Tonys: Previewing the Noms, Possible Snubs and Surprises

Chief theater critic David Rooney and awards columnist Scott Feinberg offer predictions and analysis ahead of Tuesday's big announcement.
Matthew Murphy
'Dear Evan Hansen'

FEINBERG David, 'tis the season once again — Tony season, that is — with nominations coming our way tomorrow morning. Today, the Tony Awards Nominating Committee — a group of no more than 50 "theater professionals selected by the Tony Awards Administration Committee" who "serve for overlapping three-year terms" — is meeting to make its decisions. It feels like there's no Goliath (aka Hamilton) in the running this year, but which of the many Davids (no relation) do you anticipate leading the field tomorrow?

ROONEY I think you're right that we won't see any record numbers, but among the shows that do very well with multiple nominations I expect to see Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dear Evan Hansen and Hello, Dolly!. As for plays, the strength of the ensemble work in Oslo, A Doll's House, Part 2, The Little Foxes and the now-closed production of August Wilson's Jitney should boost their numbers with acting and maybe directing nods. Among the musicals, Come From Away is also likely to land wide mentions, though it's really an ensemble piece without standout performances (except maybe Jenn Colella), and the generic Celtic-flavored score is less a factor in its success than the depth of feel-good sentiment behind it. Still, it will likely be a contender for best musical, book and a few other awards. Also, War Paint is not everyone's cup of rouge, but attention for Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, as well as the exquisite design elements, should boost its numbers.

FEINBERG The last night on which a show could have opened and still been eligible for this year's Tonys was April 27, as you well know, since many of the shows generating the most buzz in the run-up to voting came out in a cluster toward the end — there was one opening a night from April 23 through April 27, keeping you very busy writing reviews. This is because producers have concluded that contenders have a better chance of being remembered by — and still feeling fresh and exciting to — voters if they come out late in the game. But are there shows from early in the 2016-17 season that you think can defy that logic and score some major noms?

ROONEY Tell me about it — my brain is still fried from reviewing major shows every day! I already mentioned Jitney, and it would be a crime if Ruben Santiago-Hudson's beautiful production were under-represented, including some of its cast, like John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden. I think both Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh deserve to be in the running for The Present, but the lead acting races are quite crowded with strong contenders. The deluxe revival of The Front Page is at a disadvantage, having closed early February, but Nathan Lane's virtuoso comedic turn was one of the season's highlights and shouldn't be forgotten; nor should the production. And I can't see James Lapine's gorgeous revival of Falsettos being overlooked. The nominators should just erase Christian Borle's work in the noxious Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from their minds (I know I've tried to) and honor his moving performance in Falsettos, along with that of Andrew Rannells and especially the insanely good Stephanie J. Block, who deserves to win the featured actress in a musical category. Some of the pundits are talking up Heisenberg, which closed in December, but I found that one of the most critically overrated plays of the year, and Mary-Louise Parker's Oldest Living Manic Pixie Dream Girl shtick was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Longest 90 minutes of my life.

FEINBERG What about shows that did open late in the season, but failed to click at the box office and couldn't even survive through the Tony nominations? Is that a kiss of death for their prospects, or do you think that Nom-Com members will be able to divorce artistic considerations from commercial considerations? I'm crossing my fingers and toes for a personal favorite, the play Significant Other, which died a premature death on April 23 ...

ROONEY Well, it certainly doesn't help. I also liked Significant Other quite a bit and prefer it to some of the heavily touted and more sober plays with weightier themes. It would be great to see its lead actor Gideon Glick mentioned, as well as the sublime Barbara Barrie, who at 85 is an under-appreciated national treasure. I doubt there'll be a lot of love for the lightweight a cappella musical, In Transit, which came and went.

FEINBERG Every year, it seems, two or three financially struggling shows limp along to Tony nominations morning, hoping for salvation from the Nom-Com, and then close shortly after not getting it. Which of this year's crop of shows can least afford a shutout?

