NEW YORK--The Tony Awards committee always loves a good surprise or three.
Members did not disappoint Tuesday morning, leaving out audience favorites like “Motown: The Musical” and critical darlings such as Bette Midler in favor of less conventional choices.
Perhaps the two biggest snubs came in the categories for lead acting in a play. Midler was thought to be a lock for a nomination for her portrayal of superagent Sue Mengers in “I’ll Eat You Last.”
The role was a juicy one that earned critical praise, and Midler was returning to Broadway for the first time in more than 30 years. What’s more, she’d never won a conventional Tony, only a special award for contributions to Broadway—in 1974.
But the committee omitted her from a strong field of nominees that include Cicely Tyson, herself making a return after three decades in “The Trip to Bountiful,” and Amy Morton, as the acerbic wife of a professor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
The lead actor in a play category was also heavy with talent. In addition to sentimental choice Tom Hanks for his part as a dying newspaper reporter in Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy,” nominees this year include past Tony winners David Hyde-Pierce (“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”), Nathan Lane (“The Nance”) and Morton’s “Woolf” co-star Tracy Letts.
But one past Tony winner widely thought to be a shoo-in was omitted. Alan Cumming plays all 15 roles in a one-man “Macbeth,” and was being lauded for his intensely physical performance. But like Midler, also the star of a one-person show, he was overlooked for a lead acting nomination.
Instead, a nomination went to “Orphans” star Tom Sturridge, a young actor who has mostly done screen work to date.
In general the committee liked Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans” more than some thought it would. Sturridge also was given a slot over Al Pacino, who earned some, if not universal, praise for his turn as veteran real estate agent Shelly Levene in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” That narrative played out again in best revival of a play, where “Orphans” received a nomination while “Glengarry” did not.
When it comes to musicals, the committee is not above a good populist choice now and again. That led many to believe “Motown: The Musical,” which has become the biggest box-office hit among recent openings, would land a spot for best musical. Though some critics derided the Berry Gordy Jr. work, its feel-good qualities, recognizable songs and sociological overlay seemed to give it a shot.
As it turns out, the committee did go with a populist choice. But it wasn’t “Motown” — it was “Bring It On,” a cheerleading musical. Adapted from a 2000 movie, it began a pre-Broadway national tour at the Ahmanson Theatre two years ago and had not generated loud Tony buzz. (“Motown” did land four nominations: two in acting, as well as in orchestration and sound design.)
New work saw its share of surprises too. “The Testament of Mary,” about the Biblical figure, had received mixed reviews (though praise for Fiona Shaw’s performance), but was chosen over the Nathan Lane-starring “The Nance,” about a closeted gay burlesque performer from the 1930s.