Tonys: Who Should Win, Who Will Win (Analysis)
Can nominations-leader "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" hold off crowd-pleaser "Beautiful" on Sunday? Will Bryan Cranston propel "All the Way" to a win? Is it finally Kelli O'Hara's year? THR's theater critic and awards analyst weigh in.
A version of this story appears in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
NEW YORK — With less than a week to go until the 68th Tony Awards are dished out at Radio City Music Hall on June 8 (voting closes on June 6), The Hollywood Reporter's theater critic David Rooney and awards analyst Scott Feinberg offer up their picks for who deserves to win and who is most likely to win, respectively, in all of the major categories.
Nominees: Act One, All the Way, Casa Valentina, Mothers and Sons, Outside Mullingar
Should Win (Rooney): All the Way
In an undistinguished season for new writing, Robert Schenkkan's All the Way has the weight of socio-politically important subject matter in its corner. It's hard to imagine this dense D.C. drama having quite the same impact without Bryan Cranston's ferociously human portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson as its propulsive engine, but the playwright nonetheless commands admiration for his lucid, large-canvas retelling of a momentous chapter in 20th century American history. However, it would be foolish to underestimate the love and loyalty of the Broadway community for Harvey Fierstein, which puts Casa Valentina very much in the running.
Will Win (Feinberg): All the Way
I give a slight edge to Schenkkan's drama about LBJ, thanks to the gravitas and scope of its subject matter and its sweep of this category at all four of the major Tony-precursors: the New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, the Outer Critics Circle Awards, the Drama League Awards and the Drama Desk Awards. One cannot rule out Fierstein's Casa Valentina, the story of a group of transvestites in the 1960s (my favorite of the lot); Act One, James Lapine's show about Moss Hart's formative years; and Mothers and Sons, a drama about present-day reverberations of the AIDS epidemic by Terrence McNally, a two-time winner of this category. But Outside Mullingar, an Irish-set love story which closed back in March, is probably out of serious contention.
Nominees: After Midnight, Aladdin, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Should Win (Rooney): A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
While it leads the pack with 10 nominations, this wickedly inventive musical by composer Robert L. Freedman and book writer-lyricist Steven Lutvak is trailing the baby boomer nostalgia-fest Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in forecasts for the top prize. That feel-good jukebox hit no doubt has superior touring potential, whereas there's a widespread view that Gentleman's Guide — a delicious black comedy styled as vintage British music hall, about a disinherited schemer's bid to kill everyone standing between him and his noble birthright — is perceived as having more love from critics than audiences. But for originality and wit, it wins hands down.
Will Win (Feinberg): Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
The Gilbert and Sullivan-esque comedy A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder scored 10 noms, more than any other show, and, having won top honors at the Outer Critics Circle, Drama League and Drama Desk awards, is the safe bet. But the Carole King jukebox musical Beautiful is tailor-made for baby boomers and road producers, who collectively account for a sizable percentage of Tony voters, so I feel like going out on a limb. (Seven years ago Jersey Boys prevailed over The Drowsy Chaperone under the same circumstances.) If there's to be a truly out-of-left-field spoiler, though, it could be the jazz revue After Midnight, a singing and dancing tour de force (which I found as impressive as any of the category's nominees), but more likely would be Disney Theatrical's Aladdin, a tremendous crowd-pleaser that would be the Mouse House's first show to win a top prize since The Lion King 16 years ago.
BEST REVIVAL OF A PLAY
Nominees: The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Glass Menagerie, A Raisin in the Sun, Twelfth Night
Should Win (Rooney): Twelfth Night
The remarkable quality of the 2013-14 Broadway season's dramatic revivals meant that as many outstanding contenders were shut out as made the grade, The Winslow Boy high among them. Any of the four nominees would be a worthy winner, and each one brought illuminating fresh insights to a well-worn text, which should be the decisive factor in this category. But with no disrespect to the other fine productions in the running, it's hard to go past the unique theatrical experience of the Shakespeare's Globe import. Its immersive atmosphere, exquisite design elements and a superlative cast that probed every nuance of comedy, romance and deception made this a truly magical event.