ROONEY Among the musicals, Groundhog Day hasn't yet translated its terrific reviews and major love for star Andy Karl into stellar box office, so I hope the Tony noms will help remedy that. Amelie hasn't set the world on fire (for good reason — I'm no fan of that strained quirk-a-thon), so that one really needs to be in the race to remain visible, as do the plays Indecent and A Doll's House, Part 2. The latter has struggled in previews, but the reviews were superb so it should see some turnaround soon, and its lead, Laurie Metcalf, will likely become the front-runner for actress honors. The Glass Menagerie has been quite divisive and could use some Tony help to get through its limited engagement, but if Sally Field is overlooked the revival might have a tough time sticking it out until its July closing date. Six Degrees of Separation could also use a box office boost, so if the nominators don't go for that it could be grim. This has been a very difficult spring for both new plays and nonmusical revivals. Even with its Pulitzer win, the topical Rust Belt drama Sweat could use some help at the box office.

FEINBERG And then there's Sunday in the Park with George, the Sondheim revival starring a singing Jake Gyllenhaal, which opened late in the season, did tremendously well at the box office and yet won't be a factor Tuesday. Neither will Sunset Boulevard's leading lady, Glenn Close, even though one of your colleagues at The New York Times hailed her work in that as "one of the great performances of the century." Can you explain why these contenders will be MIA?

ROONEY Well, Close is basically reprising a performance that won her a Tony 22 years ago, so it makes sense that the Administration Committee declared her ineligible. Sunday was withdrawn from consideration by its own team, which is a real heartbreaker because it could have made the musical revival race much more interesting — not that I have any problem with the delightful Hello, Dolly! cleaning up. It is a real a shame though not to see Gyllenhaal and his co-star Annaleigh Ashford's tremendous work recognized. But you've also got to respect the producers' logic as the profit margins on limited engagements like that one can be very tight, and if you have to accommodate more than 800 Tony voters and their plus-ones, that makes a significant difference to your investment return. In any case, Gyllenhaal has shown a real commitment to stage acting, so hopefully he'll be back on Broadway soon and next time will have a shot at a Tony. I preferred his deeply affecting performance in Sunday to Mandy Patinkin's in the original production.

FEINBERG The original Sunday in the Park opened in 1984 and was nominated for best musical. It's one of several 2016-17 revivals of shows that, in earlier incarnations, were nominated for best play or best musical, the others being Sunset Boulevard (1995 best musical winner), Falsettos (1992 best musical nominee), Six Degrees of Separation (1991 best play nominee), Miss Saigon (1991 best musical nominee), Cats (1983 best musical winner), The Price (1968 best play nominee) and Hello, Dolly! (1964 best musical winner). Is it your sense that past success is a good predictor of future success?

ROONEY It still blows my mind to read that Cats won best musical in 1983. That show left me cold the first time around and no less so this time. In fact, the night I saw the revival the set broke down, so we didn't even get to watch Grizabella ascend to kitty-cat heaven, or "The Heavyside Layer" or whatever the hell it's called. Poor Leona Lewis just stood there like a deer in the headlights and then walked off. I don't know the statistics about past winners getting honored again in their revivals, but I doubt that all the historical wins in the world help unless voters love the current production.

FEINBERG Of the new shows, I think the prevailing sentiment is that the musicals are stronger than the plays. Do you sign on to that idea?

ROONEY To a degree. Any season that yields the rollicking vitality of Great Comet, the searing emotionality of Evan Hansen and the crazed inventiveness of Groundhog Day is worth celebrating — not to mention the nostalgic bliss of Hello, Dolly! and the poignancy of Falsettos, just to factor in the revivals. And how lucky are we to see the contrasting brilliance of two Broadway greats, LuPone and Ebersole, on stage in the same show? But Oslo is a political thriller that remains utterly riveting even though we know the outcome, and who ever dreamed that protracted diplomatic negotiations could make such fascinating dramatic fodder? And A Doll's House, Part 2 is a whip-smart deconstruction of a classic that's funny, thoughtful and full of contemporary relevance. I see that play being in high demand from theater companies around the country and abroad too. I have my reservations about both Indecent and Sweat, but they're intelligent, impassioned works, and I don't think you can describe a season as disappointing for plays when important American playwrights like J.T. Rogers, Lucas Hnath, Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage are making their Broadway debuts.

