The Tony Awards are this Sunday, and after two seasons disrupted by the pandemic, Broadway finally gets a chance to return to its usual self-congratulatory mode. My theatergoing this season has been spottier than usual, but I’ve seen all of the nominees for best musical and best play, so here’s a little wrap-up and prognostication.
This was, first of all, a rare Broadway season in which straight plays seemed to dominate musicals. Indeed, I could justify a vote for three of the five nominees for best play — a pretty good ratio, in my experience.
Hangmen (which I saw and wrote about when it was off-Broadway four years ago) is a return to form for British playwright Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) — a quirky, twisty black comedy about an executioner forced into retirement when Britain outlawed capital punishment. Another of my favorite playwrights, Tracy Letts, also offered up his best work since August: Osage County: The Minutes, a funny, slyly subversive play set in a small-town city council meeting, where bureaucratic minutiae and petty infighting hide a dark town secret. I had heard complaints about the play’s somewhat overwrought ending, but I found it a suitably surreal climax to a play that neatly spins from small-town satire to an indictment of America’s original sin.
Two other nominees for best play, Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s (set in the kitchen of a greasy spoon) and Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew (union troubles at a Detroit auto plant) struck me as lesser efforts from two playwrights I’ve admired in the past. Which leaves the play that will most likely take the top prize, if only for its historical sweep and spectacular production: The Lehman Trilogy. Ben Power’s adaptation of Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s play, utilizes just three actors to tell the generation-spanning story of the rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers’ financial empire. It was a unique, memorable (if short-lived) Broadway event, and will be hard for the voters to ignore.
The musicals, by contrast, were mostly a lackluster group; the expanded list of six nominees for best musical (instead of the usual five) more a sign of the breadth of mediocrity than the abundance of riches. The clear favorite, at least among the New York critics, is A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson’s “big, Black and queer-ass” autobiographical musical. I found the show too self-indulgent and overbearing, but it hits the sweet spot in a season striving for diversity, and will be hard to beat.
Unless the out-of-towners have their say. A good portion of the Tony voters, it helps to remember, are theater people from around the country, and they often vote with box-office prospects in mind: that is, which show might become a lucrative touring property with a boost from the Tonys. As one Tony voter from Kansas City told me, A Strange Loop is hardly that show. As an alternative, voters might turn to Six (the peppy, poppy show about the six wives of Henry VIII) or MJ (a splashy, bowdlerized version of Michael Jackson’s life), both of which look primed for a long life on the road.
There’s not much else to choose from: Girl from the North Country (despite the Bob Dylan music) is too glum, Paradise Square (despite the intriguing Civil War-era history) too dramatically stodgy, Mr Saturday Night too much of a star vehicle for Billy Crystal. I would have put the critically derided Mrs. Doubtfire (now closed) ahead of any of them. But that’s why I’m not a Tony voter.