The Tony Awards are a time for taking stock, but let’s not put an undue burden on this year’s nominations. To sort out the enigma of the 2014-15 Broadway season would require dusting off Alan Turing’s machine.
If an overarching narrative exists, it’s willfully postmodern. Intense American nostalgia (“The King and I,” “Gigi,” “An American in Paris”) alternated with subservience to the Brits (“Wolf Hall Parts I and II,” “Skylight,” Helen Mirren) while risky, out-of-the-box propositions (“Fun Home,” “Hand to God”) rose above the commercial dross (“Finding Neverland,” “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Fish in the Dark”) that is, was and always will be Broadway’s bread and butter.
Stare long enough into the chaos, however, and a few patterns, can be divined.
1. As nerdy high school students learn long after they graduate, so the Tony nominees continually remind us: It’s better to be weird and original than popular and bland.
“Fun Home,” the musical by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, received 12 nominations, tying it with “An American in Paris” as the most nominated show. Although critically acclaimed when it premiered off-Broadway at the Public Theater, the musical, about a young woman coming to terms with her own sexuality in the context of a family that has sexual secrets of its own, hardly represents traditional Broadway fare. It’s an intimate show, with more moodiness than pizazz, that’s too caught up in being itself to care about the tourist traffic from Duluth. Right now, the production is in a tight three-show race with “An American in Paris” and “Something Rotten!” for the best musical award. But as the nonconformist critics' darling, “Fun Home” currently has a slight edge.
2. Weirdo charm can be an even bigger plus for drama, as Robert Askins’ black comedy about a demonic hand puppet taking possession of a shy Christian teen flamboyantly demonstrates. "Hand to God," which picked up nominations for its lead actor (Steven Boyer) and actress (Geneva Carr) as well as for its director (Moritz von Stuelpnagel), is the sleeper of the season. Not bad for a frolicsome off-Broadway curiosity taking the less trammeled “Avenue Q” route.
3. Successful adaptations can spring from the most improbable source material. Who would have expected that “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” based on Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel, or “Wolf Hall,” based on Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels, would have succeeded to the extent they have on stage? “Curious Incident” dramatizes its detective story through the eyes of a mathematically gifted, emotionally challenged boy who appears to be on the autism spectrum.
“Wolf Hall” tells the marathon tale of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s not-to-be-crossed fixer, in a two-part historical drama that leaves the ending of Cromwell’s story for another day. Yet look at the results: “Curious Incident,” featuring a breakthrough performance by lead actor nominee Alex Sharp, is the favorite to pick up the Tony for best play. And “Wolf Hall” earned eight nominations, surpassing even the six received by “Curious Incident.”
4. It pays to be British, as Mirren, Carey Mulligan and Ruth Wilson, all nominated in the lead actress in a play category, can attest. Bill Nighy, Mulligan’s costar in “Skylight,” who’s delighting audiences by putting so much English (to borrow a sports metaphor) on his gestures, can’t be counted out for the lead actor award. Nor can the outstanding Ben Miles, “Wolf Hall”’s nearly always onstage protagonist. And look at the preponderance of British directing nominees in the play category: Stephen Daldry (“Skylight”), Marianne Elliott (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) and Jeremy Herrin (“Wolf Hall”), with Christopher Wheeldon ("An American in Paris") a strong contender to take home the directing prize in the musical category.
5. Out of sight, more or less out of mind. “Side Show,” one of the year’s best musical productions, came up — criminally — empty-handed. The revival of “A Delicate Balance” wasn’t all that it could have been, but I’m sorry that Clare Higgins wasn’t nominated for her featured performance. Unfortunate too were the omissions of Nick Payne’s “Constellations” in the best play category and star Jake Gyllenhaal in the best actor field. Thankfully, Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” which would get my vote for best play, was nominated, though Hari Dhillon’s powerhouse performance was unaccountably excluded.
6. Being famous — or infamous — will only get you so far. Sure Bradley Cooper’s superstardom helped him squeak into the crowded best lead actor in a play category for his overtouted performance in “The Elephant Man.” But all of Harvey Weinstein’s marketing men couldn’t save “Finding Neverland” from Tony Award obscurity.
7. Great talent will out. This will probably be Kelli O’Hara’s year, though she faces stiff competition from the always formidable Kristin Chenoweth (“On the Twentieth Century”) in the best lead actress in a musical race. But given that O’Hara, the star of the well-received revival of “The King and I,” hasn’t won before, the fickle Tony winds appear to be in her favor. Is there any stage performer more deserving?