And the winner is ... the ensemble cast: How Broadway’s best acting was a group effort
On Sunday, the Tony Awards will recognize artists who did exceptional work in the 2015-16 Broadway season. As always, there’s a rich bounty of nominated talent to choose from, but the most memorable acting was a group affair.
Usually, it’s the star turn that’s unforgettable. But I keep replaying those moments in which collaboration and camaraderie allowed company members to collectively soar.
If ever there were a case to be made for bestowing Tony Awards on ensembles, it is this year of “Hamilton” and “The Humans,” the respective front-runners by a wide margin for best musical and best play. The brilliance of these productions is inseparable from the magnificent teamwork on display.
The dynamism of “Hamilton” is a credit not just to the turbo lyricism of author Lin-Manuel Miranda but also to the electricity running through the circuitry of the cast. The actors, directed by Thomas Kail with the same coordinating instinct for his players as a great NBA coach, are in the midst of a championship season, and their joy and excitement only intensify the production’s galvanic charge.
Miranda’s main competition is his sensational co-star Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr. (Danny Burstein, the wonderful Tevye of Bartlett Sher’s stunning revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” is a dark horse who would be a shoo-in in a non-“Hamilton” year.) It’s hard to imagine Miranda feeling snubbed if Tony voters decide to spread the love around. His ensemble spirit has been in evidence throughout this wild “Hamilton” ride.
Unstinting in his praise for his colleagues, he no doubt had a role in the closely watched settlement granting actors and dancers a portion of the show’s profit stream. In any case, it’s clear from the way Miranda shares the stage that, though his character is the central focus, he knows that the virtuosity of his fellow company members elevates his performance and augments his vision.
The Tony acting categories for a musical are spilling over with “Hamilton” cast members. I’ll be rooting for Daveed Diggs and Renée Elise Goldsberry, both of whom are likely to pick up awards for their featured performances, but the real triumph (all hail, director Kail) is the melding of so many extraordinary talents.
This season did supply the kind of grand-scale dramatic performances for which the word “bravura” is often trotted out. Jessica Lange, the Mary Tyrone of the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and Frank Langella, star of “The Father,” a contemporary French drama by Florian Zeller about a ferocious older gentleman suffering from dementia, are considered by most Broadway pundits to be the favorites for lead actress and actor.
These are the kinds of roles that make actors pine, critics hyperventilate and theatergoers genuflect. But I found myself less awed than some of my colleagues by the spectacle of so much prodigious acting.
Lange has grown more technically assured as a stage actress. Her voice is no longer the wispy instrument it once was, and her bold line of attack is fearlessly unsentimental. Langella, still evidently mulling over his portrayal of King Lear, goes fully Shakespearean, interpreting his character as a domestic king reduced to a “poor, bare, forked animal.”
These luminaries demand to be admired independent of the productions containing them. But in a season that has enriched our appreciation of the majesty of tight-knit companies, their work seems conspicuously deprived of ensemble synergy.
Lange and Langella appear to have carefully mapped out their performances in advance. They’re not responding to the signals of their fellow actors — they’re rehashing the knowledge they already possess of their roles.
Both of their characters are cut off to a degree from the family members surrounding them — Lange’s Mary by her addiction, Langella’s André by his fading memory. But their acting is vacuum-sealed. That quality of aliveness that comes when actors feed off one another is missing.
Lange is hampered by Jonathan Kent’s deracinated production, which could be set anywhere and often seems as though it is. Langella strides about the stage like a 19th century actor-manager, posing and positioning himself in Doug Hughes’ production as though the only relationship that mattered was the one between a star and his adoring fans. Audiences at both theaters roared in approbation, but I couldn’t help thinking during the obligatory standing ovations that sometimes the finest acting is the least visible.
Three of the actresses from “Eclipsed” are nominated for Tonys, including Lupita Nyong’o for lead actress, but here the whole outshines the individual parts. Danai Gurira’s drama focuses on the plight of women in the Liberian Civil War. This isn’t the kind of work that is usually seen on Broadway. Nyong’o, an Oscar winner for “12 Years a Slave” and a fashion icon, is the marquee draw, but her formidable star radiance has been subsumed in Liesl Tommy’s seamless production for the benefit of the broader vision of this stark play.
