5:56pm PT by Scott Feinberg, David Rooney
Tonys: With 'Hamilton' On Its Way to Big Wins, Will Other Shows Even Try to Compete? (Analysis)
The 2015-16 Broadway season has produced a sizable class of new musicals — among them Allegiance, Amazing Grace, American Psycho, Bright Star, Disaster!, On Your Feet!, School of Rock, Tuck Everlasting and Waitress. In years past, a number of those shows might have made a legitimate bid to become Tony winners. But this year, they have the misfortune of coming up against the biggest phenomenon to strike the Great White Way in recent memory — a show that became the overwhelming Tony frontrunner the moment it premiered at the Public Theater last season and announced its intentions to head uptown to the Richard Rodgers.
We're referring, of course, to Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, the multiethnic hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.
On April 18, Hamilton — which has already broken box-office records, won a Grammy and even been feted at the White House — became the ninth musical to win the century-old Pulitzer Prize for Drama, following in the distinguished footsteps of Of Thee I Sing (1932), South Pacific (1950), Fiorello! (1960), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1962), A Chorus Line (1976), Sunday in the Park With George (1985), Rent (1996) and Next to Normal (2010). Of Thee I Sing preceded the creation of the Tonys, but all but two of the rest of the Pulitzer pack — Sunday in the Park With George and Next to Normal — went on to win the best musical Tony.
At this point, there's no question that Hamilton will dominate at the Tonys; the only question is how dominant will it be.
Best musical — the most coveted of all Tonys because it's the only one that's been shown to have any real bounce effect at the box office — is a foregone conclusion, according to most Broadway insiders. "It's gonna be pretty hard to beat," says veteran Broadway producer Scott Sanders, whose show The Color Purple is a favorite in the best revival of a musical category. "I think we all would agree that Lin-Manuel's show has captured the zeitgeist in a way that's not been seen in a very, very long time in the theater world."
High-profile and vocal Hamilton champions range from legendary composer John Kander (Cabaret), Miranda's mentor, to Broadway superfan Rosie O'Donnell, who says she's seen the show a dozen times. With plenty of that sort of backing, it will almost certainly win best score, choreography and orchestrations. Probably best book, too, although being a sung-through musical may make it difficult for voters to separate its book from its score (its music and lyrics), creating an opening for another show to take book honors.
In the acting categories, though, Hamilton wins aren't slam-dunks. The Tony Awards Administration Committee met on Nov. 12 and decided that both Miranda, who plays the title role, and Leslie Odom Jr., who plays his rival, Aaron Burr, will be considered for lead actor in a musical, while Phillipa Soo, who plays Eliza Hamilton, will be considered for lead actress. All the other performers associated with the show will compete in the featured actor or actress categories.
Odom and Miranda look like sure things for nominations, but, being in the same category, could also cancel each other out — a scenario that would benefit the likes of Fiddler on the Roof's Danny Burstein, American Psycho's Benjamin Walker or School of Rock's Alex Brightman. Between the two, commanding Odom is thought to have the stronger shot, although Miranda has been the public face of the show and affection for him and his efforts in creating it could easily put him over the top.
Soo, also a sure bet for a nom, faces an even tougher fight for a win, since she's competing in perhaps the strongest of all of this year's acting categories. Her competition includes six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald for Shuffle Along; Waitress' Jessie Mueller, who won this prize just two years ago for Beautiful; She Loves Me's soaring comedic songbird Laura Benanti; The Color Purple's breakout star Cynthia Erivo; Bright Star's glowingly reviewed Broadway newcomer Carmen Cusack; and another discovery, Ana Villafane, who wowed critics as Gloria Estefan in the bio-musical On Your Feet!
In the featured actor race, Hamilton's ensemble offers even more options, the best prospects being Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), Jonathan Groff (King George) and Christopher Jackson (George Washington). But there are only five slots in this particular category, and only three shows — Big River (1985), Kiss Me Kate (2000) and The Producers (2001) — have ever claimed more than two in a given year.
Featured actress in a musical would seem to be Renee Elise Goldsberry's to lose for her role as Angelica, the Schuyler sister who first catches Alexander's eye but steps aside for her beloved Eliza. However, even that race is not without stiff competition — from She Loves Me's Jane Krakowski and The Color Purple's Danielle Brooks, among others. Krakowski has been absent from Broadway since 2003, when she won a Tony in the same category for Nine, while Orange Is the New Black regular Brooks earned raves for her Broadway debut in the scene-stealing role of Sofia.
With Hamilton dominating the spotlight leading up to the Tonys and expected to be the toast of the awards show itself, other questions arise. Is the wildly successful show producing a rising tide of interest in Broadway that is lifting all ships — or is it crowding other shows out of the marketplace? The answer appears to be fairly complex.
"Hamilton is certainly the number one choice for most people," producer Sanders acknowledges. "But you can't get a ticket to Hamilton for months and months, so many of those people are going to go and check out something else." He does wonder, however, if demand for Hamilton tickets is detrimentally impacting the sale of tickets to other musicals on the secondary market, where resale agents command atmospheric prices for hard-to-get tickets. "There's not unlimited financial resources from the secondary market, so that may well cause [theatergoers] to spend less on some of the other shows."
Hamilton's presumed strength in the Tonys race could also impact the campaign spending of the other new musicals after nominations are announced on May 3. Those shows could decide to spend less than nominees usually do since they face such an uphill climb for a win — but Sanders thinks that may not prove to be the case, since summer tourist season is just around the corner and all shows need to boost their profiles. "I don't think you'll see that go away this year, even if some think it's a fait accompli that Hamilton will win," he says. "It's still an important marketing tool for both the spring shows that have just opened and need to throw gasoline on the fire, and for those of us who opened in the fall and would love a second bite at the apple."
In other words, even if all signs point to a big night for Hamilton, the other shows are not throwing away their shot.