Tonys: Competition for Best Musical Looks Fierce While Best Play Race Narrows

Matthew Murphy
From left: Amber Gray, Patrick Page and Reeve Carney in 'Hadestown'

'Hadestown' is the presumptive frontrunner, with a field-leading 14 nominations, but the show's rivals all have a shot, while the shocking snub of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' puts 'The Ferryman' way out in front among nonmusicals.

The Tony Award for best musical is traditionally considered the one that counts in terms of box office impact, and the five shows in the running for that honor all should be looking at a boost in ticket sales in the coming weeks, led by indie singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell's Hadestown, which dominated the field in Tuesday morning's nominations announcement with 14.

That's just two less than Hamilton scored in 2016, before going on to win 11 of them. The Hadestown bounty included almost all the key signifiers of the big win, among them noms for best original score, book, direction, lead actress and three featured acting nods, missing out only on a best actor spot for Reeve Carney.

But that artful retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth faces serious competition in a wide-open race that includes the slick Motown nostalgia of Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, which landed 12 nominations and already is shaping up to be a popular smash; and the laugh-packed, winningly old-fashioned musical comedy Tootsie, a clever reinvention of the enduring Dustin Hoffman screen hit that secured 11 noms.

In the Hoffman role of actor Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, the actress he successfully passes himself off as, Santino Fontana would seem to be the closest thing to a surefire win on June 9, when the Tony Awards will be presented at Radio City Music Hall.

The surprisingly strong eight nominations for Beetlejuice, a visually elaborate, high-energy show that opened last week to mixed reviews, suggests that movie-to-musical reimagining can't be excluded. Nor can the beloved underdog in the race, The Prom, an original comedy about bumbling Broadway insiders making a personal cause out of a shy Midwestern lesbian's thwarted wish to bring her girlfriend to their high school dance. That show, far more than its more recently opened fellow nominees, is the one that most needs the shot of box office adrenaline.

But if the new musical competition looks to be a nail-biter, the post-nominations picture concerning best play honors appears decidedly different. That's due to the shocking exclusion of Aaron Sorkin's blockbuster adaptation of Harper Lee's modern American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. While the drama of racial prejudice in the Jim Crow-era Deep South did pick up a healthy nine nominations, including one for lead actor Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, its unexpected snub in the best play stakes radically shifts what was widely predicted to be a two-horse race. Being the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history, however, it's arguable that Mockingbird needs a Tonys leg-up less than any of the 2018-19 season's new entries.

The snub puts Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman, a boisterous family drama with a thriller element, set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s during the Troubles, out in front, even if its nominations tally of nine was no higher. It's a testament to the play's impact on the Tony Nominating Committee that lead actors Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly both made the cut in their respective categories, even though they both left the production in February. Sam Mendes scored a nomination for his direction of the large company, as did Bartlett Sher for his similarly populous staging of Mockingbird.

Of the other four best play nominees, Heidi Schreck's uniquely personal political reflection, What the Constitution Means to Me, was the only slam-dunk to make the shortlist, even if it yielded just one mention in another category — for Schreck among the lead actress contenders.

James Graham's Ink, a rollicking account of Rupert Murdoch's aggressive assault on the fusty Fleet Street news establishment in the late-1960s, drew a far more mixed response in New York than London, but nonetheless landed six noms, including for director Rupert Goold and featured actor Bertie Carvel as the Australian media magnate. That role won him an Olivier Award in London.

While its limited engagement closed in January, Moonlight Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy, a drama about homophobia and class discrimination in a prestigious African-American male prep school, clearly made an impression on Tony nominators, earning four spots. Those included one for Camille A. Brown, the sole contender for best choreography up for a production that's not strictly a musical.

The biggest surprise of the best play lineup, however, was the robust seven-nom showing for Taylor Mac's Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus. That farcical comedy set in Ancient Rome with contemporary political undertones is hands-down the most out-there and unconventional work to make it to Broadway in many seasons, suggesting that Tony nominators may have wanted to reward its sheer adventurousness. The play's haul included noms for director George C. Wolfe and featured actresses Kristine Nielsen and Julie White, though the omission of Nathan Lane among the lead actors was a disappointment, given how mightily the three-time previous Tony winner carries the production on his shoulders.

