It’s Tony Time
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In many years, any one of these shows could have opened confident in the knowledge that, no matter what happened for the rest of the season, its status as the year’s worst Broadway musical was secure. But this was an odd season, one whose perceived merits and demerits will start to crystallize this morning when the Tony Award nominations are announced.
In terms of both entertainment value and broad-based popularity, the Tony Awards live and die on the strength of two things: the quality of that year’s musicals and the appeal of that year’s host. As of yesterday, the question of a host was still unresolved (not a good sign), but one thing was clear: The 2005-06 musicals were pretty terrible.
Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by last year, where I enjoyed and/or respected all four Best Musical nominees. But with the exception of “Jersey Boys” (the best jukebox musical yet) and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” the nine other entries this year range from passable (“The Wedding Singer”) to painful. Last year’s “Little Women,” which got all but ignored at Tony time, was certainly flawed but more accomplished artistically than “The Color Purple,” “The Woman in White,” or “Tarzan” – at least one of which will get a spot this year.
At least we had some – well, two – decent musical revivals. This year’s Stephen Sondheim show (“Sweeney Todd”) was leagues better than last year’s (“Pacific Overtures”); same with this year’s Bob Fosse show (“The Pajama Game”) compared to last year’s (“Sweet Charity”).
It may be gauche to focus so much on the musicals before even mentioning this season’s plays, especially since this was a rather strong year for drama on Broadway. I’m in the minority as a “Rabbit Hole” dissenter, but “The History Boys,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “Well,” “Shining City,” and “Primo” all deserve national attention far beyond whatever token acknowledgment the broadcast will throw some of them this year. (This has ranged in the past from brief and awkward stagings to celebrities reading from music stands to, in recent years, weird little dioramas “evoking” the nominated plays.)
Add to that list revivals featuring Julia Roberts, Ralph Fiennes, Mark Ruffalo, Brad Garrett, Lynn Redgrave, David Schwimmer, Gabriel Byrne, Nathan Lane, and Matthew Broderick, and you’ve got a climate that just might appeal to the average television viewer.
But we’ll never know: The Tony Awards show has become the nation’s single biggest advertisement for Broadway, and despite ever-plummeting viewership numbers, it isn’t likely to deviate from its trend of leaning on musical numbers. When the goods being peddled are this damaged, though, don’t be shocked if the customers continue to steer clear.
I’m not making any predictions this year – it’s much easier to find fault with other people’s choices if you don’t actually make any of your own – but I did want to address a few other questions:
* Will any show steamroll its way through with more than, say, 12 nominations and eight wins, a la “The Producers” or “Company”?
No. For one thing, the juggernauts are always musicals; no play has ever received 10 or more nominations, although “Indiscretions” and the first half of “Angels in America” came close. Musicals get three extra categories – Score/Lyrics, Book, and Orchestrations – plus they typically pay more attention to big, attention-getting visuals.And this year’s crop of musicals just isn’t good enough to generate any kind of herd mentality among the nominators.
Also, landing nominations in the double digits typically requires having a lavish physical production as well as a batch of acclaimed performances, a combination likely to be in short supply this year. (I’m predicting a lot of technical nods for “Tarzan” and a lot of acting nods for “The Drowsy Chaperone.”)
* Two or three Best Musical Revival nominees?
In 1995, the nominators looked at the year’s three revivals and decided to nominate only two of them.That year’s snubee, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” was no worse than the Roundabout’s disastrous “Threepenny Opera” revival. Don’t be surprised if “Threepenny” is left similarly in the dark, although Jim Dale has a good chance of being nominated and possibly even winning for Featured (that’s Tony-speak for Supporting) Actor.
* Why no Special Theatrical Event prize this year?
Because the nominating committee is capricious to the point of absurdity. In the past, the rules have seesawed back and forth over what constitutes a revival versus a new work (a discussion that came to a head in 1994 when Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens,” which had never before been performed on Broadway, was nearly nominated alongside “Angels in America: Perestroika” as a new play) and whether scores based on existing movies can be considered.
This year’s nonsense involved the relatively new category of Special Theatrical Event. Earlier in the season, the committee had previously and inexplicably shifted “Latinologues” and “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” out of this category. This left the potential for a twohorse race between Sarah Jones’s marvelous one-woman show “Bridge & Tunnel” and Suzanne Somers’s unwatchable “Blonde in the Thunderbird.”
Realizing perhaps too late just how ridiculous this would be, the committee decided last week to junk the category altogether and simply give Ms. Jones an uncontested and muchdeserved Tony – a happy ending to a silly situation.
* What about Julia?
A few weeks ago, the odds of the Pretty Woman being nominated for her enormously popular but indifferently reviewed “Three Days of Rain” performance looked bleak. The nominators have not been kind to stars of late: Denzel Washington came up empty-handed last year, and so did Sean “Puffy” Combs the year before.
But Ms. Roberts’s odds went up a few ticks last week when the nominating committee announced that one chief competitor, Cherry Jones (“Faith Healer”), would be considered in the Featured Actress category. Zoe Wannamaker (“Awake and Sing!!”) has also been shifted out of Ms. Roberts’s category, and Best Leading Actress in a Play is now the thinnest of the eight acting categories. Which means Julia’s in, more or less by default.
* Wait, are you saying that Julia Roberts didn’t give one of this year’s five best leading female performances in a New York play?
Not at all. I’m saying she didn’t give one of this year’s 15 best leading female performances in a New York play. Not when you count Julie White (“The Little Dog Laughed”), Kristine Nielsen (“Miss Witherspoon”), Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter (“In the Continuum”), Kate Valk (“The Emperor Jones”), Dianne Weist (“Third”), Suzette Azariah Gunn (“Funnyhouse of a Negro”), Lisa Joyce (“Red Light Winter”), Julienne Hanzelka Kim (“The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow”), and Lois Smith (“The Trip to Bountiful”).
But those were all off-Broadway, which the Tony Awards refuses to acknowledge. As was Christine Ebersole’s career-defining performance in “Grey Gardens” and the delightful score to “[title of show]” by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen and dozens of other worthy candidates. But that’s another grumble for another day. I’ll be back tomorrow to break down the nominations.