Tonys: On the Town With 4 Weeks to Go

THR's awards columnist discusses the library where Broadway shows live on long after they've closed, potential spoilers in the best play and best musical races, the general lack of respect for 'Cats' and more.
Matthew Murphy
'Come from Away'

For the fourth year in a row, I've temporarily relocated from Los Angeles to New York to cover the homestretch of Broadway's race to the Tonys, which return to Radio City Music Hall on June 11. This season, in addition to podcast interviews with contenders and later roundtable conversations with six male and six female acting nominees, I'm posting a weekly dispatch about what I'm seeing and hearing during this most exciting time of year. Here's this week's, my fourth.

With the Tonys now less than one month away, I'm almost entirely caught up with seeing the 25 shows represented among this season's nominations (and several others). I've been fortunate to catch most of them in a theater, but a few came and went before I had the chance to see them, and in cases like that it's wonderful to be able to consult the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which preserves filmed copies of almost every show — or knows where they can be found. For instance, I asked TFTA to show me the revival of Falsettos ahead of recording a podcast with Andrew Rannells, a best featured actor in a musical nominee for that best revival of a musical Tony-nominated show, which actually landed more acting noms than any other; they informed me that it was filmed by PBS for airing later this spring and then helped me to track it down. They're an under-appreciated resource and I thank them for what they do.

That being said, there is, of course, nothing quite like seeing a show live. My week's in-person viewing commenced Tuesday when I caught Lynn Nottage's Sweat, the winner of 2017's Pulitzer Prize for Drama (she also previously won for 2009's Ruined), at Studio 54. Inside the former nightclub famous for its disco ball and blow consumption, a grungy bar in a once-booming Pennsylvania steel town came to life, peopled with an ensemble of performers — including best featured actress in a play Tony nominees Johanna Day and Michelle Wilson — portraying the same working-class characters at different points throughout the 21st century, as their lives increasingly went down the toilet. Anyone who can't understand how millions felt so despondent and/or angry about the "rigged" system that they voted for Donald Trump last November — essentially, a vote to "blow up" said system — needs to see this show. I'd like to think that, under the same circumstances, I wouldn't have reached the same illogical conclusion (Trump is screwing these people as we speak), but I'll never know. I do know that Sweat has earned its place in a four-horse race for best play alongside A Doll's House, Part 2, Indecent and Oslo, and it's still simply too close to call.

The same can be said for the best musical Tony race, the only one with major implications on box office sales. Most assume that it's between two shows that moved uptown this season after widely heralded runs downtown last season — The Great Comet, which landed more overall noms than any other show (12), and Dear Evan Hansen, which was not far behind (nine) — but I'm not so sure, particularly after Wednesday, when I saw a matinee of Come from Away. A "9/11 musical" may sound like even less fun than "the Oslo Accords play," but Come from Away is every bit as much of a must-see as Oslo. It's a Capra-esque portrayal of a true story that celebrates tolerance and kindness — especially toward foreigners — at a time when those things seem to be in short supply. There's a reason why this is the show that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invited Ivanka Trump to see with him, and I don't believe it's because it's set in Canada. THR theater critic Frank Scheck called it "the feel-good show of the season," and I think the fact that it really is that — as much as its winning cast, including best featured actress in a musical Tony nominee Jenn Colella, with her awesome solo "Me and My Sky" — could tip things in its favor. Unlike The Great Comet and Dear Evan Hansen or the current news cycle, there's no shortage of people to root for in this musical, and people may just want a pick-me-up.

On Thursday night I caught Broadway's first revival of 1991's controversial but blockbusting Miss Saigon, which garnered Tony noms for best revival of a musical and for Eva Noblezada as best actress in a musical (though those are already all but collected by Hello, Dolly and its star Bette Midler, respectively). The audience at the Broadway Theatre for this show — which examines the relationship between an American soldier and a Vietnamese prostitute during the waning days of the Vietnam War, a period also captured in Rory Kennedy's Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary Last Days in Vietnam — was the most diverse of any I've seen this season, which was heartening to see. The response to an incredible helicopter sequence was much more uniform: It blows everyone away, figuratively and almost literally! You know it's a competitive year when there's not room to recognize that sort of achievement with even a nomination in the best scenic design of a musical Tony category.

I have an even harder time swallowing the notion that there was no room in any category to acknowledge the show that I saw Friday night, another revival of a decades-old musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. I say this not because Cats — which previously ran at the Winter Garden Theatre for 7,485 performances spanning 1982 through 2000, making it the longest-running show in Broadway history at the time that it closed, only to later be surpassed by another Lloyd Webber musical, The Phantom of the Opera, which is at 12,190 performances and counting —  was or is the greatest show of all time, but because, in my humble opinion, it is crapped on to an unfair degree, including nightly in Six Degrees of Separation. Sure, it has no real plot, just a ton of songs about, well, cats. But the set was/is incredible, the dancing was/is outstanding and the music was/is remarkably catchy (I saw the show on Broadway when I was in grade school and remember almost every song 20-plus years later). Moreover, a ton of incredibly talented people have worked on the show in one professional incarnation or another (including Groundhog Day's three-time Tony nominee Andy Karl, as well as two-time Tony nominee Charlotte d'Amboise) en route to bigger and better things.

Perhaps most importantly, Cats was and is a great recruitment tool for Broadway. On Friday, I sat behind an adorable little girl attending the show with her grandfather, and by the end of the show she was completely won over, just as I was around the same age. It's easy to poo-poo such things, but the reality is this: Shows like The Great Comet and Dear Evan Hansen, as wonderful as they are, aren't serving that purpose. Call me crazy, but perhaps there's a reason why Lloyd Webber has four musicals concurrently running on Broadway right now — Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, The School of Rock and Sunset Boulevard — a number attained only once before, in the summer of 1953, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The man knows how to create art that also speaks to the masses.

Anyway, just my two cents — nothing to stop you from printing this column and throwing it in the litter box!

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