If the roster of Tony Award nominees announced on Monday looks even odder and more random than usual, well, it’s been an odd and random season. For that matter, it wasn’t even really a season. The surfeit of nods – many categories that usually feature five nominations this year feature six or seven – pales in comparison to the scope of eligible productions, the first of which (“Girl From the North Country”) opened in March 2020, just before the pandemic blew an 18-month hole in Broadway. If my math is correct, that was 100 years ago.
The pandemic that distorted the season also distorted the awards process. Of the 34 productions the 29 nominators were allowed to consider, 15 opened in April – six in the last week of that month alone. It couldn’t have been easy. I know that for critics it was a maddening game of Whac-a-Mole, trying to hit each show as it popped up before suddenly vanishing, riddled with shutdowns and star absences. In the end, I missed two: “Mr. Saturday Night, ”which received five nominations, and“ The Little Prince, ”which was ineligible and by all accounts unintelligible.
The nominators presumably missed none, and of those 34 eligible productions, they honored a whopping 29. No musical, not even the dreadful “Diana, the Musical” was skunked, even if some awfully good plays, including “Pass Over” and “Is This a Room, ”found themselves forgotten. Was that because they were among the first to step up in the wishfully post-Covid Broadway reopening that began in August? Having opened perhaps too early they definitely closed too quickly.
But those shows are also more cutting edge than commercial awards typically know how to handle, using downtown theatrical formats to present difficult dramatic material. (“Pass Over” is a surrealist look at violence against young Black men; “Is This a Room,” a spoken transcript of an interrogation about government secrecy.) The nominations suggest a willingness to accept only one of those challenges – just as, at the other end of the spectrum, they seemed ready to welcome plays that are hackneyed in form or content but not both. The revival of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” starring Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, received one nomination, for Jane Greenwood’s costume design.
Still, poring over my personal Tonys spreadsheet, which I keep in a special air-locked safe with my original cast vinyl recordings and Playbills printed on papyrus, I am impressed with the nominators’ determination to spread the wealth.
There are plenty of familiar names, of course, including the previous Tony winners Mary-Louise Parker, LaChanze, Hugh Jackman, Sutton Foster, Phylicia Rashad and Patti LuPone – the last two superlative in supporting rather than leading roles.
But there are plenty of breakthrough names as well. The contest for best performance by a leading actor in a musical is likely to pit Broadway newbies Myles Frost (the star of “MJ”) against Jaquel Spivey (the star of “A Strange Loop”) – never mind Jackman or Billy Crystal in the same category. The first-time nominees Sharon D Clarke (“Caroline, or Change”) and Joaquina Kalukango (“Paradise Square”) are likewise the pair to beat for best performance by a leading actress in a musical – never mind Foster.
That those four leading contenders are Black underscores that the Tonys, like the season itself, are making some progress in their push toward greater diversity. By my count, more than a third of the 136 total nominations honored shows and people you might not formerly have seen much of on the Great White Way – which I think we can finally stop calling by that name.
Not that you “see” all of that diversity even now. We are also benefiting from diversity backstage, including many of the directors and designers and choreographers behind “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” “Paradise Square” and “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Inclusion is insufficient if it’s merely public facing.
A lot of that new-to-Broadway talent arrived not individually but en masse, thanks to Black authors, directors and producers who made diverse hiring a priority. One result is that this was a season of ensembles, including the six “thoughts” featured in “A Strange Loop,” the seven abstract nouns portrayed by the cast of “Thoughts of a Colored Man” and the seven colors of “For Colored Girls . ”
In some of those shows, as well as in “Six,” “The Minutes,” “Clyde’s,” “Skeleton Crew” and “POTUS,” there are no leading roles at all; the group is the star. When that’s the case, it can seem perverse to single out just one performer from a carefully balanced company, though the nominators did just that with their nods to Kenita R. Miller in “For Colored Girls,” Rachel Dratch and Julie White in “POTUS , ”And John-Andrew Morrison and L Morgan Lee in“ A Strange Loop. ”
Those performers deserved their nominations, but so did many of their castmates; for that reason, as critics and others have argued repeatedly, the Tonys should create a pair of Best Ensemble categories, for musicals and plays, to be awarded when it makes sense to do so. This year especially it would have made sense.
Not that sense is a thing the Tony nominations usually make. I’m not a believer in snubs, except that time I was somehow not invited to my own birthday party, but the randomness that is inherent in a process involving so few nominators covering so much territory does leave me with mixed feelings about the endeavor.
I’m of course thrilled to see so much fine work, much of it truly new, noticed in the nominations. But even for a crusty critic, excellence doesn’t seem to be the only important metric right now. Pollyannish as it may sound, I think everything that managed to open during this hectic, often terrifying season, and everyone who went onstage in front of an audience of shining if mask-covered faces, deserves, if not a nod, a bow.
Even, I suppose, “Diana.”