Tonys: A Reminder That Not Even Major Nominations Can Save Some Struggling Shows

THR's awards analyst weighs in on "Velocity of Autumn" and "Bridges of Madison County," which both received best actress noms -- and posted closing notices -- last week.
Scott Feinberg
"The Velocity of Autumn" and "The Bridges of Madison County" were neighbors on 45th Street.

NEW YORK -- It's one thing when a good show comes and goes before the Tony Award nominations announcement, as happened with several productions this season -- among them, eventual best play nominee Outside Mullingar (1/23-3/16); best revival of a play nominees The Glass Menagerie (9/26-2/23) and Twelfth Night (11/10-2/16); and A Night with Janis Joplin (10/10-2/9), which starred eventual best actress in a musical nominee Mary Bridget Davies. (The first three were always intended to be limited engagements; the fourth struggled at the box-office.)

But it's quite another when, less than a week after the Tony Award nominations announcement, it is announced that a good show that scored major nominations -- which usually reflect a certain level of quality and lead to a boost at the box office -- will be closing.

That, however, is precisely what is happening to two shows that have been running at neighboring 45th Street venues for the past several weeks, the play The Velocity of Autumn (4/21-5/4) and the musical The Bridges of Madison County (2/20-5/18), both of which landed best actress noms en route to being axed.

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On Sunday afternoon, I attended the last performance of Velocity, a play about a son trying to talk his mother out of her apartment and into a nursing home, for which 86-year-old Estelle Parsons scored her fifth Tony nomination, for best actress in a play, on Tuesday, and which was then condemned for closure on Wednesday. There was a funereal tone to the 3 p.m. matinee, as crowds finally packed the 780-seat Booth Theatre -- one of the smaller houses on Broadway -- to catch what might be a final glimpse of one of the most distinguished Broadway performers of our time (and an Oscar winner for 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, too) in action.

After strong buzz in Washington, D.C., Velocity arrived on the Great White Way and was met by middling reviews and a bloodbath at the box office ($135,000 in week one and less each week thereafter). Parsons' name, it turned out, meant more to the theater community than to the Average Joe, for whom a play about two people on one set conversing for 90 minutes was a tough sell, anyway. In the end, not even her nomination -- over the likes of Toni Collette (The Realistic Joneses), Anne-Marie Duff (Macbeth), Rebecca Hall (Machinal), Debra Messing (Outside Mullingar), Mary-Louise Parker (The Snow Geese), Marisa Tomei (The Realistic Joneses) and Rachel Weisz (Betrayal) -- was enough to keep the play in business beyond 22 previews and 16 performances.

At the end of the show, Parsons and costar Stephen Spinella together took the stage to a standing ovation. They left, he returned to the stage for more applause, and then she did, as well -- albeit briefly. One can imagine that the moment might have been bittersweet.

Meanwhile, The Bridges of Madison County, a musical adaptation of the 1992 best-selling novel and 1995 Oscar-nominated film of the same name, got good news of its own on Tuesday -- namely, a nom for Kelli O'Hara for best actress in a musical, plus additional mentions for best original score, best lighting design and best orchestration -- but that, too, proved not to be enough. Many had expected that the 44 members of the Tony nominating committee would take advantage of a new provision allowing them to nominate five, rather than four, titles in each show category, and that Bridges would be among the five in the category of best musical -- the one thought to make the biggest difference at the box office. Alas, the nom-com opted to keep it to just four in that category, and on Thursday, it was announced that Bridges would be performed for the last time -- at least until a 2015 road tour -- on May 18, its 137th performance.

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The cancellation of Bridges was a bit more surprising than that of Velocity. It also had generated mixed-leaning-positive reviews and only around $350,000 a week at the box office (low for a musical), but it had also shown some major signs of life -- not least of all when its original cast recording debuted on April 15 as the No. 1 cast recording on the Billboard chart.

It is not common for a show to receive major Tony nominations and then close before the Tonys, but it does happen about once or twice a year. Among other recent victims: 2011's Lombardi, which was nominated for best featured actress in a musical (Judith Light); 2012 best musical nominee Leap of Faith; 2013 best play nominee The Testament of Mary; and Orphans, which was nominated for best revival of a play and best actor in a play (Tom Sturridge).

Might a third 2014 nominee still fall? Last weekend, two best play nominees really struggled at the box office: Casa Valentina (4/23-) brought in just $211,000 and Mothers and Sons (10/17-) a paltry $193,000. The former is newer and therefore probably has a longer leash than the latter, but, based on the experiences of Velocity and Bridges, both would appear to be in dangerous territory.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg