THR’s chief theater critic David Rooney shares his preferences, while awards analyst Scott Feinberg names his predictions to win in the top categories.
SHOULD WIN: Hamilton
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop historical bio-musical is that rare pop-culture phenomenon — as smart as it is relentlessly entertaining. It gives us a vigorous new understanding of the spirit that forged American independence while at the same time expanding our perception of the power and inventiveness of musical storytelling. Hamilton has also done more than any show since Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to push Broadway into the mainstream cultural conversation — only this time for the right reasons. This one's a no-contest category.
WILL WIN: Hamilton
This strong field includes film-to-stage adaptations School of Rock, with a Julian Fellowes book and Andrew Lloyd Webber music, and Waitress, composed by Sara Bareilles; as well as Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s bluegrass original Bright Star; and the Savion Glover-choreographed homage Shuffle Along. They, however, have the misfortune of coming up against Broadway’s most acclaimed production and hottest ticket in memory, which is a slam-dunk: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s story of America at its founding told by the America of today, as exemplified by the show’s colorblind casting and hip-hop soundtrack. His Pulitzer and Grammy are about to get some company.
SHOULD WIN: The Humans
The gnawing anxieties of 21st century life for the lower middle-class American family are considered with humor and clear-eyed compassion — and without a single Big Important Speech to do the thematic heavy lifting — in a work both probing and poignant, which confirms Stephen Karam as one of the most gifted young U.S. dramatists to emerge in the past decade. This is an intimate snapshot of infinitely relatable people, dark and grainy yet full of extraordinary light that pierces the shadows.
WILL WIN: The Humans
Stephen Karam’s first Broadway play, a Pulitzer finalist about middle-class Americans living on the brink of disaster, is peopled with favorites of the theater community and captures the zeitgeist to a greater extent than its formidable competition: Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s story about oppressed women during Liberia’s second Civil War (and the first Broadway show with a writer, director and cast who are all females); Florian Zeller’s The Father, a performance vehicle about memory loss; and Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, an imagining of the British monarchy’s future post-Queen Elizabeth II. The Humans beat these same three shows to win the Drama League Award.
SHOULD WIN: The Color Purple
The production’s galvanic connection between traditional and contemporary worlds gives Fiddler on the Roof stirring new life, and She Loves Me offers the supreme satisfaction of a perfect romantic musical-comedy bonbon given a perfectly delightful staging. But it’s hard to top the achievement of director John Doyle, who took a show that had seemed bloated and over-emphatic when it premiered ten years ago and elevated it into something charged with grace, truth and soaring spirituality.
WILL WIN: The Color Purple
One cannot rule out either of this field’s two Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musicals, Fiddler on the Roof (with a new framing device that connects the plight of the show’s characters to that of present-day refugees) and She Loves Me, or the critically acclaimed new take on Spring Awakening. But the general consensus is that none of the nominees represents a more marked improvement from prior incarnations than The Color Purple, which New York Magazine has called “one of the greatest revivals ever,” and which blows away unusually diverse audiences eight times a week.
SHOULD WIN: The Crucible
Director Ivo van Hove’s first Arthur Miller revival this season, A View From the Bridge, left audiences shocked and breathless with its ever-tightening noose. But the hand of the executioner is even more chilling in his terrifying reappraisal of Miller’s 1953 allegory of the McCarthy witch hunt, brought to riveting life by a fearless cast that includes Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Saoirse Ronan and Ciaran Hinds. The horrors of which humanity is capable in any era have rarely seemed so real.
WILL WIN: Blackbird
Broadway insiders are at a loss when asked to predict this category’s winner. Noises Off and A View from the Bridge have been closed for months, which probably puts them at a disadvantage (although Bridge did win the Drama League Award). Meanwhile, The Crucible and the nearly four-hour-long Long Day’s Journey Into Night have proven somewhat divisive. My hunch is that the Scott Rudin-backed Blackbird, an intense two-hander featuring career-best work by Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, which is considered a revival even though it’s never been mounted on Broadway before, will ultimately prevail.
SHOULD WIN: Danny Burstein, Fiddler on the Roof
Either of the dueling Hamilton contenders would, and probably will, make a worthy winner (my money is on Leslie Odom Jr.’s bitterly conflicted Aaron Burr). But five-time previous nominee Burstein is a Broadway treasure overdue for recognition. His take on the Herculean role of Tevye, the philosophizing Jewish dairyman trying to hold his family together while oppressors tear his community apart, is imbued with an aching humanity all the more remarkable because of the performance’s restraint.