Will Win (Feinberg): The Glass Menagerie
Two shows that have already come and gone (Twelfth Night and The Glass Menagerie, both of which garnered seven noms, including mentions for their stars) are doing battle with two that are still going strong (The Cripple of Inishmaan and A Raisin in the Sun, which bagged six and five, respectively, but none for their A-list leading men, Hollywood imports Denzel Washington and Daniel Radcliffe). Earlier revivals of Twelfth (1999) and Raisin (2004) were nominated and lost; this year could certainly bring different outcomes for either — particularly Twelfth, which was highly acclaimed, won this category at the Drama Desk Awards and received a special citation from the New York Drama Critics' Circle. But I suspect that the time has finally come for Tennessee Williams' masterpiece Menagerie. No prior incarnation received even a single nom, let alone a win (one of the great oddities of Tonys history), but this one was recognized across the board by the Tony nom-com and has already won this category at the Outer Critics Circle and Drama League awards.
BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL
Nominees: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Les Miserables, Violet
Should Win (Rooney): Hedwig and the Angry Inch
John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's cult musical about the transgender East Berlin rocker with the botched surgery and bruised heart — a show long-defined by its scrappy downtown credentials — strutted defiantly onto Broadway in Michael Mayer's electrifying production. Wearing the gold go-go boots, the denim trailer-trash couture and the extravagant Farrah flip, Neil Patrick Harris works his toned tuchus off in the title role, claiming it as his own. The Violet revival starring Sutton Foster is a minor-key revelation, but Hedwig's glam-rock gutter-fabulousness should and will prove victorious.
Will Win (Feinberg): Hedwig and the Angry Inch
The latest Les Miserables revival — the second in a decade, coming little more than a year after the film version of the musical bolstered the brand — is now out-grossing every other 2014 show on Broadway. Hedwig and Violet, two unconventional shows that have never been mounted on Broadway before — they're only considered revivals because of a special rule that deems all frequently produced plays as such — aren't doing badly either thanks to the popularity of their respective stars, Harris (a beloved four-time host of the Tonys) and Foster (a two-time Tony winner). But Violet is a bit too small-scale and Les Miz a bit too oft-revived, so I think voters will opt for the hilarious and carefully controlled chaos that is Hedwig, as have the voters for the Outer Critics Circle, Drama League and Drama Desk awards.
BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY
Nominees: Samuel Barnett (Twelfth Night), Bryan Cranston (All the Way), Chris O'Dowd (Of Mice and Men), Mark Rylance (Richard III), Tony Shalhoub (Act One)
Should Win (Rooney): Cranston
If ever an actor fulfilled the mandate of a play's title, it's Cranston as "the accidental president," tracing Lyndon B. Johnson's ascension to the Oval Office following John F. Kennedy's assassination, his tenacious efforts to push through the Civil Rights Act and his contentious campaign to be elected in his own right. Humanized but never hagiographic, this monumental characterization marked a riveting Broadway debut and a bold next career step for Cranston after putting to bed one of the most iconic antiheroes in television history, Breaking Bad's Walter White.
Will Win (Feinberg): Cranston
Rylance is a favorite of the community (he has already won this category twice before — as many times as anyone in history — and is also nominated this year for best featured actor in a play in Twelfth Night). Shalhoub, who plays three characters, is on a roll (this is the second consecutive year in which he is a nominee). Barnett arguably had as tough an acting challenge as any of the category's nominees, portraying a woman disguised as a man. And O'Dowd, making his Broadway debut, was impressive enough to score a nom over his more famous co-star, James Franco. But if there's one thing that we should have learned from TV awards shows over the past few years, it's to be very careful about betting against Cranston, an immensely well-liked and respected thesp who, in his first Broadway appearance, gives a masterful, transformative turn as LBJ that has already been feted at the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards.
BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Nominees: Tyne Daly (Mothers and Sons), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (A Raisin in the Sun), Cherry Jones (The Glass Menagerie), Audra McDonald (Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill), Estelle Parsons (The Velocity of Autumn)
Should Win (Rooney): McDonald
OK, so she rarely leaves the house without snagging a Tony nomination, and with five trophies already on her shelf at the young age of 43 does she really need another one? But McDonald's haunting interpretation of Billie Holiday toward the end of the legendary jazz singer's life turned Lanie Robertson's modest play — a confessional bio-drama staged as a woozy late-night concert — into a transporting account of a life of joyous highs and devastating lows, enriched by magnificent vocals. But no less deserving is Jones for her towering performance as the reality-averse Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.
