Every year, I make three pilgrimages to New York City to see all of the shows that open in any particular Broadway season. This year’s theater season, which just ended in May, will go down in history as a banner one-and it just culminated with the recent announcement of the Tony Award nominations. The Tony Awards are to Broadway what the Oscars are to film. Here are my thoughts on three of the major categories and what to expect on June 15 when the awards are handed out.
Big commercial (and bloated) offerings like Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein and Disney’s Little Mermaid were shut out. Instead, this year’s nominating panel chose adventurous shows like Passing Strange and In the Heights. The former is definitely a different breed of musical. It’s an autobiographical rock journey of self-discovery. Stew-a critically acclaimed African-American singer/songwriter-is the writer and lead. Part concert, part confessional Passing Strange is raw and uncompromising and defies expectations of a Broadway musical-a good thing. The second nominee for best musical, In the Heights, introduces us to a Latino neighborhood in New York City pulsating with salsa, hip-hop, and merengue beats and dances. Here’s another autobiography by another Broadway neophyte-Lin-Manuel Miranda-who also performs. The third unexpected nominee is the surprisingly enjoyable musical version of Xanadu, which is based on an outrageously bad 1980s movie starring Olivia Newton-John. It’s about a muse and a painter who find love in a roller disco. This new musical is a spoof, and it is irresistible. The final slot belongs to Cry-Baby, which is based on the John Waters film starring Johnny Depp. It plays like a poor version of Hairspray. Athletic choreography is its only saving grace.
Will Win: In the Heights
Should Win: Passing Strange
One of the best plays I have seen in many a moon opened this year on Broadway: Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County. The play is about how a dysfunctional family deals with the death of the patriarch. We have been down this road before, but Letts has found a way to make it all seem fresh and vital. The play is heartbreaking but hysterical-part Eugene O’Neill, part All in the Family. The second nominee is Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, about the fall of communism in the Czech Republic and how it was intertwined with rock music. It is a rich and puzzling work that unfortunately couldn’t find an audience and was short-lived. Another nominee that didn’t stay open for long is The Seafarer, Conor McPherson’s latest work about three Irish card players who receive a visit from the devil on Christmas Eve. McPherson is one of the best playwrights working today, and this poignant piece will be produced often in repertory companies. In the fourth slot is The 39 Steps-the most absurdly entertaining piece of theater I have seen in a while. Although the adaptation remains faithful to Hitchcock’s film, it owes more to the power of theatrical imagination than to the movies. Four actors play hundreds of roles, and they work with minimal sets and props to create the whole story-including a chase sequence through and on top of a moving train that is pure alchemy.
Will Win: August: Osage County
Should Win: August: Osage County
Best Revival Musical
This is the most exciting category this year, with three definitive productions of classic musicals in the running. For the past few years we have seen revisionist revivals-darker, more cynical views of treasured shows. This year South Pacific, Gypsy, and Sunday in the Park with George are back, but they’re all very faithful to the original versions in spirit, and at the same time infused with youth and vitality. Seeing the new revival of South Pacific was one of my greatest experiences in the theater. I was shocked at how its theme of racism remains as relevant as I imagine it was when it was first produced. And the score : every song is a classic. I couldn’t hold back tears when I heard “Some Enchanted Evening,” and then again when I heard “A Wonderful Guy,” and “Bali Ha’i.” Gypsy was last revived only five years ago with Bernadette Peters, and when I heard it was coming back this year, I didn’t understand why. I was wrong. Patti LuPone in the title role made famous by Ethel Merman is giving the performance of her life. Her “Rose’s Turn” is one for the history books. On the evening I saw her, she received a standing ovation immediately after this song-and before the show ended-something well deserved but rarely seen. Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, about the painter Georges Seurat, is all about creation, and this production uses animation to illustrate the artist’s work. It remains my favorite Sondheim work. The last nominee in this category is the revival of Grease. I skipped this production since its leads were chosen on a reality TV show.
Will Win: South Pacific
Should Win: South Pacific
The Tony Awards will be broadcast on CBS on Sunday, June 15, at 8 p.m. For more information, visit tonyawards.com.