Tony nominations 2015: Unexpectedly edgy with Hand to God and more

This year's Tony Awards unexpectedly favored many edgy and diverse theatrical works

For years, theater pundits have complained that Broadway and the Tony Awards have become staid and spineless, filled with unnecessary play revivals and musicals adapted from old movies.

On Tuesday, Tony nominators offered their rejoinder.

The U.S. theater world's most prominent prizes revealed a list heavy with edgy and unexpected elements: the subversive puppetry of "Hand to God" (five nominations); the winking meta-musical of "Something Rotten!" (10 nominations); the dark melodrama of the Chita Rivera-starring "The Visit" (five nominations); the sexually explicit confessional of "Fun Home" (12 nominations); and even the unexpectedly ballet-rich numbers of "An American in Paris" (also 12 nominations).

TONY NOMINATIONS 2015: Complete list of nominees 

"There's such diversity on Broadway right now," veteran theater producer Kevin McCollum said. "I think it's just getting more and more interesting."

McCollum would know. He's the producer of "Something Rotten!" and "Hand to God." The former was developed in a New York workshop with "Book of Mormon" director Casey Nicholaw and uses the frame story of Elizabethan producers seeking a post-Shakespearean hit as a means of sending up modern musical conventions.

"Hand to God," meanwhile, began in an off-Broadway theater four years ago and was honed and chiseled  in preparation for its premiere at the Booth Theatre this month — though not with so much honing and chiseling that the play doesn't still include a scene of elaborate puppet sex, some real-life dismemberment and a soliloquy skewering mankind's need for religion.

To be sure, the Tonys, which will air June 7 on CBS, have not given up on convention. Lush musicals still found their way on to the nominees list, especially on the revival side, where the three shortlisted musicals (out of only five eligible shows) all fit that description: "On the Twentieth Century," "On the Town" and "The King and I."

And the 40 nominators (870 theater pros will vote for the final awards) opted to give the old-fashioned "You Can't Take It With You" five nominations, including best revival of a play.

But a movement that started with the surprise win by "Avenue Q" for best musical 11 years ago and continued with "The Book of Mormon" storming the Tonys in 2011 has reached a new level. With the exception of "Side Show," the offbeat story of conjoined twins that was shut out Tuesday, pretty much all of this season's risky efforts were rewarded.

That point was made clear by "Fun Home." Adapted by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron from Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir about growing up a lesbian with a closeted gay father, it is the kind of piece that instantly feels like it should come with downtown credentials. And it does: The show was developed at the Ojai Playwrights Conference and Sundance theater lab before stopping at New York's Public Theater on its way to Broadway.

"Fun Home" caught nominators' attention despite themes that might have been thought too provocative years ago.

"The piece, Kron said, "just meets the cultural moment right now. The gay marriage thing, the way that's moved into the culture ... has coalesced into a legibility in the past couple of years that has made it possible for the audience to watch this, and has allowed the play and the characters to be felt as a universal human experience."

In addition to "The Visit" and "Something Rotten!" (hardly generic exercises in their own right), "Fun Home" will battle with "An American in Paris," considered the other front-runner for Tony's top prize.

DISCUSS: Theater critic Charles McNulty fields your questions

"Paris" offers its own kind of unexpectedness, both confirming and defying Broadway's current transmedia fixation. The musical is based on the 1951 Gene Kelly movie, but the adaptation, under the direction of noted British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, features copious amounts of ballet. It also stars two dancers — Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, both of whom nabbed nominations for their lead performances.

At the same time, more fluffy fare like "Finding Neverland," scored by the Brit pop idol Gary Barlow and produced by the Oscar-adept film mogul Harvey Weinstein, was shut out. There also was no love for the more familiar wedding comedy of "It Shoulda Been You."

If many of the nominees Tuesday represented a new trend, an old tension nonetheless appeared to be playing out. The fight for best play is seen as likely a two-horse battle between "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," an effects-laden journey into the mind of a possibly autistic boy (Alex Sharp, a Broadway first-timer who is a front-runner for lead actor) and "Wolf Hall Parts I and II," a period epic about the court of Henry VIII with as many bon mots as beheadings.

The productions are very different, but they do have one thing in common: Both "Curious" (six nominations) and "Wolf Hall" (eight) are West End imports that enjoyed fruitful British runs before arriving here. Their success at the U.S. theater party validate those critics who wring their hands over the death of the American play.

That fact has not gone unnoticed by the show's principals. Speaking on the "Wolf Hall" phenomenon (which also includes a PBS series based on the same source material), star and Tony nominee Ben Miles told The Times before nominations: "It is a bit strange. It's like a Tudor cluster bomb has gone off over America."

Still,  it's worth noting that "Wolf Hall" and "Curious" will compete for best play with "Hand to God," which arrives from the American up-and-comer Robert Askins, and "Disgraced," the Pulitzer Prize winner by U.S-born Ayad Akhtar.

And America's prime entertainment industry — Hollywood — remained as potent a force as ever. Tuesday's acting nominees glittered with reliable celebrity names such as Elisabeth Moss ("The Heidi Chronicles") and Bradley Cooper ("The Elephant Man").

In fact, one of the few Hollywood favorites to be shut out was Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor was not nominated for his well-received turn as a beekeeper in Nick Payne's drama "Constellations," though co-star Ruth Wilson was. Wilson, needless to say, is a Brit.

Times staff writer Deborah Vankin contributed to this report.

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