Tonys: On the Town With 6 Weeks to Go

THR's awards columnist discusses the lifetime achievement Tony, Phillipa Soo's decision to do 'Amelie' rather than 'The Great Comet,' a "student matinee" of 'The Price' and more.
Chad Batka
Josh Groban and Denee Benton in 'Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812'

For the fourth year in a row, I've temporarily relocated from Los Angeles to New York to cover the homestretch of Broadway's race to the Tonys, which return to Radio City Music Hall on June 11. This season, in addition to podcast interviews with contenders and later roundtable conversations with six male and six female acting nominees, I'll be posting a weekly dispatch about what I'm seeing and hearing during this most exciting time of year. (Here's last week's.) I hope you'll follow along and enjoy.

Lest there be any doubt that the Tonys are rapidly approaching, there were two major announcements this week about the June 11 ceremony. James Earl Jones, who is 86 and has starred in 20 Broadway productions — including two Broadway revivals over the last three years, You Can't Take It With You and The Gin Gamewill receive a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement. And actress, director and choreographer Baayork Lee will receive the Isabelle Stevenson Award in honor of her work as the founder of the National Asian Artists Project, which showcases the work of Asian-American theater artists. In other news, the two sound design awards that were created in 2008 and then eliminated in 2014 — best sound design of a play and best sound design of a musical — are being brought back, albeit not in time for this year's ceremony.

It was another eight-show week for me as I try to catch up on everything I need to see ahead of the Tony nominations and then, soon after, our annual Tony roundtables. Ironically, it started with a Sunday matinee of a show that isn't even eligible for the Tonys, but that I desperately wanted to see before it closed: the latest revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a fictionalized version of Georges Seurat, the painter of the 1884 classic "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," and also as his great-grandson. I caught the final performance of the show, which reopened the newly restored Hudson Theatre and was financed by that project's backers; they, in consultation with the talent, decided that they'd rather sell as many tickets as possible than comp a ton of seats to Tony voters and their plus-ones — but I have no doubt that it would have been a major player in this year's race had it retained its eligibility.

Supporting Gyllenhaal in the show was Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford (she won for the aforementioned You Can't Take It With You revival), who I've never liked more. And as for Gyllenhaal himself? I've known him for years but never had any idea that he possessed pipes or the desire to use them — in fact, I recall that he required a lot of coaxing when, at last year's Tonys, during a commercial break, James Corden ambushed him and Sean Hayes and pressured them to sing "A Whole New World," which he did very timidly — but I'll be damned if he doesn't sing beautifully. He also made some classy off-the-cuff remarks from the stage after the company took its final bows — among them, "It is a true honor and I can't even express how much gratitude I have in my heart ... it will burst" — which I gather he amplified at an afterparty. I can't imagine it will be long before we see him back on the Great White Way.

Oh, and by the way: while not everyone loved this revival of Sunday in the Park, everyone was impressed with its chromolume, a word that does not appear in the dictionary, but that is some sort of art installation. Apparently, no incarnation of the show ever has been able to create a chromolume that wowed an audience, but this one — which The New York Times described as "a gasp-making pyrotechnic rain of multicolored lights, which finds the pointillism in fireworks" — certainly did.

On Tuesday, I caught The Play That Goes Wrong, a J.J. Abrams-produced Monty Python-like comedy about, well, a play in which everything goes wrong — actors getting knocked out, sets falling apart, etc. It was amusing enough, although I found myself distracted throughout the show by a roughly 12-year-old child in one of the front rows who clapped loudly and shouted feedback at the most inappropriate of times while his father sat beside him as if nothing was amiss; meanwhile, the whole section of people who paid big bucks for their tickets grew increasingly pissed off about the situation. For a while I genuinely wondered if it was part of the show, but there never was any payoff and the kid only (slightly) quieted down after intermission, during which complaints prompted an usher to have a word with the father and the father a word with the son. I only mention this because it provides such a stark contrast to the behavior of the children I found myself surrounded by the following afternoon.

When I arrived at the 740-seat American Airlines Theatre for the Wednesday matinee of The Price, a revival of Arthur Miller's 1968 play about two long-separated brothers who reunite to sell off their dead parents' possessions, I found myself in a sea of kids who appeared to be about junior high school-age. A representative from the Roundabout Theatre Company, which is behind the show, warmly welcomed me and explained that Roundabout hosts one "student matinee" performance for each show that it puts on, and this was The Price's. I mentally braced myself for a repeat of the previous night's shenanigans, only on a much larger scale — but need not have. The vast majority of the kids were extremely well-behaved and fully engaged throughout this dialogue-heavy tale about a bickering family a half-century ago (which I would have titled I Coulda Been a Contenda).

I give major points to its four stars — Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub, Danny DeVito and Jessica Hecht — for giving their usual 100%, even in the face of a few childish catcalls, and for coming back onstage after hours of work to participate in a thoughtful talkback with the students. During one of his answers, DeVito, who is terrific in his Broadway debut, described the appealing immediacy of the theater by explaining that the audience's uproarious reaction to a scene in which his character inadvertently spits all over Ruffalo actually prompted him to continue doing that for far longer than usual, to the extent that Ruffalo almost broke into laughter. Call me a sap, but I found the whole thing very heartwarming — the actors' performances, during and after the show; the kids' genuine response to it; and the fact that Roundabout even does something like this — so kudos to all involved.