WILL WIN: Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton
Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda are virtually synonymous, and the fact that the Broadway community is so grateful to the latter for the former could drive a victory for the Puerto Rican, who already claimed the Drama League’s Distinguished Performance Award over just about every other actor and actress of the season. However, many feel that Miranda will be adequately recognized in other categories and that the show's stronger acting was, in fact, done by Odom as Aaron Burr. School of Rock’s Alex Brightman, She Loves Me’s Zachary Levi and Fiddler on the Roof’s five-time bridesmaid Danny Burstein can only hope for a split.
SHOULD WIN: Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple
It’s a mark of this field’s astonishing depth of talent that no less a Tony magnet than Audra McDonald was shut out for her electrifying work in Shuffle Along. Likewise radiant newcomer Ana Villafane, who dazzles as Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet! But the true revelation in this ultra-competitive race is British newcomer Erivo, who takes Alice Walker’s heroine Celie from meek servitude and invisibility through sexual and spiritual awakening to glorious self-affirmation. When she seizes her place in the world singing "I’m Here," she threatens to blow the roof off the theater.
WILL WIN: Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple
The massive amount of enthusiasm for Hamilton could propel Phillipa Soo, who plays Hamilton's wife, into the winner's circle. But if that show is in jeopardy anywhere, it's in this category, where Soo must compete against two past winners — a revered pro (She Loves Me's Laura Benanti) and a rising star (Waitress' Jessie Mueller) — as well as two stunning rookies — Carmen Cusack (Bright Star) and Brit Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple). My heart tells me Mueller, but my head tells me Erivo, who has become a breakout sensation.
SHOULD WIN: Mark Strong, A View From the Bridge
Ivo van Hove’s twin Arthur Miller revivals yielded a handful of scalding performances. But none was more indelible than Strong’s as Brooklyn dockworker Eddie Carbone, a figure who acquired the outsize proportions of Greek tragedy as his animalistic impulse to protect his domain backed him into a heartbreaking corner of moral compromise. His performance grew from a defensive, self-deluding snarl into the unforgettable howl of rage of a shattered man.
WILL WIN: Jeff Daniels, Blackbird
Three-time Tony winner Frank Langella (The Father) is at the top of his game in a complex show that revolves entirely around him. Gabriel Byrne (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) beats the boards for four hours seven times a week. And Mark Strong and Tim Pigott-Smith got the best notices of their lives for their work in the dearly departed A View from the Bridge and King Charles III, respectively. But nobody had a harder needle to thread than theater veteran and champion Daniels, who humanizes a repugnant ex-con in the grueling Blackbird and has never won before.
SHOULD WIN: Jessica Lange, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Returning in a performance of transfixing maturity and madness to a role she played in London 16 years ago, Lange brings unforgettable life to Mary Tyrone. As the haunting and haunted matriarch of a corrosively unhappy family, she navigates their watchful gazes with a narcissistic cunning that slowly crumbles to expose the broken, forever isolated woman retreating from disappointment and pain into idealized memory.
WILL WIN: Jessica Lange, Long Day's Journey Into Night
It’s unlikely that Sophie Okonedo, who won just two years ago, will repeat for The Crucible, or that Laurie Metcalf, whose Misery has been closed for months, will be as top-of-mind as the other nominees. That leaves three first-time nominees, two still green youngsters — Lupita Nyong’o, for her Broadway debut Eclipsed, and Michelle Williams, for her first non-musical Blackbird — along with grande dame Lange, who has now played American theater’s three greatest roles for an actress (Streetcar’s Blanche, Glass Menagerie’s Amanda and now Long Day’s Journey’s Mary) and is due for a win.
SHOULD WIN: Daveed Diggs, Hamilton
In his dual roles as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson — one an ally of Alexander Hamilton, the other an adversary, both of them flamboyant scene-stealers — there’s not a trace of rap virtuoso Diggs’ inexperience in musical theater. His insouciant charm and sly delivery have made him an ensemble favorite with audiences, generating screaming entrance applause to rival that of Miranda. The guy has charisma to burn.
WILL WIN: Daveed Diggs, Hamilton
Nobody this season makes a bigger impression in less time than Waitress’ hilarious Christopher Fitzgerald, and Shuffle Along’s Brandon Victor Dixon is the heart and soul of his show. But it’s hard to imagine this prize not going to one of the three nominees for Hamilton. Jonathan Groff provided comic relief as King George III, but he’s been gone from the show for months; Christopher Jackson is impressive as George Washington; but the best bet is rapper Diggs, who, in his Broadway debut, brings to life two cocky historical figures, Marquis de Lafayette during act one and Thomas Jefferson during act two.
SHOULD WIN: Renee Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
There’s no more dizzying feat of compressed storytelling being spun eight times a week on Broadway than Angelica Schuyler’s song "Satisfied," which replays the thunderbolt of her first encounter with Alexander Hamilton, as she selflessly steps aside to make way for the happiness of her sister Eliza. Goldsberry’s performance is a model of whip-smart intelligence, warmth and sensitivity; if Eliza is the tender heart of the show, her Angelica is its proto-feminist pulse.