Will Win (Feinberg): McDonald
Although you have to go back to 1999 to find someone who won this category for a show that wasn't nominated for best play, I'd still bet on McDonald, who is poised to make history: A win would be her sixth, a new record, and make her the first person to win four different acting Tonys. (This year, she has already won Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards for her perf.) Of the other nominees, only Jackson's and Daly's plays are still open — Jones is Broadway royalty, but her show is long gone, as is 86-year-old Parsons' — and only Jackson has never previously won, or even been nominated for, a Tony. Considering that, as well as the fact that Phylicia Rashad won this category's award 10 years ago for her work in the same part in Raisin's last revival, Jackson, who is widely respected, should not be underestimated.
BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Nominees: Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Ramin Karimloo (Les Miserables), Andy Karl (Rocky), Jefferson Mays (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder), Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder)
Should Win (Rooney): Harris
After four acclaimed stints as host of the Tony Awards, Harris is a bona fide Broadway darling. But to attribute his front-runner status here to goodwill would be to diminish the dangerous energy, the subversive humor and the shabby dignity that he pours into the glam-rock goddess. In any other season, Mays' virtuoso comic turn as the eight doomed aristocrats in Gentleman's Guide (a multicharacter role immortalized by Alec Guinness in the classic Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets) would be a shoo-in, but Harris' Hedwig has her freak flag planted all over this award, and rightly so.
Will Win (Feinberg): Harris
Having two or more nominees from the same show in an acting category can cause vote-splitting, which threatens to undermine A Gentleman's Guide's Mays (a past Tony winner making his first foray into the musical genre as nine different characters) and Pinkham (a relative newcomer in the show's less demanding part). Meanwhile, Karl, despite his physically grueling perf, and Karimloo, making his Broadway debut as Jean Valjean, may be disadvantaged by the fact that they are playing roles so closely associated with others. But the biggest obstacle facing any of these men is the immense popularity of Harris, whose voice, humor and charm are on full display in Hedwig. At the end of the day, this will come down to Harris versus Mays -- Mays took the Outer Critics Circle prize, Harris and Mays tied for the Drama Desk award and Harris bagged the Drama League's Distinguished Performance Award -- with the edge going to Harris, thanks to both his all-out performance (he doesn't even have an understudy) and the immense goodwill he has fostered through his four Tonys-hosting gigs.
BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Nominees: Mary Bridget Davies (A Night With Janis Joplin), Sutton Foster (Violet), Idina Menzel (If/Then), Jessie Mueller (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), Kelli O'Hara (The Bridges of Madison County)
Should Win (Rooney): Mueller
O'Hara ranks high among the most accomplished contemporary American musical-theater stars, and her work even in a problematically conceived show like Bridges is sublime. She's also long overdue for Tony recognition. But the inestimable heart, vulnerability and warmth that Mueller brings to King — from her Brooklyn teen years through her turbulent marriage to songwriting partner Gerry Goffin to her emergence as a signature female voice of her generation — imbues Beautiful with genuine emotional heft that elevates the material.
Will Win (Feinberg): Mueller
Five first-rate divas were nominated in this category, but it seems to me only two have a real shot at winning: five-time Tony bridesmaid O'Hara, whose gorgeous operatic voice — which is as beautiful as any I have ever heard — was on full display in a part written specifically for her, and who will undoubtedly pick up sympathy votes, too, as a result of her show's recent closing; and Mueller, a nominee for her featured perf two years ago in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, who is up this time for her transformative work as King in one of the most critically and commercially embraced shows of the year. Fairly or not, the edge probably goes to the star of the hit. (It did at the Drama Desk Awards.) Meanwhile, watching from the sidelines will be two-time Tony winner Foster and two women who were reviewed better than their shows: past winner Menzel, making her first return to Broadway in nine years, and relative unknown Davies, whose show closed in February.
BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A PLAY
Nominees: Reed Birney (Casa Valentina), Paul Chahidi (Twelfth Night), Stephen Fry (Twelfth Night), Mark Rylance (Twelfth Night), Brian J. Smith (The Glass Menagerie)
Should Win (Rooney): Rylance
While Rylance has long been hailed among the greats of the British stage, his conquest of Broadway has happened only in the last six years, already yielding lead actor Tonys for Boeing-Boeing and Jerusalem. The gifted Birney is the kind of actors' actor who makes the New York theater community such a rich talent pool, and his performance as a snake-in-the-grass transvestite activist is a model of subtle character insight. But the lightness of touch and sly self-mockery with which Rylance steered the noblewoman Olivia from funereal sobriety to lovestruck giddiness made his cross-dressing turn sheer delight.
