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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 fifth.
The month of May is winding down, which means that the Broadway community is working overtime — literally — in the hope of locking down Tony votes. Tony nominees, most of them still juggling eight shows a week, turned up in droves on Tuesday the 16th at the New Dramatists luncheon, a fundraiser for an organization that nurtures up-and-coming playwrights; on Friday the 19th at the Drama League Awards luncheon, the main annual perk for members of an organization that aims to bring theater patrons and creators together; and on Monday the 22nd at the Obie Awards, which celebrates Off-Broadway work. Then, on Tuesday the 23rd, they made the trek to the top of the Rock — specifically the Rainbow Room — to collect their nomination certificates at the Tony Nominees Luncheon.
Does any of it make a difference? It’s possible.
The New Dramatists luncheon’s predetermined honorees were producer Daryl Roth and playwright Paula Vogel, two female titans of the theater who happen to have collaborated this season on best play Tony nominee Indecent (the story of a scandalous early-20th-century Yiddish theatrical production, which I finally caught up with recently). Amidst the heaps of heartfelt love directed at both women during the gathering were many compliments about that production — veteran Vogel’s first play produced on Broadway — so it’s hard to imagine it didn’t get some sort of a boost along the way. As for the dozens of other Tony nominees in attendance — who were introduced one by one from the dais — I’m not so sure.
The Drama League Awards celebrates productions in the same four categories that the Tony Awards do — albeit considering both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, unlike the Tonys, which consider only the former. While there is probably little overlap between the two voting bodies, the Drama League’s choices still can be reflective of which way the momentum seems to be breaking in the community. If so, that’s very good news for Dear Evan Hansen, which is in a dogfight for the most coveted of all Tonys, best musical, and was honored by the League with not only that prize, but also the biggest they have to offer, the Distinguished Performance Award, for which there are always around 50 nominees and which can be won only once in a lifetime.
Star Ben Platt topped dozens of other nominees — including the likes of Present Laughter‘s Kevin Kline and The Glass Menagerie‘s Sally Field — to become its youngest-ever recipient, and gave a gracious acceptance speech that only further helped his cause. The other production awards went to the shows that seem to be Tony frontrunners in their categories, as well: Oslo for best play, Jitney for best revival of a play and Hello, Dolly! for best revival of a musical. (Dolly‘s Bette Midler sassily collected the League’s Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theater Award, which took her out of the running for the Distinguished Performance Award that she otherwise probably would have won.)
As for the Obies, those awards only consider Off-Broadway work and are determined by a jury of just seven people — but they may still offer some clues about how the theater community feels toward a number of Tony nominees, specifically those which were performed within the last year downtown before reinventing themselves uptown. Oslo, for instance, shared the best new American theater work Obie (with Underground Railroad Game) and claimed one of the ensemble awards; Sweat, which also is up for the best play Tony, shared the playwriting award (with Caught); and Indecent, which will be competing against both of them (and A Doll’s House, Part 2) at the Tonys, was recognized with a directing award (for Rebecca Taichman, who is Tony-nominated for the Broadway incarnation) and, in a way, when Vogel collected this year’s lifetime achievement award.
Speaking of current Tony contenders that made the jump from Off-Broadway, I made a return trip to Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 this week (this time with composer Dave Malloy playing Pierre) and confirmed what I suspected after my first viewing a month earlier (when Josh Groban was in the part): it’s my favorite show of the season — magnificently inventive (it once seemed unfathomable that 70 pages of War and Peace could be turned into an exciting musical); daring (it’s staged and lighted and choreographed in the most complex of ways); and just damn entertaining (I defy you to download and listen to the cast album and not have the songs stuck in your head for weeks). It’s nominated for a field-leading 12 Tonys but, sadly, I can envision a scenario where it loses all of them, which would tie The Scottsboro Boys‘ 2011 record for the all-time biggest 0-for. (Weird fact: great shows totally shut out on Tonys night include the original production of Gypsy in 1960, Funny Girl in 1964 and Chicago in 1976 — go figure!)
But enough of all the awards talk…for many on Broadway, profits mean much more than awards, and the good news for them is that Broadway box-office grosses for the 2016-2017 season were up 5.5 percent over those for the 2015-2016 season (when Hamilton debuted and was at its hottest), according to statistics released this week by the Broadway League. The less fantastic news is that this increase happened despite a downturn in ticket sales — in other words, fewer people paid more money to see Broadway shows.
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