Tonys: ‘American in Paris,’ ‘Fun Home’ Dominate Awards Race (Analysis)

An American in Paris Production Still 6 - H 2015
Angela Sterling

An American in Paris Production Still 6 - H 2015

'Something Rotten!' and 'The King and I' also scored high in Tuesday's nominations, in a crop that creates fierce competition for top musical and play honors.

It was a given that Fun Home, the melancholy chamber musical that picked up pretty much every award for which it was eligible when it premiered off-Broadway in 2013, would repeat that feat with a robust showing in Tuesday’s Tony Award nominations.

The intimate show adapted from cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir delivered on expectations, amassing 12 nominations, including best musical, original score, book, director and performance nods for each of its five principal cast members.

But arguably few expected that An American in Paris, the ballet-centric new musical inspired by the classic 1951 MGM movie musical with Gene Kelly, would be such a muscular player, weighing in with a dozen nominations of its own. In addition to best musical, direction and book, that also includes four performance nods, among them ballet stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, both making their musical-theater debuts, as well as Brandon Uranowitz and Max von Essen for featured actor. (The show features classic Gershwin tunes, making it ineligible for original score.)

Factor in the 10 nominations for Something Rotten!, the irreverent musical comedy about frustrated theater folk in Elizabethan England trying to upstage Shakespeare by inventing the musical, and you have what is shaping up to a legitimately suspenseful race with three very viable contenders. Along with musical, score, book and direction, Something Rotten! snagged three acting nods, for lead Brian d’Arcy James and featured players Christian Borle and Brad Oscar.

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While Fun Home is a small-scale, character-driven show in the tradition of 2012 Tony winner Once, An American in Paris combines the bones of a classic dramatic musical romance with elements of comedy and an uncommon focus on emotional storytelling through dance. Something Rotten!, on the other hand, is a brash, cheerfully anachronistic comedy full of splashy production numbers, very much modeled in the crowd-pleasing vein of past smashes like The Producers, Monty Python’s Spamalot and The Book of Mormon.

As the most commercially challenging of those three shows, Fun Home stands to yield the greatest benefit from a best musical win, the Tony category believed to have the most significant value at the box office. The show earned the rare distinction of landing nominations for three different actresses playing the same role at various ages: Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs and 11-year-old Sydney Lucas, while also securing a lead actor spot for Michael Cerveris and another for featured actress Judy Kuhn.

The fourth best musical nominee, The Visit, which picked up five nominations including book and score, has been struggling with low attendance throughout previews, despite the pedigree of its illustrious composing team, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and its Tony-nominated leading lady Chita Rivera, a bona fide Broadway legend. Pundits will be watching closely to see if awards attention can help this dark revenge tale find a commercial foothold.

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There had been much speculation in the runup to Tuesday’s nominations as to whether a fifth musical would make the cut. Many had been rooting for Sting’s The Last Ship simply because it was the rare original show not based on existing source material. In a Broadway landscape in which every second musical is retooled out of a familiar movie, the ambition of an entirely original piece commands much admiration, even if the show was a commercial failure, closing in January.

The nominating committee did choose to remember The Last Ship, with nods for Sting’s evocative score and for orchestrations. However, another short-lived musical discussed in early forecasts, Honeymoon in Vegas, was cold-shouldered. But the most clamorous snub was for Finding Neverland, the first musical shepherded by lead producer Harvey Weinstein.

Despite an aggressive push by the show’s marketing team to get it on the Tony radar, Finding Neverland came up with nothing on Tuesday morning. That left lead cast members Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer out in the cold, along with director Diane Paulus, a Tony nominee for all three of her previous Broadway productions and a winner in 2013 for Pippin.

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In the original play stakes, Simon StephensThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has long been the presumptive front-runner. The Brit import — an unconventional domestic drama about a teenage boy with behavioral difficulties who sets out to solve a mystery — scored six nominations, including best play and lead actor Alex Sharp, a young talent fresh out of Juilliard, making his Broadway debut.

But Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two, a 5½-hour historical epic from the Royal Shakespeare Company about intrigue in the court of Henry VIII,  leads the field with eight nominations. That strong showing makes it a serious contender. The drama was adapted by Mike Poulter from the bestselling novels by Hilary Mantel, both of whom share the nomination. The production also fared well for its actors, landing nods for Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn.

But don’t count out a third play contender, Hand to God, which totaled five nominations, including acting spots for relative unknowns, Steven Boyer, Geneva Carr and Sarah Stiles. With director Moritz von Stuelpnagel also earning a mention, Robert Askins’ play about a Texan Christian youth whose angry subconscious manifests as a foul-mouthed, violent sock puppet is definitely in the running. It may score support from Tony voters wishing to reward a new American play over another transfer from London, which often tend to dominate the play category.

Despite a smart marketing campaign, Hand to God has been a slow starter, and the tidy handful of Tony noms should provide a box office bump.

