Long story short: It was a strange Broadway season — one in which old formulas proved unreliable and a few long-shot experiments yielded unexpected rewards.
Rendering an up or down verdict on such an eclectic, not to say erratic, year is a fool’s errand. The Tony Award nominations, which were announced Tuesday, tried to separate the wheat from the chaff. But even more, they sent a message of support to artists with fresh and forward-leaning sensibilities, no matter if these endorsements occasionally came at the expense of recognizing worthier work.
April, the cruelest month for theater critics contending with the stampede of openings, brought redemption to the musical categories. “Hadestown” and “Tootsie,” greeted with some of the most ecstatic reviews of the year, were showered with nominations (14 and 11, respectively). Either would be a deserving best musical winner. But just as important, they make a season top-heavy with tourist trifle (“King Kong,” “Pretty Woman,” “The Cher Show”) seem artistically valid.
Another late entry to the field, Daniel Fish’s darkly exploratory revival of “Oklahoma!” may have raised hackles among Rodgers & Hammerstein purists. But the production, which received eight nominations, was justly recognized for laying down a path from the golden-age past to an intrepidly questioning future.
What was left out of the running was often as surprising as what was included. Sam Gold’s production of “King Lear,” the most anticipated revival of the season, received only one nomination. That wasn’t what was so stunning. The independent auteur wasn’t able to corral his ideas or his ensemble. But it was widely assumed that Glenda Jackson, a Tony winner last year for her performance in “Three Tall Women,” would at least receive a nomination for lead actress in a play. Instead, it was the immensely talented Ruth Wilson who walked off with a featured actor nomination for her double act as both Cordelia and the Fool.
Not even Gayle King, who was hosting the announcement of the Tony nominations alongside actors Bebe Neuwirth and Brandon Victor Dixon, could stifle her surprise over two conspicuous absences in the best play category — Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the biggest dramatic hit of the Broadway season, and Lee Hall’s adaptation of “Network.” King’s colleagues smiled awkwardly and chalked it up to so much talent, but the answer is a good deal more complicated.
Broadway has been having a difficult time figuring out how to tap into the new pool of talented playwrights who are advancing the art form but aren’t necessarily writing for big proscenium houses that carry exorbitant ticket prices. The slate of works in contention for best play — Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman,” James Graham’s “Ink,” Taylor Mac’s "Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” and Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” — suggest a preference for original material.
But two of the plays (“The Ferryman” and “Ink”) are British imports and two others (“Constitution” and “Choir Boy”) came with a big assist from nonprofit theaters. Perhaps the most unexpected in this group is “Gary,” an overproduced dark comedy reminiscent of an early Christopher Durang doodle.
Mac, a boundary-breaking creative force, deserves to be championed. But a more discerning Tony nominating committee worried about the future of American plays on Broadway might have acknowledged Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” (the first play produced on Broadway by an Asian American woman) or Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton” instead.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” lavished with nine nominations, was the most satisfying dramatic experience of the year. The nominating committee’s perverse discounting of the writer behind this achievement might be political (Lee’s explosive novel is always being contested), but it could just as easily be artistic (adaptation can seem like a secondary art). Sorkin can cry himself all the way to the bank. But playwriting on Broadway remains a question mark.
Schreck’s impassioned, expansively personal and utterly sui generis “What the Constitution Means to Me” would be my best play pick, followed by McCraney’s exquisitely sensitive “Choir Boy” (which was produced at the Geffen Playhouse in 2014). But “The Ferryman,” hyped on both sides of the Atlantic, is likely to come out on top.
Set in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles, Butterworth’s drama has all the requisite elements of traditional drama — a multi-character realistic world, an elaborate plot of escalating suspense and violence and a political hook that sadly never loses its relevance.
But the drama is bloated (the whole expositional first act could be lost at little debilitating cost) and somewhat derivative of the work of Irish playwrights Brian Friel and Tom Murphy. “The Ferryman” has more than its share of gripping scenes. But at a time when Broadway is groping for a way forward, it’s depressing to hear this ploddingly conventional work proclaimed a “modern classic,” especially when there’s such a bounty of innovative African American playwrights (such as Jackie Sibblies Drury, author of this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview”) still relegated to the nonprofit sidelines.
Fortunately, “Hadestown,” a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth as a bluesy New Orleans-style opera, has buoyed my spirits. In a perfect world, it would win best musical, with additional Tonys for Anaïs Mitchell’s breathtakingly original score and Rachel Chavkin’s inexhaustibly inventive direction, among other victories. “Tootsie” should win for Robert Horn’s hilarious book, which showed just how a zesty movie comedy could be theatrically reborn in a more woke era, and for Santino Fontana’s transformative performance in the role the great Dustin Hoffman will now have to share for posterity.
These musicals assuaged the headache-y memory of hours spent crouching in Broadway theaters as marketing maestros posing as composers, book-writers and directors assailed my senses. “Ain’t Too Proud — the Life and Times of the Temptations” (which had Ahmanson Theatre audiences grooving last summer), “Beetlejuice” and “The Prom” round out the best musical category. But what does it say that my initial reaction was relief that “Be More Chill,” “Pretty Woman” and, heaven defend us, “King Kong” were kept out of the running?
The acting categories, where youth is often served, always burgeon with fresh and diverse talent. Faith in Broadway is renewed annually through new crops of performers. But the veterans have my attention this year— Elaine May in the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” Jeff Daniels in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and André De Shields in “Hadestown,” to name three who made lasting memories in an often forgettable year.
If I might provide a few helpful remarks to producers planning future seasons: More Schreck and McCraney, better Mac than “Gary," another beloved classic for Fish to deconstruct and thank you, thank you, thank you for “Hadestown.”