The revival categories are an odd bunch this year. On the musical side, just two productions were eligible. The Cole Porter chestnut Kiss Me, Kate generated four noms, including lead actress and previous winner Kelli O'Hara. But the frontrunner is director Daniel Fish's revelatory probe into Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! The production digs beneath the surface of the canonical show to uncover themes of gun violence, toxic masculinity and hostility to outsiders, all of which have powerful resonance in America today. Its noms included directing for Fish, lead actor for Damon Daunno and featured actress for Ali Stroker and Mary Testa.

The Tony nominators often are perceived as having short memories, frequently excluding worthy productions that closed their limited engagements earlier in the season and giving the advantage to shows still running. But the nominees for best revival of a play this year disprove that generalization, with three of the five contenders long gone.

The two still playing are Lanford Wilson's Burn This, whose three nominations included lead actor Adam Driver and featured actor Brandon Uranowtz, but not lead actress Keri Russell in her Broadway debut; and Arthur Miller's All My Sons, also with three noms, including lead actress Annette Bening, on Broadway for the first time in more than 30 years, and featured actor Benjamin Walker. Tracy Letts, a previous winner for lead actor (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and best play (August: Osage County), was left out.

The strong feeling in the Broadway community for Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, a landmark pre-Stonewall gay drama staged by a gay director, a team of gay producers that included Ryan Murphy, and a company of out gay actors, paid off with a play revival nom and one for featured actor Robin De Jesus. However, the crowded field of stellar performances this season meant that lead Jim Parsons and featured actors including Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells were shut out.

Also scoring two noms apiece were Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song, though both lead actor Michael Urie and featured actress Mercedes Ruehl were overlooked for their terrific performances; and Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery, which also picked up a lead actress nod for Elaine May, a beloved comedy legend who was heartbreaking in a dramatic role that marked her first Broadway performance in more than 50 years. The latter production did yield something of a shocker, however, in the omission of Joan Allen's shattering performance from the featured actress contenders. And the failure of deserving contender Lila Neugebauer to make the cut means that Hadestown's Rachel Chavkin is the only woman among the 10 directing nominees across plays and musicals.

The nominators' long memories sadly did not extend to The Lifespan of a Fact, the crackerjack new play about the unlikely subject of fact-checkers in the struggling field of print journalism. That production, which closed in January, failed to secure even a single nom, despite superlative work from its three-member cast, Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale. Bypassing Radcliffe is getting to be a perplexing habit with the Tonys, following snubs for three earlier, equally attention-worthy Broadway turns. What does this guy have to do to get nominated?

Among luckier actors with something to celebrate, newcomer Jeremy Pope has easily the biggest reason to party tonight. He landed noms for lead actor in a play in Choir Boy and featured actor in a musical in Ain't Too Proud, capping off a head-turning Broadway debut season.

Up against Pope, Daniels, Considine and Driver for best actor in a play is Network lead Bryan Cranston, a 2014 Tony winner for All the Way. While Network, adapted by Lee Hall from the Paddy Chayefsky screenplay, was shut out of the best play field, the elaborate multimedia production scored five nominations, including one for director Ivo van Hove.

And if the glitzy bio-odyssey The Cher Show was excluded from the best musical nominees, it did make the cut in three categories, two of which it stands a strong chance of winning — for lead actress Stephanie J. Block and legendary costume designer Bob Mackie, whose fabulous work on the production may have caused a nationwide sequin shortage.

While industry awards like the Emmys frequently are accused of rubber-stamping the usual suspects season after season, often after shows are well past their prime, the 2019 Tony Nominating Committee showed that was not the case with one notable exclusion.

Two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson, returning to Broadway after winning a lead actress Tony last year for Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, was left out of the running for her blistering take on the title role in a gender-blind production of King Lear. This marks the first time in six Broadway performances dating back to 1965 that the British acting royalty has not received a Tony nomination. Ruth Wilson, in the double role of the monarch's good daughter Cordelia and his Fool, landed the polarizing production's sole nomination.

Among shows that likely were counting on a blast of oxygen from Tony nominations to lift their flagging grosses, the most obvious is the teen musical Be More Chill, which drew just a single nomination for composer-lyricist Joe Iconis' score. King Kong also has been an erratic performer at the box office, but the production's three tech nominations — plus a special Tony for puppet designer Sonny Tilders and Creature Technology Company for their creation of the show's extraordinarily expressive giant ape — should supply some marketing muscle and guarantee exposure on the CBS Tonys telecast.

James Corden, a 2012 best actor Tony winner for One Man, Two Guvnors, is returning for his second stint as host.