Tonys: On the Town With 7 Weeks to Go

THR's awards columnist discusses Kevin Spacey, 'Hello, Dolly!,' 'Groundhog Day,' 'War Paint' and 'Significant Other.'
Julieta Cervantes
Bette Midler in 'Hello, Dolly!'

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'll be posting a weekly dispatch about what I'm seeing and hearing during this most exciting time of year. I hope you'll follow along and enjoy.

The hot topic for the first half of the week was Tuesday's announcement of this year's Tonys host — particularly because it wasn't someone who was on many radars at all. The names of past hosts like Neil Patrick Harris and James Corden were, inevitably, tossed around, and rumors suggested Tina Fey or Lin-Manuel Miranda might also be in the mix. But, in the end, the pick was Kevin Spacey, who is best known for his work in movies and on TV, but who did, in fact, win a Tony 26 years ago (in the featured actor in a play category, for Lost in Yonkers); occasionally returns to the Great White Way (most recently a decade ago in A Moon for the Misbegotten); and is enough of a ham, singer and dancer to strike me as an inspired choice.

Broadway loves few things more than Hollywood A-listers returning for visits, so Spacey should get a warm welcome at Radio City. And CBS will be pretty happy, too, since a household face and name is far likelier to attract viewers from other parts of the country to tune in to an awards show about plays and musicals they haven't seen than some other recent Tonys hosts, who are locally loved but largely unknown out of town. Spacey may have his own motivations, as well: In a year jam-packed with quality TV dramas, the House of Cards star will be front-and-center on one of the major broadcast networks the night before Emmy nominations voting begins!

Spacey excitement largely was drowned out, though, by the end of the week — specifically by Thursday's opening-night performance and New York Public Library afterparty for Hello, Dolly!, which even Broadway vets described as an event in this town, since it marked not only the revival of one of Broadway's most beloved shows, but also the return of one of its most beloved stars, Bette Midler. It wouldn't have taken a genius to predict that the show would be a hit — it notched more than $40 million in advance sales during previews. But, it turns out, it's also damn good — despite some advance skepticism about Midler playing a part at 71 that Carol Channing originated on Broadway at 42 and Barbra Streisand played on film at 26, critics and audiences are almost universally loving it. Check out THR's chief theater critic David Rooney's love-letter of a review — teaser line: "A treasured star is right back where she belongs."

"I can't recall the last time I felt a crowd so frothed up with excitement at a Broadway show," Rooney adds, and it's true that people were giddily smiling and stretching their legs in anticipation of standing ovations before they even took their seats on Thursday night. But, watching the show, I couldn't help but think that there is a fairly recent parallel: Hamilton. Sure, in some ways Hello, Dolly! is the anti-Hamilton: it's not new or edgy or hip (though there is, perhaps, a bit more diversity amongst its cast this time than there was in 1964). But, oddly enough, just one season after the Hamiltonys, it is the hottest ticket of all shows that opened in 2017, with an average ticket price last week of $231 (exceeded across town only by Hamilton's $290).

On Friday, I caught the musical-comedy Groundhog Day, a bold adaptation of the 1993 Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell film (MacDowell sat across the aisle from me at the show) that stars the actor who probably has been the MVP of my four Broadway seasons, Andy Karl. In that span, the dashing 43-year-old — think Cary Grant, but buffer and with a great singing voice — has starred in 2014's Rocky, 2016's On the Twentieth Century and now this show, the New York Times review of which is aptly headlined: "A Star Is Born (and Born and Born)." Karl earned Tony noms for the first two aforementioned shows and struck many as a slam-dunk for a third nom this go-around — but then he was injured performing a stunt during an April 14 preview performance, resulting in an announcement that he will have to miss several performances.

In Tonys competition, that sort of thing can play either way: Some may be inclined to reward a performer who's beating the boards eight times a week over one who isn't — but my suspicion is that goodwill towards Karl, which already is considerable, will only increase because he's still out there pushing himself as much as he can. (At the performance I caught, a winking reference he made to his knee, which was adorned with a brace, brought huge applause.)

My Saturday double-header consisted of War Paint and Significant Other. War Paint, an original musical drama about the rivalry between cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein — played by beloved Broadway divas and past Tony winners (two each) Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, respectively — is the New York theater's answer to FX's ongoing hit limited series Feud. As with the TV show's stars, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, the stage show's leads insist they have nothing but love for one another — but we'll have to check back after this summer's Emmys and Tonys!

As a thirtysomething male with friends dropping like flies to the institution of marriage, I could, in some ways, better relate to Significant Other, a dramedy that largely is about that very subject. For my money, it's one of the better plays of the last few years years, with strong work by an ensemble cast led by young Gideon Glick (a member of the original Spring Awakening company) and also including Barbara Barrie, the veteran of stage (she received a Tony nom for the 1971 Sondheim show Company) and screen (she got an Oscar nom for 1979's Breaking Away), which makes it all the sadder, to me, that this was its second-to-last performance. It's shuttering after Sunday's matinee due to poor box-office sales, and I suppose one can't blame the tourists who form the backbone of Broadway's audience for their lack of enthusiasm about a show that sounds like a downer. (Kudos to one out-of-towner who showed up to see it on Saturday night and who I ran into during intermission: my old pal RuPaul!) But the truth is it's funny and poignant, too, and I hope that members of the Tonys nominating committee, who have to see everything in order to get a ballot, will give it posthumous recognition.

Speaking of shows ending their run on Sunday afternoon, that's when — appropriately enough — I'll be catching the final performance of Sunday in the Park With George, the musical revival, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, that THR's Rooney called "a superlative revival imbued with the sense of discovery of an exciting new work." Tony voters will have an easier time determining what to do with Sunday in the Park than with Significant Other ... because it isn't eligible for recognition. With just a 10-week run, its backers decided that they'd rather sell as many tickets as possible than comp a chunk of them for Tonys voters — not a common move, but not unprecedented, either. Kind of a bummer, though, that we won't get to see Dolly and Sunday in the Park go head-to-head on June 11!

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