A musical about making art and a play about making money dominated the Tony Awards nominations Monday, as Broadway sought to celebrate its best work and revive its fortunes after the lengthy and damaging coronavirus shutdown.
The race for best musical – traditionally the most financially beneficial prize – turned into an unexpectedly broad six-way contest because the nominators were so closely divided they had to expand the number of nominees.
Out of the gate, the front-runner is “A Strange Loop,” a meta-musical in which a composer who is Black and gay battles demons and doubts while trying to write a show. Even before arriving on Broadway, the show, written by Michael R. Jackson, had won the Pulitzer Prize in drama after an Off Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons; it opened on Broadway late last month to some of the strongest reviews for any new musical this season, and on Monday it picked up 11 Tony nominations, the most for any show.
“I feel really grateful, and I feel validated for putting in all the years and all the hours,” Jackson said after learning the news. “It feels amazing to know better things are possible.”
Scoring the most nominations is not always predictive of winning the prize, and “A Strange Loop,” which is adventurous in form and content, will face tough competition from “MJ,” a biographical jukebox musical about Michael Jackson; “Six,” a fan favorite about the wives of Henry VIII; “Girl From the North Country,” which combines the songs of Bob Dylan with a fictional story about a boardinghouse in the Minnesota city where Dylan was born; “Mr. Saturday Night, ”about a washed-up comedian hungering for a comeback; and “Paradise Square,” about a turning point in race relations in 19th-century New York.
Both “Paradise Square,” which picked up 10 nominations, and “Girl From the North Country,” with seven, have struggled at the box office, and will now hope that their multiple Tony nominations will help reverse their financial fortunes. For “MJ,” its 10 nods are a form of vindication after several influential reviewers criticized the show for sidestepping sexual abuse allegations against the pop star.
“The Lehman Trilogy,” which arrived on Broadway with an enormous – albeit pandemic-delayed – head of steam following rapturously reviewed productions in London and Off Broadway, picked up eight nominations to dominate the best play category. The play, which follows the rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers, was written by Stefano Massini and Ben Power, and featured a dazzling production centered on a rotating glass box designed by Es Devlin. All three of its leads – Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester – were nominated for best actor.
“The Lehman Trilogy” vies with four other dramas for best play. Among them are two dark comedies – “Clyde’s,” by Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer winner who was also nominated for writing the book for “MJ,” and “Hangmen,” by Martin McDonagh, an acclaimed British-Irish playwright who has now been nominated five times but has yet to win. The other contenders are “Skeleton Crew,” Dominique Morisseau’s play about factory workers at an automotive plant facing shutdown, and “The Minutes,” Tracy Letts’s look at the unsettling secrets of a small-town governing body.
The Tony Awards, which honor plays and musicals staged on Broadway, are an annual celebration for American theater, but they are particularly important now as a potential marketing tool for an industry that is still grossing less, and selling fewer tickets, than it was before the pandemic forced theaters to close for a year and a half. The awards are presented by the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing.
“This Tony Awards will mean so much more than honoring the performances and the artistic work that’s been done this season – it’s also celebrating the resilience of the community, and that this much work is being done and being seen,” said Rob McClure, an actor who scored a Tony nomination (his second) for his comedic and chameleonic performance in the title role of “Mrs. Doubtfire. ”
Well known performers scoring nominations included Uzo Aduba, Billy Crystal, Rachel Dratch, Hugh Jackman, Ruth Negga, Mary-Louise Parker, Patti LuPone, Phylicia Rashad and Sam Rockwell. But several other big stars now working on Broadway were overlooked by nominators, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Laurence Fishburne and Daniel Craig, as well as Beanie Feldstein, starring in “Funny Girl” but unable to escape the long shadow of Barbra Streisand .
This season saw an unusually large number of works by Black writers, and that created more opportunity for Black performers, directors, and designers, some of whom were nominated for Tonys. Among them are two performers new to Broadway, Jaquel Spivey, the star of “A Strange Loop,” and Myles Frost, the star of “MJ,” now facing off against Crystal, Jackman and McClure in the leading actor in a musical category.
“Black playwrights have had an amazing presence this season, and I hope that continues,” said Camille A. Brown, who scored two nominations Monday, for directing and choreographing the revival of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. ” Reflecting on her own show, she said, “Having seven Black women on a Broadway stage has a lot of meaning, and speaks to the importance of sisterhood and love and Black women holding space for one another.”
The seven Tony nominations for “For Colored Girls” are a bittersweet triumph for a production that has been languishing at the box office and had already announced an early closing date. The revival picked up more nominations than any other show in the race for best play revival, a strong category in which many eligible shows won positive reviews.
It will now face off against four others: “American Buffalo,” David Mamet’s drama about a trio of scheming junk-shop denizens and “Take Me Out,” Richard Greenberg’s look at homophobia in baseball, as well as two plays that had never previously made it to Broadway despite being considered important parts of the playwriting canon, “Trouble in Mind,” Alice Childress’s look at racism in theater; and “How I Learned to Drive,” Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning drama about child sexual abuse.
The competition for best musical revival is small, but strong. There were four eligible shows, and only three scored nods: “Company,” “Caroline, or Change,” and “The Music Man.” Excluded was the revival of “Funny Girl” which fared poorly with critics, but has been doing fine at the box office.
The nine nods for “Company” pack an especially emotional punch because its composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, died soon after attending the first post-shutdown preview. “The longer he’s not with us, the more I miss him,” said LuPone, who picked up her eighth Tony nomination – she’s won twice – for her work in the production.
The nominations were chosen by a group of 29 people, most of whom work in the theater industry but are not financially connected to any of the eligible productions, who saw all eligible shows and voted last Friday. There were 34 eligible shows, 29 of which scored nominations; the five left out were all new plays.
Up next: a group of 650 voters, including producers and performers and many others with an interest in the nominated productions, have until June 10 to vote for their favorites, and the winners will be announced at a ceremony on June 12. The ceremony, at Radio City Music Hall, is to be hosted by Ariana DeBose; the first hour will be streamed on Paramount +, followed by three hours broadcast by CBS.
Broadway’s grosses are down in part because tourism remains down in New York City, and in part because of ongoing concerns about the coronavirus. Many of the nominees interviewed Monday said they hoped the spotlight of the Tony Awards would lure more patrons back to Broadway.
“Anyone that’s doing theater right now has been hit really hard by the pandemic,” said Marianne Elliott, a two-time Tony-winning director who scored another nomination for “Company.” “It’s gratifying to see that Broadway is coming back. To have the Tony nominations for all of these shows is just a celebration of what we do, and it’s lovely to be here. ”