NEW YORK – So much for frontrunners.
If there’s a message in the generous spread of nominations for the American Theatre Wing’s 67th annual Tony Awards, honoring the best of the Broadway season, it’s that races in pretty much all the key categories are wide open.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the competition for Best Musical, the one award that consistently translates into a significant boost at the box office.
The British import Matilda, a darkly comic Roald Dahl adaptation about a bookish five-year-old genius with magical powers, had generally been expected to dominate the field. That show, with its dozen nominations, still might be the one to beat when the Tonys are handed out on June 9. But it was trumped by Kinky Boots, the crowdpleasing tale of a struggling English shoe factory rescued by a flamboyant drag queen with a design flair for glittering thigh-highs. That show scored the top tally with 13 nominations.
Pundits had also expected the visually spectacular circus-themed revival of Pippin to be out in front by a wide margin for Best Musical Revival. And while that production’s ten nominations give it plenty of momentum, the revamped Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella is right behind it with nine mentions.
At this point, the competition for Best Play is looking like a showdown between the late Nora Ephron’s posthumously produced valentine to tabloid journalism, Lucky Guy, and Christopher Durang’s bittersweet Chekhov-inspired comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which scored six nominations each. But even though it trails those two with three nominations, Richard Greenberg’s complex look at the changing lives of an Upper West Side Manhattan Jewish family over twenty years, The Assembled Parties, has major critical support in its corner.
Heavyweights in the Play Revival stakes look to be the Lincoln Center Theater production of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, which leads the category with eight nominations; and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company staging of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with five. That classic marital warfare drama scored nods for both lead performers, Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, as well as featured actress Carrie Coon.
Some of the acting categories were particularly competitive this season, none more so than Lead Actress in a Play. Morton goes up against Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place, Kristine Nielsen in Vanya and Sonia, Cicely Tyson in The Trip to Bountiful, and Holland Taylor in Ann, her single-character play about former Texas Governor Ann Richards.
While Nielsen had been considered a favorite to win Featured Actress in a Play for Vanya and Sonia, the Tony Awards Administration Committee elected to consider her in the lead category instead. That move, plus the unusually strong field, led to some high-profile shutouts. Among them were Fiona Shaw as the mother of Jesus in The Testament of Mary, which landed three nominations including Best Play; Jessica Hecht for her exquisite work in Assembled Parties; and Bette Midler, who drew love letters from critics for her turn in John Logan’s solo play I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers. That production will hardly be hurt by the lack of Tony attention, however, given that its limited engagement is already close to sold out.
The Tonys traditionally have an ambivalent attitude toward Hollywood star power on Broadway, but some of the bigger names this season were never considered major contenders, particularly in such a tough race as Lead Actress in a Play. Among them were Jessica Chastain in The Heiress, Katie Holmes in Dead Accounts, Scarlett Johansson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Debra Winger in The Anarchist. Sigourney Weaver had a legitimate shot at a nomination but may have been inched out by her Vanya and Sonia co-star Nielsen.
The Lead Actor in a Play slot does pack some serious star wattage, however, with the inclusion of Tom Hanks for his Broadway debut, playing New York columnist Mike McAlary in Lucky Guy. Hanks goes up against Letts, Nathan Lane in The Nance, David Hyde Pierce in Vanya and Sonia, and Tom Sturridge, who beat out his co-stars Alec Baldwin and Ben Foster to snag the sole acting nomination for Best Play Revival contender Orphans.
Also among the excluded Lead Actor names despite strong reviews are Alan Cumming in Macbeth, Jim Parsons in Harvey, and Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon in Grace.
The nomination for Lane in The Nance, playing a gay burlesque performer in 1930s New York whose specialty is campy comic shtick, broke a long unlucky streak. Since winning Lead Actor in a Musical in 2001 for The Producers, Lane has been consistently overlooked by Tony nominators, for roles in The Odd Couple, Waiting for Godot and The Addams Family, among others.