FEINBERG Before the Tony Nominating Committee gets to weigh in, the Tony Administration Committee meets four times to determine which categories (lead or featured) various performers should be eligible in. This year, there were a number of close calls, from Hello, Dolly!'s David Hyde Pierce to The Great Comet's Josh Groban (both were deemed leads), and the list goes on. Did the Administration Committee — in announcement one, two, three or four — place anyone in a category that surprised you or that you feel is inappropriate?

ROONEY For me Pierce is very much a leading performance, and what a great season for him; he was absolutely wonderful also in the off-Broadway play A Life. Groban is trickier because Great Comet is such an ensemble piece that everyone is essentially a featured actor. I have to confess I went in expecting a recording star who would step up for his solos and either coast or disappear through the rest of the show, but Groban is giving a full-throated performance in every way. He'd definitely make my shortlist of the best lead actors in a musical this season. You could argue about putting Corey Hawkins in lead and John Benjamin Hickey in featured for Six Degrees, given that there's not a lot of difference in their stage time. But Hawkins' character is as much the center of this production as Allison Janney's (so great to have her back on Broadway), so in terms of nuance it makes sense to consider Hawkins a lead.

FEINBERG Last year, of course, was the year of "the Hamiltonys," as in Hamilton, which, along with The Color Purple, Eclipsed and Shuffle Along, resulted in an unprecedented level of diversity amongst the nominees and winners. This year, however, it seems likely that there will be a major reversion to the way things were before. Which shows about people of color and/or people of color themselves stand the best shot at preventing a whiteout?

ROONEY Well, Hawkins, since I just mentioned him, really deserves to be in there. I found him incredibly magnetic. Condola Rashad in Doll's House is giving a performance of transfixing poise, but then there's no weak link in that four-person cast, which is possibly the tightest ensemble in town. As I mentioned earlier, Thompson and Dirden would be locks for Jitney if there were any justice, as would director Santiago-Hudson, who has become one of the foremost interpreters of August Wilson's plays. And I thought Khris Davis gave the standout performance in Sweat. I really liked both Denee Benton and Barrett Doss, in Great Comet and Groundhog, respectively, though both of them are perhaps long shots for a nomination. Too often the racial inclusiveness discussion ends up just being about African-American actors, so it would be great to see some Latino, Asian and Arab world representation too. I think newcomer Eva Noblezada deserves attention for Miss Saigon, though if she's rubbing shoulders in the lead-actress-in-a-musical group with royalty like Bette Midler, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, she should just enjoy being along for the ride. Phillipa Soo, who's Asian-American and a deserving nominee last year for Hamilton, is a terrific performer, but I just don't think Amelie was a great career choice for her. She's not at her best in that show.

FEINBERG OK, time to throw some weight around, David: If there are any Tony Nominating Committee members reading this, what show or person would you like to plead with them to include that you fear they may not?

ROONEY Well, a lot of them we've mentioned already, but the complexity of Rachel Chavkin's direction and Mimi Lien's amazing designs for Great Comet really must be acknowledged. Some of the performances that thrilled me this season — and I'll be unhappy if they're missing from the lineup — were Jennifer Ehle and Michael Aronov in Oslo, one doing impeccably understated work and the other bringing sizzling rock-star swagger; Mary Beth Peil classing up every moment she's onstage in Anastasia; Rachel Bay Jones, who's as significant to the emotional impact of Evan Hansen as the knockout Ben Platt; Cynthia Nixon's heartbreaking Birdie in The Little Foxes; and Danny DeVito having a blast playing one of Arthur Miller's rare comic creations in The Price. I'd love to see two of my favorites, Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell, included among the featured actresses in a musical for Great Comet. What Nathan Lane did in the fall with The Front Page, Kevin Kline is now doing with supreme style in Present Laughter. And after Midler's outrageous snub a couple seasons back for I'll Eat You Last, they better not even think about omitting her this year or rioting show-queens will descend on the theater district with pitchforks. I'll be leading the pack.

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