Wednesday night brought Six Degrees of Separation, a revival of John Guare's 1991 best play Tony nominee — that inspired the 1993 movie starring a young Will Smith (and — fun fact — a young J.J. Abrams) — about a con artist who penetrates New York society. It was nice to see the young actor Corey Hawkins, who was a guest on my podcast a couple of years ago when he was breaking out thanks to his portrayal of Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton, holding his own on Broadway opposite top-tier vets Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey.

Thursday, however, offered a truly unforgettable theatrical experience: watching Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 — probably the longest and oddest Broadway title since 2014's best play winner The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time — from the stage, where a handful of seats are set up cabaret-style. The Imperial Theatre on 45th Street was completely transformed to accommodate this unique and highly interactive musical about ... well, here's where it gets a little weird ... a passage from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, of all things. There are so many characters crossing paths with one another that it feels like a Robert Altman movie and requires an expositional opening number that only slightly clarifies things — but even if not every plot development or character was or is entirely straight in my head, it was still a thrilling ride, thanks in no small part to the incomparable voice of Josh Groban (who's unfortunately stuck in a fat suit throughout the show); the gracefulness of the young actress New York magazine recently hailed as "Broadway's Newest 'It' Girl," Denee Benton, making an impressive debut; and the choreographer and lighting designer, who helped to create a show unlike anything I've ever seen before — and one that THR's chief theater critic David Rooney called "equally thrilling" to Hamilton.

It was, I must admit, a tad jarring to go from that show on Thursday night to Bandstand, an unabashedly old-fashioned musical, on Friday night — but, as New York's outgoing/The New York Times' incoming theater critic Jesse Green wrote in his review of the romantic drama about Americans scarred by World War II, "an original musical with loads of fun music, expressive dance, and a will to grapple with issues that remain painfully topical is not to be dismissed glibly." For me, the standout ingredient was two-time Tony nominee Laura Osnes (Bonnie & Clyde and Cinderella), whose lovely voice and stage presence ought to get her awfully close to nom No. 3.

Amelie on Saturday afternoon marked three musicals in a row, and, I'm afraid, one too many. Adapted from an idiosyncratic 2001 French movie that did not feature song or dance, the show tries very hard to capture the film's whimsical vibe, but ends up feeling like "an overstuffed trifle laced with a hazardous dose of artificial sweetener," as THR's Rooney described it. The best thing about it is its star, Phillipa Soo, and I also enjoyed every moment that 2011 Tony nominee Tony Sheldon (Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) was onstage, but it all feels a bit too jejune for adults and a bit too obscure for kids. Interestingly, Soo starred in off-Broadway versions of The Great Comet from 2012 through 2013 before becoming a star and Tony nominee through Hamilton, and one can understand why she elected to make Amelie, rather than The Great Comet, her first Broadway show after that: both embrace color-blind casting — Soo is an Asian-American playing a Frenchwoman — as did Hamilton, but Amelie is, in theory, more of a star-vehicle — however, it turns out, it's also less of a show. It will be interesting to see if she, Benton, both or neither wind up as nominees for best actress in a musical.

I experienced whiplash again going from Amelie in the afternoon to Oslo — a three-hour Lincoln Center production about the run-up to the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO — in the evening ... but whiplash has rarely felt so good. While the logline sounds awfully dry, the reality is that the show (which, THR's Ashley Lee recently revealed, soon will be adapted into a movie) is anything but. In fact, it delivers simmering drama; surprising amounts of laughter; and sobering reminders of how close we came to having peace in the Middle East — and, at least for me, how far we now are from it. (It closes with a message of hope delivered by its leading man, two-time Tony winner Jefferson Mays — but at the end of it, I couldn't help but facetiously mutter to myself, "And now Jared Kushner is going to make peace in the Middle East!") Based on the history of the best play Tony category, I wouldn't be shocked to see a show with this sort of gravitas rewarded with not only a nomination, but maybe even a win.

My theatergoing week wound to a close on Sunday afternoon with a show that may not factor much into Tuesday's Tony noms — there are just so many great musical options this year — but that certainly pleases its audience: A Bronx Tale, an adaptation of the 1993 film that was — like the show — directed by Robert De Niro. Featuring a book by the film's star, Chazz Palminteri, and music by the great Alan Menken, it feels like a small-scale cross between Jersey Boys and West Side Story, which I'm sure is not coincidental. And I enjoyed all of the performers, but especially the male ones — ranging from a little kid to past Tony nominee Nick Cordero (Bullets Over Broadway), who I found worthy of a second featured actor in a musical nom. Perhaps he'll get one.

All of those sorts of questions will be answered on Tuesday — and on Monday, be sure to return to this blog for a written "conversation" between David Rooney and I featuring predictions and analysis!