Broadway has enjoyed a great season despite the challenges of the pandemic. Or perhaps the pandemic helped to create a great season. A lot of very adventurous theater fare, from “Pass Over” to “Dana H.” to the musical “A Strange Loop” may never have been seen under normal circumstances. Beyond audiences being fully vaxxed and masked, the season went into the final stretch with a bizarre topic hanging over the Tony nominators’ decisions — which will be announced on May 9.
How much will pedophilia play into this year’s Tony Award nominations? The new musical “MJ” completely whitewashes the credible accusations of Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse of minors, blaming all those “allegations” on pesky reporters asking the wrong questions. David Mamet’s recent comments on Fox News regarding male teachers’ predilection for being sexual predators certainly didn’t goose box office sales for the new revival of his “American Buffalo.” And one play this season actually deals with the subject, Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” now receiving its first Broadway production after a Pulitzer-winning Off Broadway run back in 1997.
Let’s start with the category of best new musical. Tony nominators tend to prefer shows with original scores over jukebox musicals; however, the pickings are so slim this season that “MJ” will probably be nominated along with the far more deserving “Girl From the North Country,” “Six” and “A Strange Loop.” Since there are only about 50 Tony nominators, a mere handful of them have to be revolted enough by the late King of Pop’s behavior to allow the fourth slot to be filled by the deeply flawed “Flying Over Sunset,” the preachy “Paradise Square,” the anodyne “Mrs. Doubtfire” or the tone-deaf “Mr. Saturday Night.” Most likely the nominators will pick five nominees, and include “MJ.”
Unlike the talent behind that show, the people bringing us “American Buffalo” can’t be held responsible for Mamet’s verbal garbage. In the Best Revival of a Play category, the new production with Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell will be nominated along with “For Colored Girls,” “How I Learned to Drive,” “Take Me Out” and “Trouble in Mind.” The only problem with this impressive list is that it leaves out, in my opinion, the best play revival of the season. “Lackawanna Blues” has two strikes against being nominated: It’s a one-person play — brilliantly written, directed, and performed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson — and it closed long ago.
The easiest category to predict is the Best Revival of a Musical, since there were only four contenders this season. They are the well-sung “Caroline, or Change,” the inventive “Company,” the critically battered “Funny Girl” and the lackluster “Music Man.”
It amazes me to read that the Meredith Willson revival was “the most anticipated show of the season.” By whom? Rubes from corn country? And I was born in Mason City, Iowa! My personal choices in the Best Actor in a Musical would be Billy Crystal (“Mr. Saturday Night”), Myles Frost (“MJ”), Rob McClure (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) Jay O. Sanders (“Girl From the North Country”) and Jaquel Spivey (“A Strange Loop”). Rest assured that the nominators will knock off one of those men to make room for Broadway’s Ambassador, honoring Hugh Jackman’s preening one-note performance in “The Music Man.”
Some pretty big names will be left out of the Best Actress in a Musical category. Among the chosen will be Sharon D Clarke (“Caroline, or Change”), Carmen Cusack (“Flying Over Sunset”), Joaquina Kalukango (“Paradise Square”), Brittney Mack (“Six”) and Mare Winningham (“Girl From the North Country”). For those not nominated, including Mack’s five co-stars in “Six,” it’s best to remember that even Audra McDonald occasionally got snubbed by the nominators.
My picks for Best Play are Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen,” Stefano Massini’s “The Lehman Trilogy,” Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” Tina Satter’s “Is This a Room” and Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.” Those last two probably won’t make the cut for a couple of reasons: They are edited transcripts of interviews, and they closed last autumn after commercially unsuccessful runs. I expect Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” and Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s” to replace them. That lineup of five would create a double-first situation. The majority of the nominees would not only be women but women of color.
I hope “Dana H.” and “Is This a Room” will receive nominations in the category of lead actress in a play, with Deirdre O’Connell and Emily Davis, respectively, making the cut along with LaChanze (“Trouble in Mind”), Mary-Louise Parker (“How I Learned to Drive”) and Sarah Jessica Parker (“Plaza Suite”).
As always, best actor in a play is a far more crowded field. I’d include Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood from “Pass Over,” but unfortunately those two stellar performances may be forgotten, since the play kicked off the current Broadway season but closed in early October. Russell Simon Beale (“The Lehman Trilogy”), David Morse (“How I Learned to Drive”), Sam Rockwell (“American Buffalo”), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Lackawanna Blues”) and David Threlfall (“Hangmen”) are the likely nominees. I much admired the performances of Daniel Craig (“Macbeth”) and Alfie Allen (“Hangmen”), but Allen doesn’t quite match the evilness of Johnny Flynn in the Off Broadway production and Craig probably won’t withstand the Sam Gold curse among Tony nominators. Remember what happened to Glenda Jackson in the director’s “King Lear”?
In other words, Gold will not make the cut for best director of a play. Then again, I have no problem with the five I expect to see nominated: Mark Brokaw (“How I Learned to Drive”), Matthew Dunster (“Hangmen”), Scott Ellis (“Take Me Out”), Sam Mendes (“The Lehman Trilogy”) and Kate Whoriskey (“Clyde’s”). I’d put Danya Taymor (“Pass Over”) on that list, but her work might have been a little too subtle. She put her work in the performances.
For best director of a musical, Jerry Zaks (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) should be nominated for doing the most with the least. The more likely nominees are Stephen Brackett (“A Strange Loop”), Marianne Elliott (“Company”), Michael Longhurst (“Caroline, or Change”), Conor McPherson (“Girl From the North Country”) and Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage (“Six”).
The Tonys, like the Oscars, tend to honor the most acting rather than the best acting, especially in the featured actor/actress categories. My choices for best featured actor in a play are Chuck Cooper (“Trouble in Mind”), Brandon J. Dirden (“Skeleton Crew”), Gabriel Ebert (“Pass Over”), Andy Nyman (“Hangmen”) and Jesse Williams (“Take Me Out”). Expect Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Michael Oberholtzer (“Take Me Out”) to grab two of those nominations.
My favorites for best featured actress in a play are a lot more idiosyncratic. They are Tracie Bennett (“Hangmen”), Blair Brown (“The Minutes”), Phylicia Rashad (“Skeleton Crew”) and Johanna Day and Alyssa May Gold (“How I Learned to Drive”). I predict that Uzo Aduba (“Clyde’s”) and Kenita R. Miller (“For Colored Girls”) to be among those nominated.
Among the male featured actors in a musical, the clear standouts are Claybourne Elder (“Company”), Jared Grimes (“Funny Girl”), John-Michael Lyles and John-Andrew Morrison (“A Strange Loop”), and Marc Kudisch (“Girl From the North Country”). But how many of the Tony nominators saw Kudisch in the original Broadway production, which opened back in early 2020 for a brief run? He’s not currently performing in the musical.
Nominees for best featured actress in a musical will be Jeannette Bayardelle (“Girl From the North Country”), Jayne Houdyshell (“The Music Man”), L Morgan Lee (“A Strange Loop”), and Patti LuPone (“Company”). Caissie Levy (“Caroline, or Change”) should also be nominated, but it will more likely be Samantha Williams from the same show. My problem with the latter performance is that I can never get Anika Noni Rose’s 2003 Tony-winning turn out of my head. In that juvenile role, this adult actor totally convinced us that we were watching an adolescent on stage.
The Tony Awards take place at Radio City Music Hall on June 12.