Tony Awards: 2019 Nominees Gather for a Group Hug Before Competition Kicks In

Judith Light-Tony nominees meet the press-Getty-H 2019
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Contenders from 'Tootsie,' 'Hadestown,' 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' 'Choir Boy' and more talk nominations, preparing for their roles and the sense of community in the theater biz.

Joe Iconis is wondering why there isn't more food. "I thought there would be more light hors d'oeuvres. But there's not, which is fine. Times is hard. It's theater not movies!" says the Be More Chill composer and lyricist, a first-time Tony contender, at Wednesday's press gathering of 2019 award nominees. "I got a pin. That's more than I ever got from high school or college."

Iconis was mingling at the Tony Awards media day, for which all the nominees — everyone from Annette Bening to Ruth Wilson — descended on the Sofitel in midtown Manhattan to glad-hand the press and greet their castmates, creative teams and fellow nominees. Since everyone is on the eight-show-a-week schedule, many of the performers get to see each other only rarely, so while they're all in competition, the ambiance is warm.

"To be surrounded by all these actors who I love so much, to me it doesn't feel real," adds Iconis. "I'm not actually speaking to Patrick Page right now. This is someone in a Patrick Page costume. All of these people are all right here!"

This year's Tony nominations were announced Tuesday morning ahead of the June 9 awards ceremony, and everywhere you look, there's a lovefest happening — from director Scott Ellis dipping his Kiss Me Kate leading lady Kelli O'Hara in the middle of the hallway to featured actress nominees Sarah Stiles (Tootsie) and Ali Stroker (Oklahoma!) resting in an embrace before moving on to the next interview.

However, not everyone from every production received recognition, and there were some elephants in the room, so to speak. In by far the biggest upset of the nominations, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was widely predicted to be a frontrunner in the best play race, was overlooked in that category. The blockbuster Harper Lee adaptation failed to secure a spot for its writer Aaron Sorkin, despite the cast and creative team receiving nine noms in total.

"With not getting a best play nomination, you can't count on any of this stuff. So when you are nominated, cliché aside, it is an honor, it doesn't happen every time," Jeff Daniels, in the running for best actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Everything I've ever learned I'm using, and it's the kind of role where you need everything you've ever learned. All the stagecraft and technique and comic timing that you learn over decades as an actor, you need to be able to tap in this role night after night. So I feel like I'm finally prepared to get the role of my lifetime."

Celia Keenan-Bolger, who is nominated for her fourth Tony Award for her performance opposite Daniels as Atticus' daughter Scout Finch, feels the exact same way. She recalls the performance attended by Mary Badham, who played her role in the iconic 1962 film version, as an anxiety-inducing high point.

"That was truly a performance I will never forget," says Keenan-Bolger. "I was super-nervous because her performance in that film looms so large. I didn't even go back and watch the movie because I was like, she's too good, I'll be in a shame spiral!"

She's also thrilled to be nominated alongside Gideon Glick, who was recognized for his performance as Dill in Mockingbird. Glick brought a lot of himself to the role but also infused his performance with Truman Capote, who was a childhood friend of novelist Lee and an inspiration for the character.

"Dill's a larger-than-life character," says Glick. "He's queer. He doesn't understand that he's queer because he's so young. There's a survival mechanism that happens when you're young and queer, and it's part of the self-mythologizing aspect of Capote. He's trying to build himself up so he's seen because he feels so unseen."

Among this year's double nominees, Jeremy Pope made history as the first performer of color to be nominated twice in one season, for his back-to-back Broadway debut roles, no less. Pope made the cut as lead actor in a play for Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy , as well as for featured actor in a musical for Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. The 26-year-old breakout star brought his mom to the media day to celebrate.

"These were big moments for the community but also for black artists," Pope tells THR. "We got to see ourselves wholeheartedly represented. That is just really dope. It's just a reminder to me to keep going, keep telling those stories. It's worth it."

Anais Mitchell is also a double nominee, for best score and best book of a musical for Hadestown, which leads the field with the most nominations at 14. The indie singer-songwriter is only the fourth woman ever to solo-author a Broadway show and the only woman in the score category, with Dominique Morisseau keeping her company in the best book lineup for her script for Ain't Too Proud.

