Tony Awards Campaigning Kicks Into High Gear

Matilda the Musical - Matilda Actresses - H 2013
Joan Marcus

Matilda the Musical - Matilda Actresses - H 2013

No gift baskets allowed but plenty of politicking as plays like the Tom Hanks starrer "Lucky Guy" and musicals like "Matilda" pull out all the stops to win voters' hearts.

This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The nominations were announced April 30 and the ballots are about to go out, so what happens next in the 2013 Tony Awards race? Serious campaigning begins, even if Broadway insiders pretend to be subtle about it.

Performers, directors and creative collaborators on every nominated production still running will make it their business to deliver eight shows a week at 150 percent -- you never know how many of those 858 Tony voters will be in the audience. It also means working the circuit, glad-handing media and fellow theater folks on a seemingly nonstop schedule until the voting deadline in early June.

The calendar includes a string of secondary theater awards, nominee luncheons and spring galas. There's also the Broadway League Spring Road Conference, an annual four-day industry huddle starting May 15, at which producers pitch upcoming tours to the network of regional presenters -- who also happen to be a coveted Tony-voter demographic.

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Even if you're not 88, like Cicely Tyson, the presumptive front-runner and sentimental favorite for lead actress in a play honors for The Trip to Bountiful, the pace is grueling. A day that starts with a morning-show TV appearance and ends with an 11 p.m. curtain call is a slog for anyone.

"Extending the period between Tony eligibility cutoff and the actual awards to six weeks from what used to be as little as four means the nominees are zombies by the end of it," says a senior publicist.

The Tony administration maintains strict rules that exclude gift baskets. But company mailroom staff and doormen at voters' homes will be juggling packages for the next month -- much like the circus performers in Pippin, which leads the field for the musical revival award. Deluxe copies of scripts will be going out, along with CDs of cast albums, books and promo videos.

But nothing works like an old-fashioned meet-and-greet. That means that while Tracy Letts might have had an edge for lead actor in a play when the ecstatic reviews came out last fall for his revelatory turn as George in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the fact that he's left the neighborhood could hurt his chances. (The play ended its run March 3.)

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Broadway newbie Tom Hanks, on the other hand, is very much in town and playing to packed houses in Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy. Should Hanks be willing to press the flesh at even a few industry events, a handshake from one of Hollywood's most respected statesmen stands to sway many votes.

It would be hard to find two more beloved New Yorkers than Brooklyn boy Harvey Fierstein and Queens princess Cyndi Lauper, so expect to see a lot of them in media coverage as they represent the Kinky Boots faction. The musical leads the pack with 13 nominations but faces stiff competition from British import Matilda, which scored 12 nominations and is considered more boldly imaginative. Smart money is on Matilda for best musical, with Lauper taking best original score.

Also facing off: Lucky Guy against Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, lead contenders for best play. Ephron's death last year introduces an emotional factor that might steer votes toward her affectionate chronicle of the 1980s New York tabloid wars. But she left the play unfinished, and a considerable part of its impact is because of George C. Wolfe's ultra-polished production. By contrast, Christopher Durang's bittersweet modern riff on Chekhovian themes is delectably clever Broadway fare from a veteran playwright overdue for Tony recognition.

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The one sure thing on Tony night is that despite Motown: The Musical being excluded from nominations for the big prize, CBS will be eager to showcase it on the telecast from Radio City Music Hall. The Tonys, more than anything, are about selling tickets, and what could be a more effective marketing tool than a dazzling child performer resurrecting a young Michael Jackson?