Showy or rich? Energetic or tempered? What Tony Award voters must consider

Showy or rich? Energetic or tempered? What Tony Award voters must consider
Robert Fairchild stars in the musical “An American in Paris,” which has received 12 nominations. (Angela Sterling, Broadway's Palace Theatre)

The world isn't a meritocracy, the prize doesn't always go to the most deserving and Vincent van Gogh isn't the only artist to have gone to his grave unheralded.

Awards can conceal but not eradicate their essential arbitrariness. Still, nothing concentrates the mind quite like the spectacle of stars glamorously gathered for the privilege of having a select few invidiously singled out while the unchosen smile oh-so-sincerely for the cameras.

The Tony Awards, which will be doled out on Sunday, have a few contests that are too close to call. But rather than simply speculate on which capricious way the voting might go, I thought it might be productive to reflect on the kinds of decisions Tony voters had to make in determining this year's winners.

FULL COVERAGE: Tony Awards 2015

For musical, the race is largely between "An American in Paris" and "Fun Home," each of which received 12 nominations, the most of any production. ("Something Rotten!" could play a spoiler role, though the odds of this giddy backstage musical set in Shakespeare's cutthroat era capturing this most lucrative of awards are long.)

A dance musical based on the Oscar-winning film starring a dashing Gene Kelly, "An American in Paris" has certain built-in advantages. It is a visually dazzling romantic crowd-pleaser, set aloft on fascinating Gershwin rhythms and dripping in baby boomer nostalgia. More to the point, it's doing killer business at the box office, a detail that hasn't escaped out-of-town Tony voters looking for a share of the touring jackpot.

"Fun Home," written by composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Lisa Kron, is made of sterner stuff. The show, based on Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, centers on a lesbian cartoonist who combs through her past to shed light on the mystery of her closeted gay father's apparent suicide. Although enlivened by humor and a few sprightly numbers, this musical drama grapples with the secrets and lies, the compromises and complicities, of family life.

No one, in short, leaves the theater tap-dancing back to New Jersey. Discerning theatergoers, however, will be haunted by the work's delicate complexity. Whether this dramatic richness is enough to overcome the showier, moneymaking charms of "An American in Paris" remains to be seen.

One sign will be whether the directing award goes to Sam Gold for "Fun Home" or Christopher Wheeldon for "An American in Paris." Gold, who elicited the kind of multilayered performance from his cast normally found in major dramas, would be my choice. But Bartlett Sher ("The King and I") and Casey Nicholaw ("Something Rotten!") also did incomparable work — incomparable being le mot juste for a category crammed with unmatched winners.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" appears to have a lock on the best play award. A critical and commercial success, it is galloping to the winner's circle with the speed of "War Horse." And like that fellow British awards-magnet, its design and direction are far more ingenious than its script.

Perhaps my definition of "play" is too narrow, but "Curious Incident," adapted from Mark Haddon's novel by Simon Stephens, doesn't seem all that impressive as a work of dramatic literature. If this were the sole criterion, the hands-down choice would be Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Disgraced." Nick Payne's boldly inventive "Constellations" is unaccountably not in the running, having been passed over for "Hand to God," Robert Askins' pitch-black comedy about a troubled adolescent controlled by a demon sock puppet, and "Wolf Hall," Mike Poulton and Hilary Mantel's marathon dramatization of her Booker Prize-winning novels.

Tony voters don't seem to mind recognizing an outstanding dramatic production with the best play award, though voters in the future might want to consider that the directing and design prizes are a more appropriate way of honoring excellence in stagecraft. Playwriting deserves an accolade all its own.

The acting races are where things really get juicy. Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O'Hara are running neck and neck in the lead actress in a musical category. And this contest, which pits supercharged theatrical exuberance against dramatic care, harmony and discretion, has turned out to be an emotional roller coaster for these divas' die-hard fans.

Chenoweth's spark plug virtuosity is on splendiferous display in "On the Twentieth Century." She plays the glamorously impish Lily Garland, who is being aggressively cajoled by an old paramour, a theater impresario down on his luck, to return to the stage while riding a train bound for New York with her latest boy toy. It's a role Chenoweth was born to play — and she never lets you forget it.

O'Hara brings a radiant pathos and dignity to her portrayal of Anna Leonowens, the widowed teacher who goes to Bangkok with her son to educate the King's many children and ends up channeling the monarch's passion for her into compassion for his people and sympathy for democratic fair play. It's a difficult part to make work in the 21st century — the musical's Orientalism cannot be overlooked — but O'Hara's gentle soulfulness allows us to appreciate the timeless beauty of this Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite.

Will the voters go with luscious overstatement or graceful understatement? Does a flamboyant role in a second-tier yet relentlessly effervescent musical have the edge over a less flashy part in a beloved yet politically problematic classic? Does the fact that Chenoweth already has a Tony (for her featured performance in "Charlie Brown") sway things in favor of O'Hara, one of the great Broadway leading ladies who has yet to win a Tony despite multiple nominations? These are matters that no rule book can sort out.

Less complicated is the question of whether it is better to give the Tony to a newcomer fresh out of Juilliard (Alex Sharp) or a movie star earnestly testing his mettle (Bradley Cooper) in the lead actor in a play contest. Sharp's agile performance in "Curious Incident" is clearly the more deserving. If some voters balk at the idea of bestowing this prestigious honor to an unknown making his Broadway debut, others will want to validate an honest portrait of a character with Asperger's syndrome that has been largely met with gratitude by the autism community. Still, no one would be shocked if Steven Boyer ("Hand to God"), Bill Nighy ("Skylight") or Ben Miles ("Wolf Hall") were called to the podium. A case could be made for each of these three. (Cooper's champions have a tougher challenge.)

Helen Mirren, nominated twice before, will likely pick up her first Tony, besting her compatriots Ruth Wilson ("Constellations") and Carey Mulligan ("Skylight"), both of whom were luminous this season. Loyalty often tips the balance. Dame Helen is not only a much-loved veteran, but she's playing a character in "The Audience" for which she has already earned an Oscar and cinematic immortality. Who could deny this naturally regal actress this bonus tribute?

These are the kinds of perfectly excusable rationales voters are likely to half-consciously employ. What would be inexcusable is Michael Cerveris not receiving the Tony for his lead performance in "Fun Home."

The debonair dancer Robert Fairchild has been feted for his elegant turn in "An American in Paris," but Cerveris' fascinatingly mercurial portrait of a father unable to come to terms with his identity is a dramatic portrait so psychologically acute it could have been considered in the lead performance in a play category as well.

Cerveris has already won through the uncompromising truth of his work. But this is an instance in which proper gratitude needs to be shown. The Tonys, like all awards, have a capricious spirit. But limits must be set if we're still to take them seriously.