WILL WIN: Renee Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
Goldsberry’s powerful acting and singing as Angelica, the sister of Hamilton’s wife who pines for him all her life, propelled by Hamilton love, makes this category hers to lose. That’s not to say there aren’t other appealing options — from The Color Purple’s Danielle Brooks, who makes a big impression in her Broadway debut, to She Loves Me’s Jane Krakowski, a popular past winner who couldn’t be better in She Loves Me — but it’s hard to see any of them derailing the Hamilton train.
SHOULD WIN: Reed Birney, The Humans
Consummate New York stage actor Birney’s last Tony-nominated role on Broadway was as a Machiavellian cross-dresser in the acerbic Bette Davis mold in Casa Valentina. He could hardly be more different as the burdened Pennsylvania patriarch whose fears for the unity of his family are traced to his own missteps. Those worries are manifested in disquieting suggestions of supernatural dread and yet always firmly rooted in affecting human fallibility.
WILL WIN: Reed Birney, The Humans
Birney, a 40-year veteran who’s as well regarded as anyone in the New York theater community, seems poised to pick up his first win (on his second nom in three years) for his portrayal of a haunted janitor. Michael Shannon, Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s Jamie Tyrone, and Richard Goulding, King Charles III’s Prince Harry, can’t be ruled out (it’s harder to see The Crucible’s Bill Camp or Noises Off’s David Furr winning), but there’s a clear sense around town that Birney’s moment has arrived.
SHOULD WIN: Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans
As the determinedly chipper wife of Birney’s character, Houdyshell subtly peels back layers to expose the creeping anger beneath her stoical goodness, suggesting that her devotion to everyone else’s happiness comes at a price. Like Birney, Houdyshell is an actor seemingly incapable of an emotionally inauthentic moment, and while Karam’s play is an acutely observed group portrait, recognizing these two core performances would be a fitting way to honor the entire superlative ensemble of Joe Mantello's very fine production.
WILL WIN: Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans
A trouper if ever there was one, Houdyshell, who’s been nominated twice before, couldn’t be more endearing as a working-class matriarch who endures adversity with humor and good cheer. Fortunately for her, she’s up against two pairs of costars: Noises Off’s Andrea Martin is prolific and always great, but she’s won twice before, and Megan Hilty is popular, but this was not her meatiest role. And Eclipsed’s Pascale Armand and Saycon Sengbloh, as Nyongo’s fellow wives, are both so wonderful that it’s impossible to imagine voters picking one over the other.
SHOULD WIN: Thomas Kail, Hamilton
One name too frequently left unmentioned in appreciations of the revolutionary blockbuster is that of invaluable ringmaster Kail, who juggles the innumerable moving parts of a show dense with wordage, character and incident, hitting every emotional note with an unerring grasp of narrative clarity, drive and flow. The seamless fusion of Kail’s direction with Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is a thing of beauty. It's worth noting also that Kail aced a completely different assignment in January with his effervescent staging of Grease: Live for Fox.
WILL WIN: Thomas Kail, Hamilton
Kail, who has been right beside Lin-Manuel Miranda on this project since the beginning (and who also directed Miranda's 2008 show In the Heights), would win on Hamilton's coattails even if his contributions weren't massive. But the members of his show's company, who've been under the media spotlight for years now, never miss an opportunity to express how vital "Tommy" has been to their success. He's competing against giants — past winners John Doyle (The Color Purple) and George C. Wolfe (Shuffle Along), plus eight-time nominee Scott Ellis (reviving his own revival of She Loves Me) — and he's about to become one himself.
SHOULD WIN: Ivo van Hove, A View From the Bridge
There’s not an undeserving contender in this exemplary shortlist of five. But Belgian avant-garde experimentalist van Hove’s triumphant season, with back-to-back Arthur Miler revivals in addition to two further productions off-Broadway, showed that few if any can match him in terms of sustaining raw intensity and modulating a crescendo of dread to give startling new vitality to a classic text. The starkness of the design choices placed the primal power of Miller's 1956 drama in even more mesmerizing relief.
WILL WIN: Joe Mantello, The Humans
A past Tony winner for his direction of a play (2003's Take Me Out) and a musical (2004's Assassins) who has also twice been nominated for his acting (is it a coincidence his return to Broadway in The Glass Menagerie was announced on Monday?), Mantello is liked, respected and prolific (he also directed best revival of a play nominee Blackbird). On The Humans, he helps a large cast navigate drama and comedy, the real and the metaphysical and, not to be underestimated, a two-story set. Some think A View from the Bridge's van Hove could prove a spoiler; I think an upset by King Charles III's Rupert Goold is just as feasible.