Will Audra McDonald Pull Off a Tony Awards Grand Slam?

11:30 AM PST 04/25/2014 by David Rooney
Audra McDonald in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill"

With the Tony Awards Administration Committee's final eligibility decision on Friday, speculation now intensifies as to whether the five-time winner might become the first performer to take home trophies in all four acting categories.

NEW YORK – The final Broadway show of the season, Cabaret, opened last night, just under the wire in order to be eligible for Tony Awards consideration. Now the serious prognostications can begin.

Theater insiders have been watching anxiously to see how a number of plays and musicals would be positioned, among them Violet, The Cripple of Inishmaan and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, all of which opened in the past week. Given that these shows are being presented on Broadway for the first time but have been previously seen elsewhere on New York stages, they could in theory be considered either as new works or revivals. The Tony Awards exclusively recognize Broadway productions.

But all three landed squarely in the revival category at Friday's final meeting of the Tony Awards Administration Committee.

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The more pressing question, however, concerned Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, the 1986 Billie Holiday bio-drama, constructed as an emotionally rocky late-night concert by the legendary jazz vocalist just months before her death. Also being seen on Broadway for the first time, the "play with music" is a dramatic piece containing performances of more than a dozen songs. That left open not only the revival question but also the possibility that it could go into either the play or musical category.

By ruling the show a revival of a play, the Tony committee has paved the way for Audra McDonald's rapturously received performance to be nominated for lead actress in a play, the one female acting category in which she hasn't already notched up at least one win.

McDonald has won for featured actress in a musical twice, in Carousel (1994) and Ragtime (1998). She also scored two wins for featured actress in a play, in Master Class (1996) and A Raisin in the Sun (2004). And in 2012 she won for lead actress in a musical in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. She received two other nominations for lead actress in a musical, but a Lady Day nod would be her first as lead actress in a play, putting her in a position to make history as the Tonys' first grand-slam performance winner.

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The positioning of McDonald in the play stakes rather than for musical no doubt will come as a relief to the crowd of beloved Broadway babies fighting for lead actress recognition in that race, one of this year's most competitive fields. 

The top contenders include Sutton Foster in Violet, Jessie Mueller in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Kelli O'Hara in The Bridges of Madison County and Idina Menzel in If/Then, all of whom are past nominees or winners. And while her distinctive take on the iconic Sally Bowles role in Cabaret proved sharply divisive with critics, Michelle Williams is also in that mix, along with Mary Bridget Davies for her hard-rocking turn in A Night with Janis Joplin.

Pundits had also been wondering in advance of Friday's meeting how the committee would deal with Cabaret. Given that the revival, co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, is a return engagement of a production first presented in 1998 (when it won the Tony for best musical revival), many anticipated that it would be ruled ineligible this year.

However, the committee has opted to keep the show in the running for best revival, along with its cast for acting honors consideration. The sole exception is Alan Cumming, who won the 1998 lead actor Tony for his role as the sinisterly seductive Emcee, and is therefore ineligible this time. Design and technical contributions also will be excluded from consideration.

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In addition to the fierce competition among lead actresses, lead actor in a musical promises to be a smackdown between clear front-runners Neil Patrick Harris for his knockout turn as a transgender East German rocker in Hedwig, and Jefferson Mays, giving a virtuoso comedic master class as eight doomed members of a British aristocratic clan in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. But don't count out Ramin Karimloo and Will Swenson in that race, both of whom have a lot of support as adversaries in the revival of Les Miserables, which has been doing stellar business since opening in March.

The fields for lead actor and actress in a play are jam-packed, with the contenders including such names as Bryan Cranston, Mark Rylance, Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson JacksonDaniel Radcliffe, Tyne Daly, James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, Tony Shalhoub, Santino Fontana, Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Rafe Spall, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Debra Messing, Brian F. O'Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Estelle Parsons, Michael C. Hall, Toni Collette and Roger Rees. Given the limited number of nomination slots, expect a lot of high-profile shutouts.

While there's no shortage of outstanding work vying in the performance categories, the current Broadway season has been widely considered to be a disappointing one for both new plays and musicals. And with a tweak to the rules this year allowing those key categories to be expanded from four nominations to five, speculation ranges all over the map as to which productions will make the cut.

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In the absence of one or two clear favorites, like Billy Elliot or The Book of Mormon in their respective seasons, and Kinky Boots and Matilda last year, the all-important new musical race for once is wide open. Top contenders are generally judged to include A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, After Midnight and Disney's Aladdin, with the remaining slots likely to go to one or more shows that got spottier critical receptions, among them Beautiful, The Bridges of Madison County, Bullets Over Broadway, Rocky and If/Then.

The new play category is also anyone's guess. The one sure thing would appear to be Robert Schenkkan's political history drama All the Way, propelled by Cranston's dynamic lead performance as Lyndon B. Johnson. Other contenders likely to figure in the mix include Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses, John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar, Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina and Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons.

The Tony nominations will be announced April 29 by Lucy Liu and Jonathan Groff. The June 8 awards ceremony will be broadcast live on CBS from Radio City Music Hall, hosted by Hugh Jackman.

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