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Commentary: The 2023 Tony Award nominations reflect a year of progress and backsliding on Broadway

people in Jewish period clothing costumes onstage
The Broadway Company of Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” at the Long Acre Theatre.
(Joan Marcus (2022))
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What can you say about a Broadway season in which revivals generated the most excitement and even new work had the ring of the familiar?

The Tony Award nominations, which were announced Tuesday, reflect another theater year of transition. The spirit of boldness that marked Broadway’s reopening in the wake of a once-in-a-century pandemic and widespread societal reckonings on equity, diversity and inclusion was still apparent, though bottom-line realities aggressively reasserted themselves.

‘Some Like it Hot’ emerged as the most nominated musical for the 2023 Tony Awards, with 13 nods. The awards show will take place on June 11.

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For every step forward, there was at least a half-step back. But progress is progress, no matter how halting or incremental.

The musical “Some Like It Hot,” spun from the classic 1959 Billy Wilder comedy, received 13 nominations, the most of any show. The Jessica Chastain-led revival of “A Doll’s House” received six nominations, as did Tom Stoppard’s magnificent historical epic “Leopoldstadt” and “Ain’t No Mo’,” Jordan E. Cooper’s daring political satire that closed early late last year amid a vocal campaign to keep the show alive.

three people sit side by side with the one on the right at a steering wheel
Victoria Clark, from left, Justin Cooley and Steven Boyer in “Kimberly Akimbo” on Broadway.
(Joan Marcus)

“Kimberly Akimbo,” a darling of the critics, received eight nominations. The show — up for best musical along with “& Juliet,” “Shucked” and “New York, New York,” all of which received nine nominations, and “Some Like It Hot” — stands out for its originality, even if the David Lindsay-Abaire play from which it was adapted is still fresh in the minds of many theatergoers.

The best play category, more robust than usual, is loaded with eminent names and accolades. Three of the nominees — Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living,” James Ijames’ “Fat Ham” and Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Between Riverside and Crazy” — have received the Pulitzer Prize for drama. And “Leopoldstadt,” a British import, won the prestigious Olivier Award.

“Ain’t No Mo’,” the surprise of the best play category, notched a place that many assumed would have been given to Doug Wright’s “Good Night, Oscar,” Suzie Miller’s “Prima Facie” or “Life of Pi,” the puppet-filled adaptation by Lolita Chakrabarti of Yann Martel’s novel. The Tony nominating committee, which has become more discerning in recent years, helpfully reminds us that commercial salience is not necessarily the best indicator of artistic worthiness.

The quality of this dramatic harvest is a happy surprise for someone who has been wringing his hands over the future of the Broadway play for more than a decade. But how is anyone expected to choose between the disparate brilliance of “Fat Ham” and “Leopoldstadt” in picking their favorite Broadway works of the season?

a man leans against a book case and a woman sits onstage
Audra McDonald and Bryce Pinkham in a scene from “Ohio State Murders” at the James Earl Jones Theatre.
(Richard Termine)

The optimal solution would be to give each of the nominees a trophy — an idea few would propose for the less impressive catch of new musicals, which are more vulnerable to box office pressures and punishments. Revivals are where one must look these days for inspired artistry in the musical sector.

The group of shows contending for musical revival is as strong as the best play category: “Into the Woods,” a spry version of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine frolic (arriving at the Ahmanson Theatre in June); Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot,” revised by Aaron Sorkin and given a gorgeous staging by Bartlett Sher; a “Parade” brilliantly directed by Michael Arden that redeems the somber beauty of Jason Robert Brown’s complex score and a production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford that has perhaps the most electric Broadway house since “Hamilton” opened in 2015.

Superlative acting is rarely in short supply on Broadway, and sifting through the list of nominees, I am especially glad to see Audra McDonald, who holds the record for most Tony acting wins, nominated for her impassioned performance in Adrienne Kennedy’s “Ohio State Murders” and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who received a nod for his seismic performance in “Between Riverside and Crazy.”

History was made with the first nonbinary-identifying acting nominees — J. Harrison Ghee (one of the leads of “Some Like It Hot” who was nominated alongside co-star Christian Borle) and Alex Newell (a featured performer in “Shucked”). And in an advance for further representation of disability onstage (following Ali Stroker’s 2019 Tony Award for “Oklahoma!”) Katy Sullivan, a double-amputee from birth, received a nod for her acting in “Cost of Living,” a performance she brought to the Fountain Theatre in 2018.

Ben Platt and his co-star Micaela Diamond were nominated for their heartrending performances in “Parade.” Groban and Ashford were likewise given nods for their ghoulish-comic teamwork in “Sweeney Todd.” These two shows seem locked in competition, though don’t rule out “Into the Woods,” which received six nominations, including those for director Lear deBessonet, lead actress Sara Bareilles and lead actor Brian d’Arcy James, whose performance as the Baker was one of the season’s drollest.

A scene from the nominated musical "New York, New York."
A scene from the nominated musical “New York, New York.”
(Paul Kolnik)

Chastain, the center of “A Doll’s House,” is tipped to win for lead actress in a play, though she faces formidable competition from Jodie Comer, who won an Olivier for her gripping solo work in “Prima Facie.” And Victoria Clark is probably the odds-on favorite to win for lead actress in a musical for her turn as a teenager suffering from a disorder that is transforming her into an elderly woman while she’s still in high school.

Sean Hayes may have the edge for his un-sitcom-y portrayal of Oscar Levant in “Good Night, Oscar,” though Wendell Pierce delivered a knockout performance in the all-Black revival of “Death of a Salesman.” Henderson in “Between Riverside and Crazy” would be my choice, but I missed seeing the nominated stars of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins, which closed in January.

And look out for Samuel L. Jackson, nominated for featured actor in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” The production, directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Jackson’s wife, is considered a frontrunner for best revival.

I wasn’t quite as taken by “Kimberly Akimbo” as some of my colleagues were. The book by Lindsay-Abaire and the score by Jeanine Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire are both nominated, though they cry out for tightening. (I would have loved this show to death as a one-act musical.) But I was delighted to see Justin Cooley given some recognition for his endearing featured performance, in a memorable Broadway debut, as the title character’s tenderly loyal friend, and I’m relieved to see creative independence heartily encouraged in such commercially angst-ridden times.

Ghee and Newell’s nominations follow last year’s historic first, when composer Toby Marlow’s became the Tony Awards’ first nonbinary nominee and winner.

Lea Michele, who gave what was for me the best Broadway performance of the season in “Funny Girl,” wasn’t eligible for Tony consideration given that she replaced Beanie Feldstein in the leading role of Fanny Brice. But trouper that she’s become, she announced the awards with Myles Frost, who won a Tony last year for his mesmerizing performance as Michael Jackson in “MJ The Musical.”

Michele’s presence signaled something we could all use reminding of during awards season — that excellence is its own reward. In good times, bum times and in-between times like right now, talent finds a way.

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