"I didn't realize there was that parity issue until I entered the community of Broadway and I feel so proud to be putting our weight on the scales, more equality in the scene," says Mitchell. "It's not just us. One of our sound designers, Jessica Paz, is the first woman to be nominated for sound design for a musical."

Director Rachel Chavkin received her second nomination for Hadestown, after being in the mix in 2017 for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. She's the sole female directing nominee in either category this year and she wants to see that change.

"It's never nice to be the one, and I try to make it a rule of mine that I never ask anyone to be the only one of whoever they are," Chavkin tells THR. "I trust that everyone is many things. Everyone is a multitude and so that means seeking inclusivity at so many different levels. It's very discouraging, so I hope to never be the only one again."

Heidi Schreck is nominated both as lead actress and as playwright for What the Constitution Means to Me, standing on the shoulders of forebears like Anna Deavere Smith, who was nominated for Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 in 1994; and Harvey Fierstein, who also has a nomination this year for the revival of Torch Song. (New rules recently introduced include living authors among nominees in the revival categories.)

"The piece is deeply personal and I connect my personal story to the history of our country and to our political life," says Schreck of Constitution, a downtown sleeper hit that has touched a chord in the current climate, propelling it to Broadway. "I don't know what the show will do in terms of changing people's hearts and minds, but I do know that people come away with a deeper personal connection to our laws and our history and that's very exciting to me"

"I found a tremendous sense of community by doing this show," continues Schreck. "I realize that my story is a very common one and that many people have the history of violence in their family that I have in my own. That has been healing for me and also given me a connection with other people."

Women's stories took centerstage in a few plays and musicals on Broadway this season, and Tootsie is a rare case where a story about a man has illuminated the modern woman's struggles, especially for its leading actor. Santino Fontana mined the women in his life for inspiration and help as he was creating Dorothy Michaels, the alter ego of struggling actor Michael Dorsey.

"Any opportunity as an actor carries with it responsibility," Fontana tells THR. "My responsibility for this was going to as many women as I possibly could, whether it's [writers] Rebecca Traister or Winter Miller or my wife or my mother or my sister, and read as much as I possibly can to make sure that I can advocate for them. Because there are more things I don't know than do. The great thing is that I'm playing somebody who's also struggling with that."

The musical reimagining of Tootsie takes the 1982 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and brings it into the modern day. That's just one reason that Stiles, who plays Michael's ex, Sandy, chose not to revisit the film version.

"I got the script and I just approached it like I would any new script," she says. "It wasn't until people would ask me what role I'm playing, I would say, oh I’m playing Sandy, and they're like, oh my god the Teri Garr part? And the way they were reacting had me completely freaking out because there were such high expectations about what that part would be. I did not go revisit the movie for my own sanity because she's brilliant in it. What she does is not what I'm going to do. I feel very proud of what I've come up with."

Stephanie J. Block, who is nominated for playing the titular diva in the bio-musical The Cher Show, was also a little intimidated when she first started working with Cher, but now the two swap emails and texts. However, a Tony Award nomination merited her first phone call from the icon.

"She was beautiful and loving and gracious and proud, and then she said, 'I wish we could have been nominated in every category, but I don't understand how all this works and I love you,'" Block tells THR, subtly slipping into her Cher voice. "Then I got about four minutes' worth of notes that she wants me to put in the show. But that's our boss lady, and I think that's what makes her so amazing. She doesn't stop perfecting. She doesn't stop thinking about her work and how to improve it. I'd be a fool if I thought the phone call would be anything different."

As nominees weave in and out of rooms chock-full of reporters and camera equipment, the smiles, hugs and good-hearted greetings never subsided. Judith Light, who will receive this year’s Isabelle Stevenson Award for her service and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community, continually emphasized the importance of family in the theater and in her work.

"I'm an only child," says Light. "The theater is my family. This business is my family. This is an honor that I would never have expected. I'm still kind of in shock and deeply and profoundly grateful. This is work that I've done just because it's there. You can see when there are communities that are being treated divisively and inappropriately and I consider them my family. I just couldn't think of not speaking up."