Will Win (Feinberg): Rylance
Despite the fact that Rylance is nominated in this category alongside two of his costars, who could conceivably eat into his vote total, I would be surprised if the widely revered actor doesn't take home this prize. His part was the most substantial of those three. The other two nominees, Smith and Birney, were also very good — hence Smith's Outer Critics Circle Award win and Birney's Drama Desk Award win (Rylance wasn't nominated for either honor) — but in parts that don't strike me as substantial enough to bag the big prize. And keep in mind that Rylance may also get bonus points in this category from Tony voters for his other major perf this year in Richard III, which played in repertory with Twelfth Night, and for which he received a best actor in a play nom.
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Nominees: Sarah Greene (The Cripple of Inishmaan), Celia Keenan-Bolger (The Glass Menagerie), Sophie Okonedo (A Raisin in the Sun), Anika Noni Rose (A Raisin in the Sun), Mare Winningham (Casa Valentina)
Should Win (Rooney): Okonedo
Another strong field, in which Irish newcomer Greene stands out as a rough-hewn beauty with a gleefully cruel streak in the wonderful revival of Martin McDonagh's Irish tragicomedy, and Keenan-Bolger delivered arguably her best work to date as the physically and emotionally crippled Laura in the Tennessee Williams classic. But British actress Okonedo kept me glued to her every wrenching moment onstage as Ruth, the long-suffering but loyal wife of Denzel Washington's Walter Lee Younger, who also serves as peacekeeper among the family's other two formidable women in Lorraine Hansberry's eloquent drama.
Will Win (Feinberg): Winningham
Greene, in a Maureen O'Hara-esque part, is the best thing about her quirky show, but it's ultimately a rather thin part. Keenan-Bolger, who has two prior nominations, is a rising star in a classic role that bagged her the Drama Desk Award, but her show is long gone. And costars Okonedo and Noni Rose are both so good that having to pick one or the other amounts to a choice that not even Sophie — Sophie from the movie, not Okonedo, who probably has her preference — could make. In the end, though, I think the prize will go to Winningham, a 55-year-old trouper who has racked up Oscar, Emmy and Tony noms over the course of a decades-long career, and who, in just her second Broadway show, as the sole female character in a cast of male characters who wish to be females, couldn't be more appealing. (She tied Act One's Tony-snubbed Andrea Martin for this category's prize at the Outer Critics Circle Awards.)
BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Nominees: Danny Burstein (Cabaret), Nick Cordero (Bullets Over Broadway), Joshua Henry (Violet), James Monroe Iglehart (Aladdin), Jarrod Spector (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical)
Should Win (Rooney): Iglehart
There are some brilliant performances here, from Burstein's heartbreakingly optimistic Jewish fruit merchant to Henry's soaring turn as the vessel for a damaged woman's healing in the Civil Rights-era South. And relative newcomer Cordero committed grand larceny, stealing his show as a gangster with the soul of a playwright. But anyone hoping to snatch this award away from Iglehart's Genie, with his megawatt energy and sassy showmanship, needs more than a magic lamp and three wishes.
Will Win (Feinberg): Iglehart
When you get a standing ovation in the middle of your show, as Iglehart does each night after his "Friend Like Me" number, you're doing something right — in his case, bringing his irrepressible energy, humor and charm to a production that is a true joy to behold because of it, but would be very different without it. The others all have memorable "moments" — Burstein's and Henry's poignant, Cordero's and Spector's funny — but ask anyone who has seen Aladdin: Iglehart's is one of the most special performances that you will ever see. Cordero upset him at the Outer Critics Circle Awards, in a shocker, but he rebounded to win the Drama Desk Award, and I don't see anything stopping him now.
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Nominees: Linda Emond (Cabaret), Lena Hall (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Anika Larsen (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), Adriane Lenox (After Midnight), Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder)
Should Win (Rooney): Lenox/Hall
A tie is the award prognosticator's cop-out, but both these performers made such an indelible impression that I can't settle on a preference. With just two musical numbers, Lenox makes her loose-limbed floozy in the Jazz Age revue a fully fleshed-out character, and her song "Women Be Wise" is the funniest number in a Broadway musical this season. In terms of stage time, a win for the role would be the equivalent of Judi Dench's Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, something Lenox pulled off once before with her brief but incisive appearance in Doubt. But Hall is just as memorable, achieving the near-impossible by carving out her own space alongside Harris' larger-than-life Hedwig, and making the transformation of the star's gender-ambiguous husband, Yitzhak, no less dazzling.
