A Good Year for the Tonys, Unless You’re Glenda Jackson

I try not to get too excited or outraged over the Tony Awards. But a few thoughts on the nominations announced earlier this week:

First, they’re a sign that Broadway is thriving. I remember lean years when there were barely enough shows to fill up the four nomination slots for Best Musical. (In 1995 the category featured a mere two nominees: Sunset Boulevard and Smokey Joe’s Cafe.) This year the nomination slate was even expanded to five, to accommodate an unusually large and diverse group. I’m a fan of Hadestown, which led the pack with 14 nods; not so much of Ain’t Too Proud (the Temptations musical) or Tootsie, which followed with 12 and 11 respectively. But I like the way the Tony committee spread the love, giving the overly frantic but often dazzling Beetlejuice a surprising eight nominations, and even three for the critically despised but quite entertaining King Kong. Only Be More Chill, the teen musical that once seemed destined to be a come-from-nowhere hit, got unfairly dissed, with just a single nomination, for best score. 

On the other hand, the supposed boom season for straight plays on Broadway (21 of them opened, versus 13 musicals) turned out, in the end, to be a little less than met the eye. Two of the season’s biggest hit shows, Network and To Kill a Mockingbird, were ignored in the Best Play category – justifiably, i would say, since neither could hold a candle to the movie and novel source material on which they were based.  Of the plays that did land nominations, Taylor Mac’s existential slapstick Gary; A Sequel to Titus Andronicus is all but unwatchable; Choir Boy fairly forgettable; and What the Constitution Means to Me a somewhat overpraised one-woman show. That leaves Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman and James Graham’s Ink as the most formidable contenders – though I wouldn’t be surprised if Constitution, with its reverent-but-skeptical take on our nation’s founding document, rides the zeitgeist and steals the award. 

Snubs are always part of fun of nomination week, and this year had an all-time doozy. No performer on Broadway was the recipient of more advance hype, critical acclaim or general goodwill than Glenda Jackson, who played the title role in King Lear. A beloved 82-year-old actress who, after a couple of decades in British politics, returns to the stage in one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles, wins universal praise for it – and then doesn’t even get a nomination? A total mystery. She may have been hurt by the mixed reviews for Sam Gold’s production – which indeed had its problems. But the major one, to my mind, was actually Jackson, who (aside from the sex change) simply didn’t seem big enough in the role from the outset, which tended to mute the tragedy of his/her downfall. Apparently the Tony folks felt the same way. 

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