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Commentary: The Tony Award nominations are out. Talk about bad timing

Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan in Jeremy O. Harris' "Slave Play," which led all plays with 12 nominations.
(Matthew Murphy)

Leave it to Broadway to put on a beauty contest in the middle of a famine.

Shuttered since March, Broadway theaters won’t be reopening before June 2021, an unprecedented interruption that has left artists wholly dependent on unemployment insurance and the kindness of strangers.

Actors have had to give up their New York apartments; some have made the decision to abandon their careers. Stage managers, scrambling for work, have been forced to master the inner workings of Zoom. Designers, trying to stay sane, are channeling their creativity into nutty home projects.

In sum, a sizable percentage of the personnel of a billion-dollar industry is languishing on the edge of poverty.

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Tony nominations are out, and we’ve got the complete rundown of contenders for the unprecedented pandemic-shortened season.

Undeterred by the scale of the crisis, the American Theatre Wing announced Tony nominations for the abridged 2019-20 season on Thursday. Only 18 shows were deemed eligible. The slate of openings in the spring, when typically the most anticipated productions arrive, was canceled, leaving the pool of nominees conspicuously thin in key categories.

In theater, timing is everything, and the timing of these nominations is just plain embarrassing.

The pandemic, which has already killed more than 215,000 Americans, has showed signs of entering a much feared second wave, with bad news likely to accelerate as the cooler weather drives people indoors. The Senate is on the brink of confirming a Supreme Court nominee whose record casts a threatening shadow on issues of vital importance to the theater community, including abortion rights, marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act.

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If that isn’t enough, our democracy is hanging by a single thread. President Trump has been working feverishly to delegitimize an election that’s already underway, mustering the support of far-right groups and refusing to guarantee a peaceful transition of power.

Not the ideal moment perhaps to be doling out congratulatory Broadway bric-a-brac. If the American Theatre Wing was a little more on the ball, it would be using this moment for an all-star digital telethon for theater workers anxious about their next meal.

For the purposes of these awards, the season spans from fall 2019 through January 2020. Shows that opened later, such as Ivo van Hove’s bracing multimedia revival of “West Side Story” and the new musical built around Bob Dylan songs, “Girl From the North Country,” were deemed ineligible because not enough Tony voters would have had the opportunity to see these works.

The irony is that “Girl From the North Country” would have been favored to win for musical and “West Side Story” would likely have taken the musical revival prize. As it stands, there are no nominees for musical revival, and the musical category seems to be crammed with runners-up (“Jagged Little Pill,” “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical”).

Fall productions have historically been at a disadvantage. Tony voters either have short memories or are susceptible to the latest excitement. But only three shows from 2020 were admitted: “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” “A Soldier’s Play” (which picked up an impressive seven nominations, including one for play revival) and “Grand Horizons.”

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None of these was considered a major event, though Laura Linney’s exquisite performance in the solo play “My Name Is Lucy Barton” would have received a lead actress nomination even in a season with fuller competition.

No one can pretend that it’s a normal year when there’s not a single musical nominated for original score. (The category has five plays, including “A Christmas Carol,” which racked up a holiday sack of five nominations.) Aaron Tveit is the lone nominee in the lead actor in a musical category, so the only thing the star of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” has to worry about is a cataclysm preventing the still unscheduled awards show from taking place — no small concern in 2020.

The play category, by comparison, looks relatively healthy. I wouldn’t call it a race — Jeremy O. Harris‘ “Slave Play,” which received 12 nominations, is the clear front-runner. But it’s good to see Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” and Matthew López’s “The Inheritance” included in the mix, even if it’s unlikely that either Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons” or Simon Stephens and Nick Payne‘s “Sea Wall/A Life” would have made the cut had Tracy Letts’ “The Minutes” not been postponed and Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” not been canceled.

There’s plenty of excellent work to applaud. The revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” starring Tom Hiddleston was top-notch. Adrienne Warren’s leggy brilliance as the star attraction of “Tina — the Tina Turner Musical” was a musical performance worthy of the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Mary-Louise Parker was duly acknowledged for her intense brilliance in “The Sound Inside” (though it’s a pity her young costar, Will Hochman, didn’t make the supporting actor cut).

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Andrew Burnap received a lead actor nod for his electric performance in “The Inheritance.” I wish his castmate Kyle Soller also would have been recognized for his more subtle achievement in this epic play about gay men connecting through their shared history of struggle.

A more encouraging development is the inclusion of so many actors from “Slave Play.” It was expected that
Joaquina Kalukango would receive a nomination for her seismic lead performance, but ensemble productions often get short shrift with awards committees. Four other cast members were remembered in the featured actor and actress categories — a credit to the work of director Robert O’Hara, who was also nominated.

So if even a salaried theater critic can’t get excited about the race between “Jagged Little Pill,” which scored a leading 15 nominations, and “Moulin Rouge,” which nabbed 14, why are we even bothering? Had the Tony Awards taken place closer to the originally scheduled date, perhaps it would have been easier to summon a squeal of enthusiasm.

Winners will have an asterisk next to their name regardless of their merit. The strained circumstances are legible in the lopsidedness of categories. Moving forward in this manner only compounds the long looming sense of Broadway’s cluelessness.

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Director Marielle Heller’s film of the Broadway show hits Amazon this week. With Amy Coney Barrett’s hearings underway, the timing couldn’t be better.

If ever there were a time to relinquish awards mania, it’s now. The opportunity of winning a Tony isn’t an inalienable right. Résumé building, while important, can wait until we can safely assemble again. This doesn’t mean chucking artistic accomplishment down a memory hole.

A better approach would have been to bestow special citations to artists who did excellent work — without contriving a threadbare competition. But the leadership vacuum isn’t limited to Trump’s White House. Broadway is loath to change, even when it’s been shut down.


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