The lead acting slots in a musical are unusually high on cross-dressing roles this year. Competing for actor honors, Bertie Carvel as Matilda’s tyrannical headmistress faces off against Billy Porter’s drag footwear designer in Kinky Boots. In the actress stakes, Stephanie J. Block is in the running for her turn as a Victorian music hall performer specializing in trouser roles in Best Musical Revival candidate The Mystery of Edwin Drood, while Patina Miller earned a nod as the sinister Leading Player in Pippin, a role originated by Ben Vereen and traditionally played by male actors.
Also up for Lead Actor in a Musical is Porter’s Kinky Boots co-star Stark Sands, Rob McClure for his transformative work as the iconic silent screen star in Chaplin, and Santino Fontana as the Prince in Cinderella. His co-star Laura Osnes is a contender for the title role in Cinderella, alongside Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross in Motown: The Musical, and Carolee Carmello as evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in the short-lived Kathy Lee Gifford musical Scandalous.
While Motown was passed over in the Best Musical race, the Berry Gordy jukebox bio is off to a roaring start at the box office, indicating that its enduringly popular song catalogue is a marketing hook that doesn’t require great reviews or awards attention. The show scored four nominations, including a Featured Actor nod for Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson.
The remaining two slots for Best Musical, up against Matilda and Kinky Boots, went to the holiday-season entry A Christmas Story, which received three nominations and is due back for a return engagement at the end of the year; and the cheerleading spectacle Bring It On, nominated twice. Three of the contenders in that key field are based on movies, indicating how frequently Broadway musicals now look to Hollywood for source material.
Another growing trend on Broadway is the arrival of composers from popular music and other fields, dipping their toes in the musical-theater waters. The nominees for Best Original Score include Cyndi Lauper for Kinky Boots, Phish frontman Trey Anastasio (and Amanda Green) for Hands on a Hardbody, and Australian cabaret comedian-singer Tim Minchin for Matilda. Rounding out the category is the talented young composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for A Christmas Story.
In addition to Pippin, Cinderella and Edwin Drood, the remaining title up for Best Musical Revival is Annie, representing the sole nomination landed by the beloved 1977 show.
Familiar names nominated in the featured acting races include Richard Kind (The Big Knife), Tony Shalhoub (Golden Boy) and Courtney B. Vance (Lucky Guy), competing with Danny Burstein (Golden Boy) and Billy Magnussen (Vanya and Sonia). One notable absentee is Al Pacino for David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a box office smash that found little favor with critics in its limited engagement.
After taking home a Tony for Featured Actress in a Play last year for Other Desert Cities, Judith Light is back in the same spot this year for Assembled Parties. In addition to Coon for Virginia Woolf, her competition includes Judith Ivey (The Heiress), Shalita Grant for Vanya and Sonia, and Condola Rashad for The Trip to Bountiful, which is also up for Best Play Revival.
Among the directing nominees, Bartlett Sher, Diane Paulus and Matthew Warchus have each been responsible for multiple Tony-winning productions -- Awake and Sing! and South Pacific from Sher; Hair and Porgy and Bess from Paulus; Beoing-Boeing, God of Carnage and The Norman Conquests from Warchus. Nominated this year for Direction of a Play for Golden Boy, Sher will compete against Pam MacKinnon (Virginia Woolf), Nicholas Martin (Vanya and Sonia) and George C. Wolfe (Lucky Guy). Paulus, nominated for Direction of a Musical for Pippin, and Warchus for Matilda, share that field with Scott Ellis (Edwin Drood) and Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots).
Conspicuous among multiple nominees is busy veteran lighting designer Kenneth Posner, who snagged three of the four slots for Best Lighting Design of a Musical with his work on Kinky Boots, Pippin and Cinderella. His sole competitor is Hugh Vanstone for Matilda. Posner won previously in 2007 for his lighting on Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia. Also doubling up in craft categories is David Rockwell, nominated for Best Scenic Design both for play and musical for Lucky Guy and KInky Boots.
The 2013 Tony Awards will be presented Sunday June 9 at Radio City Music Hall, broadcast live on CBS starting at 8 p.m. EST. A complete list of nominations can be found at: http://www.tonyawards.com.