Read more Tonys: Nominations Snub Harvey Weinstein's 'Finding Neverland' (Analysis)

The fourth contender for best play, Ayad Akhtar’s provocative drama about race and religion, Disgraced, already has a Pulitzer win in its corner. But the single nomination scored by that production reflects the widespread view that the play worked better in its earlier off-Broadway incarnation than in the move to primetime, in which two key roles were ineffectively recast.

The musical revival category went largely as expected aside from the exclusion of Bill Condon’s much admired Side Show production, which closed swiftly in January despite many glowing reviews.

Unsurprisingly, Lincoln Center Theater’s sumptuous revival of The King and I leads with nine nominations. That’s two short of the number pulled by the company’s 2008 revival of another Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, South Pacific, though the drop can in part be attributed to the elimination of sound design Tonys.

Lead actress Kelli O’Hara is in line for her sixth Tony Award for her role as the British governess in the 19th century royal court of Siam, and most prognosticators expect her finally to take home the trophy this time. (Ken Watanabe also scored a lead actor nom for his Broadway debut as the king.) However, O’Hara faces stiff competition from Kristin Chenoweth’s screwball turn as a temperamental screen diva in On the Twentieth Century, and from 82-year-old veteran Rivera, for whom The Visit might be her swan-song leading role.

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In addition to The King and I and On the Twentieth Century, which scored five noms, the third show vying for musical revival is On the Town, the uplifting classic with a score by Leonard Bernstein and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Following three World War II sailors looking for love and adventure while on New York shore leave, the show garnered four mentions, including lead actor Tony Yazbeck and director John Rando.

For play revival, Stephen Daldry’s production of the David Hare drama Skylight leads the field with seven nominations, including one for director Daldry and one for each of his three castmembers: leads Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy and featured actor Matthew Beard.

While its limited engagement closed earlier in the season, the starry production of The Elephant Man was not forgotten by Tony nominators, figuring in the race for best play revival as well as for lead actor Bradley Cooper, and featured players Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola. However, director Scott Ellis missed out on a nod, earning one instead for his revival of the comedy You Can’t Take It With You. That classic earned five mentions, including best play revival. The fourth slot in the play revival category went in its sole nomination to Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, though stars Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin were left out.

That production, like Skylight, was produced by Scott Rudin. However Rudin’s other play revival this season, A Delicate Balance, with a high-wattage cast led by Glenn Close and John Lithgow, went unmentioned.

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The nominations included some multiple honorees, none more so though design maestro Bob Crowley with four. He's in the running for his sets for Skylight and An American in Paris, as well as his costumes for the latter, and also for The Audience. (That Peter Morgan play landed a lead actress nod for frontrunner Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, the same role that nabbed her a best actress Oscar in 2007 in The Queen, also written by Morgan.)

Casey Nicholaw and Christopher Wheeldon both earned double nominations for direction and choreography, respectively for Something Rotten! and An American in Paris.

Three lighting designers also scored twofers: Natasha Katz for An American in Paris and Skylight; Japhy Weideman for The Visit and the play Airline Highway; and Paule Constable for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Wolf Hall, the latter nomination shared with David Plater. While Katz is a four-time Tony winner and Constable won in 2011 for War Horse, Weideman is a fast-rising star in theatrical lighting design who has yet to land a Tony.

Other multiples went to Christopher Oram, for both scenic design and costumes on Wolf Hall; to David Zinn for set design on Fun Home and costumes on Airline Highway; and to David Rockwell for his sets on You Can't Take It With You and On the Twentieth Century.

Among the near-shutouts, Ruth Wilson’s lead actress nomination for Constellations represented a meager showing for Nick Payne’s complex play about love and loss in the quantum universe, which wowed critics and had been expected to land recognition also for Jake Gyllenhaal in his Broadway debut.

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Terrence McNally’s theater-biz comedy It’s Only a Play is a commercial smash, but it missed out on a play revival mention and also for lead actor Nathan Lane’s virtuoso turn as the linchpin of a large ensemble. The production turned up only with a spot in the featured actor race for newcomer Micah Stock. (By way of consolation, McNally did land a nomination for best book of a musical, for The Visit.)

The more problematic exclusions, in commercial terms, are the absences of the new musicals It Shoulda Been You and Doctor Zhivago, and the play Living On Love, all of which have been underachievers at the box office. Industry observers will be watching in the coming days to see if the failure to grab even a single Tony nomination will prompt one or more of these productions to post a quick closing notice. And while Gigi did land a nomination for featured actress Victoria Clark, the production's failure to get a mention for musical revival makes it vulnerable, given the sluggish box office since it opened to tepid reviews.

The 69th Annual Tony Awards will be presented June 7, airing live on CBS from Radio City Music Hall. Co-hosts of the ceremony will be acting nominee Chenoweth, a previous winner for featured actress in a musical in 1999 for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; and Alan Cumming, who won lead actor in a musical in 1998 for Cabaret.