Will Win (Feinberg): Hall
This one is a very tough call. Emond, a nominee for the third time, and Lenox, a nominee for the second (she won on her first), are respected vets who steal every scene in which they appear. Worsham (making her Broadway debut) and Larsen, meanwhile, are young beauties who provide comic relief in two of the year's most popular musicals. (They tied for this category's Drama Desk Award.) But Hall, who was previously best known for her work in Kinky Boots, was presented with the acting challenge that was probably the strangest and toughest: to portray the put-upon husband of Harris who eventually blossoms out of his shadow and into a woman before our eyes. Emond will be hot on her heels, but the fact that many fail to recognize that Hedwig's "he" is actually a "she" until well into the show and that Hall holds her own opposite Harris' mic-hogging title character are impressive feats that could put her over the top.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Nominees: Aladdin (Chad Beguelin, Alan Menken), The Bridges of Madison County (Jason Robert Brown), If/Then (Tom Kitt, Brian Yorkey), A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (Steven Lutvak, Robert L. Freedman)
Should Win (Rooney): A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
There's much to be said in favor of Jason Robert Brown's ambitious score for The Bridges of Madison County, which ranges from heartland country to melodic Sondheimian complexity to delicate light-operatic romance to 1960s-flavored folk. But the beauty of the songs ultimately can't overcome the absence of a compelling case that this material was meant to be a musical. Gentleman's Guide, on the other hand, marks the arrival of a talented team, who pull off the tricky feat of making pastiche sound fresh and catchy. Freedman and Lutvak's lyrics, in particular, are delectably clever, showcased to perfection in the priceless paean to wealth and entitlement, "I Don't Understand the Poor."
Will Win (Feinberg): A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Since the best musical Tony nominees were first disclosed in 1962, this prize has only twice gone to shows that were not at least nominated for that prize — 1974's Gigi, a revival and therefore ineligible for best musical, and 2000's Aida — which does not bode well for Bridges (despite Brown's Drama Desk win for Outstanding Music and Outer Critics Circle win for Outstanding New Score) or If/Then, even if their composers are all past winners of this award. That leaves Aladdin (Beguelin is a past nominee in this category, in which Menken had three noms before winning two years ago on his fourth) and Gentleman's (neither Lutvak nor Freedman have ever been nominated, this being their Broadway debut). A troubling fact for Aladdin: every prior reinterpretation of an animated film that has been nominated in this category — Beauty and the Beast (1994), The Lion King (1998), The Little Mermaid (2008), Shrek the Musical (2009) — has lost. So, on its merits and by process of elimination, bet on Gentleman's Guide — but beware of Bridges.
BEST BOOK OF A MUSICAL
Nominees: Aladdin (Chad Beguelin), Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Douglas McGrath), Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen), A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (Robert L. Freedman)
Should Win (Rooney): A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Allen's inclusion among the nominees in this category is, quite frankly, a bigger joke than most of the gags in his lazy screen-to-stage makeover. McGrath's sitcommy account of the Carole King story has its charms, as does Beguelin's infusion of Bing Crosby-Bob Hope road-movie buddy comedy into Disney's production. But neither of those shows can match the expert craftsmanship that Freedman brings to Gentleman's Guide, smoothly integrating dialogue scenes and vividly drawn characters with spirited musical numbers.
Will Win (Feinberg): A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
In six of the last 10 years, this prize, which ostensibly honors musicals' storylines and spoken/non-sung dialogue, has gone to the same show that won best musical, which makes it tempting for me, who thinks Beautiful is going to take the top prize, to pick it here, as well. But considering that Jersey Boys, the most similar sort of bio-musical of the last few years, won the top prize but lost this one, I'm not so sure that the two will go in tandem. I think voters suspect, perhaps correctly, that musicals based on true stories demand less inventiveness on the part of their librettists. And if inventiveness is what they're after, then the obvious pick is not Beautiful, nor the two very enjoyable movie adaptations, but Gentleman's Guide, which has already bagged the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards for this category.