One of the takeaways from the 2019 Tony Award nominations, which were announced this morning, is that the membrane between the commercial world of Broadway and the more experimental world of downtown theater is becoming increasingly porous. Leading the pack with 14 nominations, the musical Hadestown, which was first produced at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village, is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, set in New Orleans, with a sung-through folk-rock-jazz-blues score (by Ana?s Mitchell) and a distinctly downtown sensibility that it wears with pride—a feature, not a bug. I expect the Best Musical Award to be a showdown between Hadestown and the more nominally conventional (if gleefully vulgar and suitably woke) Tootsie, which (along with fellow nominees The Prom and Beetlejuice) has proved that the comedy in musical comedy is, to quote Spamalot (a musical comedy from long ago 2005), “not dead yet.” This isn’t so much a battle for the soul of Broadway as proof that the definition of what constitutes a Broadway show continues to expand. Even this year’s jukebox musical nominee, Ain’t Too Proud—the Life and Times of the Temptations, features a book by the MacArthur-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau.
Take the Best Revival of a Musical category, which this year will perforce be a showdown between Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (they’re the only two shows nominated). Two more representative examples of Golden-Age Broadway musicals you couldn’t find, yet each has been mounted with a radically different approach. Under the direction of Scott Ellis (who is also nominated for his work on Tootsie), Kiss Me Kate has been tweaked to bring some of its problematic gender politics more in line with today (the tweaker was Amanda Green, who, I should confess, is my sister), but is an otherwise traditional mounting of the fizzy 1948 musical twist on The Taming of the Shrew. Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! is another beast entirely, using a grab bag of experimental theater tropes (and terrific new country-western orchestrations) to find the dark heart beneath this sunny American classic.
Downtown continues to establish a beachhead on Broadway in the Best Play category, with the inclusion of What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck’s powerful and personal look at the oppression of women and how the founding document of our government fails to protect them, and Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, Taylor Mac’s bloody, bonkers, and delightful tragicomic burlesque that looks at the aftermath of a massacre in the late Roman Empire to shine a light on the mess we’re in today. Mac, who made a name for himself with politically engaged drag performance pieces (and mind-bending costumes), culminating in the astonishing A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, is not a writer whose work would seem a natural fit for Broadway (hat tip to the producer Scott Rudin), so to see Gary nominated for Best Play puts smile on my face. But I expect this category to be a face-off between What the Constitution Means to Me and The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s sprawling, magnificently funny and heartbreaking story of how the Troubles in Northern Ireland devastated one family—old-fashioned storytelling and theater-making at its best.
Another takeaway from this year’s nominations (and a perennial one) is: There will be snubs. Nowhere is this more glaring than in the Best Play category, which failed to include Ivo van Hove’s stage version of Network and Aaron Sorkin’s smash-hit adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Network, which is all about the staging and nominee Bryan Cranston’s performance, is the less-baffling omission. But To Kill a Mockingbird is almost the Platonic ideal of a Tony-winning play: entertaining and accessible, morally and politically engaged, expertly crafted and formally inventive, filled with fiery, beautifully articulated speeches. True, despite adding a patina of tarnish to the halo of Atticus Finch (played by the nominated Jeff Daniels), this Mockingbird feels more traditionally politically correct than woke, but it easily qualifies as one of the best plays of the season.
Other snubs this year include no love for Nathan Lane, who won a statue last year for his ferocious performance as Roy Cohn in Angels in America and is giving an expert comic turn this season in Gary. And for octogenarian actresses, it was both a good year and a bad year. A not-so-hot year for the great 82-year-old Glenda Jackson, who, after taking home the Tony for her towering performance in Three Tall Women, failed to get a nod for her return to Broadway in King Lear. But a great year for the 87-year-old Elaine May, who is nominated for her hilarious and heart-piercing performance as a woman struggling with dementia in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery (a strong contender for Best Revival of a Play).
I’m not otherwise making any predictions, but here are two: Whether or not Jeremy Pope wins Best Actor in a Play for his electric performance in Best Play nominee Choir Boy or Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his turn in Ain’t Too Proud, there is no question that a star is born. And when it comes to Ali Stroker’s sexy and giddy Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, I’d bet the farm that the Tony voters will find that they “cain’t say no.”