for an off-Broadway show. As Cromer was not in the Outer Critics’ and Drama Desk races this year, I think the Tony will go to him.

Best Revival of a Musical
My Fair Lady
Once on This Island
Carousel

Will Win: My Fair Lady
Should Win: My Fair Lady

Because there were only three eligible revivals this season, a nomination here is not an achievement, as the Tony committee is required to fill out all categories. As I noted above, I haven’t seen Island, but as a property it is not on the same level as the Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe masterpieces, so that doesn’t bode well for its chances. For me, director Jack O’Brien ran away from the dark themes of Carousel, choosing instead to gussy things up gaudily (it’s worth noting that he was not nominated for best director for the Tony and the Outer Critics’ Circle awards), while Sher delivered a bracingly modern take that made My Fair Lady feel newly minted. However, both productions have their champions and detractors in the theatre community, and I think it will be a close race. Interestingly, My Fair Lady won the Drama Desk even though the nominators clearly preferred Carousel. I’m going with Alan and Fritz.

Best Musical
The Band’s Visit
Frozen
Mean Girls
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: The Band’s Visit
Should Win: The Band’s Visit

This is my third lock of the night. I can’t conceive of any other outcome, as I do not want to live in a world where The Band’s Visit loses to any of its three competitors. I’m sure the hubby is planning to hide all the sharp objects just in case.

 


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