Superlative ensemble work often gets lost in the awards shuffle. (Six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald was unaccountably passed over by the Tony nominating committee for her work in George C. Wolfe’s revamp of “Shuffle Along,” a production that achieves greatness when its brilliant company is flourishing in tap dancing unison.) But Joe Mantello’s exquisitely acted production of “The Humans” is likely to prove the exception to this rule.
If the tea leaves are correct — and there’s justice on Broadway — Jayne Houdyshell and Reed Birney will both win in their featured role categories. But the star of Stephen Karam’s drama — a magnification of American malaise during a Thanksgiving gathering — is the entire acting company.
So many of the most memorable moments happen around the dialogue. Relationships are elucidated through reactions — the wincing at a remark, the hush that interposes itself as feelings are sorted out, the grief that’s disguised with a smile.
One of the most moving instances of this occurs when Birney’s Erik overhears his daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck) calling to wish a happy Thanksgiving to her ex-girlfriend, who clearly wants to move on. Standing quietly in the shadows as his heartbroken daughter is rebuffed, he conveys a father’s helpless empathy for his grown child before even uttering a word of consolation.
Mantello’s staging provides a kaleidoscope of such resonant silences, which collectively compose a portrait of a family struggling to stay afloat, economically and emotionally, at a time of jarring middle-class insecurity. “The Humans,” which my companion observed might be more accurately titled “The Americans,” is a democracy for characters as well as for actors. Every role in this funny, painful and scrupulously truthful production is richly inhabited, and it’s a pity that Tonys can’t be distributed to everyone in the cast.
A more volatile acting negotiation is taking place in “Blackbird,” Scottish playwright David Harrower’s unsettling drama about a woman who returns to confront the man who sexually abused her when she was a girl. The production, also directed by Mantello, concentrates on the fierce psychological battle between Michelle Williams’ Una and Jeff Daniels’ Ray.
Their performances are harrowing, but what’s most fascinating is the challenging contrast in their acting styles. Daniels, in a virtuoso turn blending manic guilt and narcissistic defensiveness, gives us realism at a fevered pitch. Williams is more stylized in her handling of a character whose identity was irreparably damaged in adolescence. She varies her waifish persona the way a troubled teenager might keep radically changing her hairstyle.
The production’s willingness to depart from simple stage naturalism for something more emotionally acute and theatrically dangerous lures us into a more complicated relationship to the dramatic material. “Blackbird” is a disturbing play, and Mantello’s risk-taking direction doesn’t give us the option of being passive observers.
If there was a standout performance of the year, it was Cynthia Erivo’s Celie in John Doyle’s revelatory revival of “The Color Purple.” Erivo’s portrayal, as raw as it is radiant, offers a cathartic fusion of music and drama that could induce a religious awakening even in the most secular of theatergoers.
But this sublime achievement doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Doyle’s production scrubs the musical to its spiritual essence, turning the company into a congregation for the retelling of a biblical journey of suffering and redemption.
Just as Celie’s survival is dependent on the community of women, Erivo’s triumph is contingent on her fellow cast members, whose singing and soulfulness inspire her to reach even greater heights.
The remarkable Jessie Mueller, star of the musical “Waitress” who won a Tony for playing Carole King in the jukebox hit “Beautiful,” turns in another achingly real performance, but her work isn’t as ably supported. The difference is that Mueller transcends her musical while Erivo becomes one with a transcendent production.
Collaboration makes even the greats better. It was hard to lose sight of this lesson in a Broadway year that brought us not only “Hamilton,” “The Humans” and a miraculous revival of “The Color Purple” but also two Arthur Miller productions by the adventurous European auteur Ivo van Hove, the rare deconstructionist to give actors their due.
The Tony Awards single out — sometimes rightfully, often capriciously — outstanding artistry. But as this season has rousingly shown, there’s no success like shared success.
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