Critics Review This Broadway Season and Decode Tony Nominations

The Broadway season that will be celebrated by the Tony Awards presentation on June 12 began – well, we don’t recall when. It was at least two years and three Covid waves ago. But that doesn’t mean there was nothing worth seeing, loving and arguing about. Far from it, as Jesse Green (the chief theater critic) and Maya Phillips (a critic-at-large) found in recapping the 34 productions that braved the pandemic to open under the most onerous conditions imaginable. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

JESSE GREEN Do you believe in irony? A season mired in doubt, difficulty and the nearly existential threat of constant cancellation nevertheless proved surprising, vivid, affecting. Or at least that’s how I experienced it. What about you, Maya?

MAYA PHILLIPS Yes, when I think about how Covid affected my experience, I think about the shifting requirements for entering a theater, and how the pacing of the season was altered overall. To mask or not to mask – that’s been the question. And then a spate of closures and delays changed this spring into a mad surge of openings all at once! But we’ve seen some stellar work despite the craziness.

GREEN It was in many ways the kind of Broadway season we’ve been asking for: more serious, more diverse, more experimental. And yet it remains to be seen whether that hope is misplaced in a commercial environment. There wasn’t enough room even in a very widespread slate of Tony nominations, with 29 of the 34 productions getting nods, for important plays like “Pass Over” and “Is This a Room” to get any.

Both were Off Broadway transfers that in previous years would most likely have stayed Off Broadway, the commercial spotlight being so narrowly focused on what producers and theater owners think they can sell. Are we nevertheless glad to have them – and “For Colored Girls” and “Dana H.” and “Clyde’s,” which did get nominations – on Broadway, even if they are not going to thrive next door to “Wicked” and “Hamilton” and their ilk?

PHILLIPS I am glad to see such innovative work on a larger stage, but, yes, it seems that in almost every case, instead of the shows not rising to the occasion of Broadway, Broadway did not rise to the occasion of excellence. Some were overlooked by the Tonys, and many closed early because of poor ticket sales.

It’s worth noting that these productions were also mostly written by, or about, women, sometimes women of color, as in the case of “Pass Over,” “For Colored Girls” and “Clyde’s.” I fear that producers will see the response as further evidence of their misconception that art about or by marginalized people will not succeed. But then again, there were works like “A Strange Loop” that did get their due, which was fabulous to see.

GREEN Many of the dozen or more shows we’re referring to were critical successes: “Skeleton Crew,” “Lackawanna Blues” and “Trouble in Mind” also among them. Those three were produced by institutional theaters – the first two by Manhattan Theater Club and the third by Roundabout Theater Company – that to some extent protect them from the problem of profit. But you could say that the others were in a way set up for commercial failure.

I’m hoping “A Strange Loop” will disprove me; its content is too compelling, and it offers a rethinking of form and formula that Broadway musicals really need right now. But I fear that plays like “Dana H.” and “Pass Over” and “For Colored Girls” landed on Broadway less in response to calls for greater representation and diversity and experimentation than in response to the pandemic. It’s as if Broadway said, yes, we’ll find space for new stories and new kinds of storytelling if you open during the biggest theater disaster in a century. Too cynical?

PHILLIPS Not at all. Unfortunately there’s a long history of experimental art – especially diverse experimental art – being subjected to unfair double standards. Not just in theater but in every discipline. As a result, what really stood out to me was the other side of this equation: the shows that felt staid and irrelevant. I’m thinking about “Flying Over Sunset,” “The Music Man,” “Plaza Suite,” “Mr. Saturday Night ”; there were winning elements to all of these productions, but I found myself in the audience thinking, “Did we need this?” Especially after watching shows like “Trouble in Mind” and “The Lehman Trilogy” – it was like seeing Broadway’s future bridled by the ghost of Broadway past.

GREEN I was certainly haunted by “Diana, the Musical.” And I’m with you as well on “Plaza Suite” and the others, which, despite us, are selling well. And in my newly invented category of Most Inapt Title, I put forward “Funny Girl.” But let’s look at the Tony nominees instead of our own. It was not a strong year for new musicals – or any musicals – was it?

PHILLIPS No, there were a small handful that I loved – “A Strange Loop,” of course, and “Six” and “Caroline, or Change” – but the rest I either found middling, or, more often, just plain bad. I second your take on the unfunny “Funny Girl.” I cringed through “MJ,” which felt like a very expensive, yet soulless, karaoke night at the theater. And I liked “Company” better than you did, but disliked “Girl From the North Country” for its melodramatic book, which I know is controversial opinion.

GREEN But wouldn’t you agree that musicals like “Girl From the North Country,” which I found moving and profound, at least provided grist for strong feelings, including your negative ones? And vice versa, “Company,” which I struggled with but you embraced? Regarding most of the other shows, including the biggest tickets, offered little to grab onto, critically or otherwise.

PHILLIPS In fact, I did notice a lot of lulls this season – and by that I mean my being lulled into a near-catatonic state during shows! There were always one or two elements that did catch my eye, though, even in the drabbest productions. Take “The Music Man” – OK, but mostly forgettable, except for the choreography. But that also seemed a theme this season – choreography that stood out, and even overwhelmed, the productions.

GREEN Yes, in some shows, the choreography was so strong it seemed to sink the flimsy book it danced on. I was grateful for the choreography in “Paradise Square,” by Bill T. Jones and others, because it told that mess of a story clearly and excitingly. Still, it’s frustrating when dance is solving problems someone should have addressed.

In “MJ,” the Michael Jackson replications and extrapolations by Christopher Wheeldon and others were exciting, sure, but quickly came to feel like a manic distraction from what could not be dramatized. On the other hand, in “For Colored Girls,” Camille A. Brown’s choreography tied the show’s various stories together beautifully, providing a useful second channel of information and emotion. Or third channel – because there was also, of course, music in all of these.

PHILLIPS The musical standouts for me this season were “A Strange Loop,” which I praised in my review, and “Six.” I love seeing Broadway shows that pluck from various genres and time periods, melding them together seamlessly. The great fun of “Six” was how contemporary pop, hip-hop, rap and R&B – and the fabulous women who reign in those genres, like Beyoncé and Ariana Grande – were honored with catchy tongue-in-cheek lyrics and appropriately baroque ( or Tudor, to be more accurate ?!) performances.

But when it came to vocals, there was a lot of wishful thinking this season, especially on the part of challenged celebrities like Beanie Feldstein in “Funny Girl” and Hugh Jackman in “The Music Man.” Thank goodness for Sharon D Clarke (“Caroline, or Change”) and Joaquina Kalukango (“Paradise Square”) and Mare Winningham (“Girl From North Country”) and Shoshana Bean (“Mr. Saturday Night”), who dripped some honey in our ears.

GREEN We needed that honey to sweeten some painful material. And sweetening is something Broadway, at its best, is uniquely suited to do. I’d previously seen all of my favorite musicals – “Six,” “Caroline,” “A Strange Loop” and “Girl From the North Country” – in smaller theaters, but they do better with big audiences and big budgets. That’s true of the plays as well.

The wow factor of Es Devlin’s giant rotating ice cube in “The Lehman Trilogy” made the play’s iffy concoction of history go down easier. The two hangings in “Hangmen” went down well, too, on Anna Fleischle’s terrifying set. And it was astonishing to see Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” an important but difficult work, staged by Lileana Blain-Cruz in a Lincoln Center Theater production as sumptuous as one of that company Rodgers and Hammerstein classics. Indeed, the sets, by Adam Rigg – as well as the costumes, lights, sound and even the giant carnival slide – served approximately the function of music in musicals. Many of the season’s plays, being more experimental than usual, likewise welcomed fantastic visual interpretation that made the stories “sing.”

PHILLIPS Yes! James Ortiz’s towering puppet creations straight from the prehistoric era – a woolly mammoth and brachiosaurus – in “The Skin of Our Teeth” were also a visual delight. And I enjoyed examples of what I’ll call artfully curated clutter – the knickknacks and trinkets in Scott Pask’s set for “American Buffalo” and the floating mementos above the kitchen in “Birthday Candles” (designed by Christine Jones).

But I also don’t want to forget all the tight ensembles in this season’s plays. I don’t think you admired the best play nominee “The Lehman Trilogy” as much as I did. I found it such a stunner to watch its cast of three – Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester, who all nabbed best actor nominations – play multiple characters over the span of 163 years, with not only aplomb but the kind of gravitas that such an epic story required.

Similarly, Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse were transcendent in the roles they originated in “How I Learned to Drive,” one of the most stirring revivals this season. I also loved the cast of “Trouble in Mind,” LaChanze in particular; “Skeleton Crew” (without Phylicia Rashad); and the three stars in “American Buffalo” – Laurence Fishburne, Darren Criss and Sam Rockwell. Fishburne and Criss offered plenty, though it was all Rockwell’s show from beginning to end. And there were proficient performances even in plays I found disappointing, like Jesse Williams’s graceful Broadway debut in “Take Me Out”; Edmund Donovan and Ron Cephas Jones in “Clyde’s”; and the stacked cast of funny ladies who couldn’t completely save “POTUS,” an otherwise flimsy, floundering farce.

GREEN There was a lot of gorgeousness this pockmarked season. I found making choices for my unofficial Tonys ballot excruciating. Even if you accept the idea of ​​a “best” show or performance, which I don’t, there are different ways for them to be best. It’s never a pure thing, however pure the delight of seeing Parker and Morse, or LaChanze and Chuck Cooper in “Trouble in Mind,” or Kalukango, or Clarke, or David Threlfall in “Hangmen” or the “Six” queens do what they to. (Let alone Emily Davis, astonishing in “Is This a Room.”)

Context makes for more kinds of bests than prizes can ever acknowledge. So even if a lot of this season’s most daring works survived only briefly, it’s important that they were here to be noticed. They make the Broadway spotlight brighter – and, more important, bigger.

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