Since time immemorial, long before the term hate-watching entered the lexicon, like-minded individuals have been gathering in front of television sets for the communal viewing of award shows, an alcohol-lubricated ritual that involves showboating one’s breathless fandom, esoteric knowledge of popular culture, and ability to throw shade at celebrities from the safety of a living room couch. With the Emmys, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars in the rearview mirror, the time has come for the Tony Awards, Broadway’s annual celebration of itself, which will be broadcast from Radio City Music Hall this Sunday at 8:00 p.m. on CBS. (You can watch the red-carpet arrivals, which promise to be more fashion-heavy this year, online starting at 5:30 p.m.) Surely, you will want to join in, impressing your friends and Twitter followers with knowing insights and snarky bon mots. But what if you haven’t seen all—or any—of the plays and musicals that have been nominated for the top awards (which, of course, you should have) and don’t have time to cram them in this weekend? Use the following cheat sheet and toss around your opinions with confidence.
The traditional complaint in this category is that Broadway has become a home for hit shows from London and has no place for challenging new works by American playwrights. This year, two of the Best Play nominees are, in fact, transfers of West End smashes. But the other two are, yes, challenging new works by American playwrights. You should grudgingly acknowledge this fact while feeling free to bitch about the deserving plays that weren’t nominated—American Highway and Constellations are good choices.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
As bad ideas go, the decision to make a play out of Mark Haddon’s beloved novel about the mystery of who killed a dog in a quiet English town, written in the voice of a teenage math genius who appears to have Asperger’s syndrome, would seem to take the cake. Instead, it turned out to be a thrilling piece of theater—a giant hit at London’s National Theatre and on the West End, not to mention the front-runner in the Best Play category. After grumbling about its English provenance, go on to praise Marianne Eliott’s dazzlingly inventive staging, Bunny Christie and Finn Ross’s eye-popping sets, and newcomer Alex Sharp’s uncanny performance as the troubled lad at the center of the play. (Go ahead and predict that he will win the Best Actor trophy.) Sum it up by saying that it shows us the world through its protagonist’s eyes in a way that only theater can do.
Even if you didn’t get a chance to catch the now-closed Broadway production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning comic drama about the clash between contemporary culture and Islamic tradition, double down by saying that you liked it even better when it played off-Broadway three years ago starring The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi as an ambitious Pakistani-American lawyer with a difficult feelings about his heritage. Concede that the Broadway cast was terrific, too, and that Gretchen Mol looked fabulous—fabulous! Praise Broadway for accommodating a play that tackles so many complex, incendiary issues while hinting, sagely, that perhaps the play was a little too entertaining for its own good. If someone else makes that observation, counter with, “God forbid theater should make you think and show you a good time.”
Hand to God
Here’s another new American play by a wildly talented young writer that you have loved since it played off-Broadway and are delighted that it’s finding an enthusiastic audience on the Great White Way. (Just don’t use the phrase “Great White Way.” Or “Main Stem.”) Like Curious Incident, Hand to God concerns itself with a troubled teenager, in this case a meek Christian lad whose alter ego is a foul-mouthed, horny, and criminally insane sock puppet. Enthuse about Steven Boyer’s ferociously funny and terrifying performance as the boy with the puppet, and Geneva Carr’s fearless turn as his unhinged suburban mom (they’re both nominated for Tonys). Mention that the show features the best puppet-on-puppet sex scene since Avenue Q. And point out that this black comedy by Robert Askins is just what Broadway needs more of: a contemporary play that can draw audience members who are still several years away from qualifying for an AARP card.
Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Like Curious Incident, this prestige import from the Royal Shakespeare Company falls into the category of Terrific Plays Based on Novels That Had No Business Being Adapted For the Stage But Miraculously Worked. In this case, the books are Hilary Mantel’s juicy, revisionist, bestselling takes on Tudor history, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Your position should be that adapter Mike Poulton and director Jeremy Herrin have done an astonishing job of transforming two novels spanning four decades, populated by 159 characters, and set in dozens of locales in several countries into a riveting, swiftly paced five or six hour theatrical experience. Insist that not seeing both parts in the same day indicates a lack of spine. Be a double snob by noting that some of the book’s richness and nuance got lost in translation. Talk about the impeccable technique of English actors, citing Ben Miles’s shrewd, ruthless Thomas Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker’s mercurial Henry VIII, and Lydia Leonard’s fiercely ambitious Anne Boleyn.
BEST REVIVAL OF A PLAY
The Elephant Man
Start off by pointing out that Bernard Pomerance’s frequently revived play has become a popular vehicle for handsome actors to show their bona fides by playing its hideously misshapen title character—and that this production was no exception. This time around, the good-looking he-man donning a loin cloth to portray John Merrick—the freak show attraction with a monstrous skin condition who found dignity and a place in London society under the care of an ambitious doctor and a large-hearted actress—was Bradley Cooper, who, you should admit (condescendingly or not—your choice), turned out to be an exceptionally fine stage actor. You might also want to note that Sandro and Patty (that would be Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson) were fantastic, and that they’re looking good to win trophies in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories.
“How ironic,” you might tell your friends, “that David Hare, whose forte is political dramas on an epic scale, turned out what has become perhaps his most popular play when he finally wrote an intimate ‘in-the-room’ love story.” If your friends don’t hate you by this point, go on to let them know that, in this tale of former lovers, a rich, late-middle-aged restaurant entrepreneur and a young schoolteacher living in poverty, who reunite for a night only to discover that the chasm between them is too wide, Hare manages to blend the personal and the political so seamlessly that it’s breathtaking. Now that you’re on a roll, wax rhapsodic about how the acting is the best on Broadway right now, with astonishing (and Tony-nominated) performances by Bill Nighy (sublime, as always), Carey Mulligan (perhaps the finest stage actress of her generation), and Matthew Beard (making an auspicious stage debut).
This is Our Youth
Your take on this should be that Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play about disaffected, hyper-verbal rich kids in Reagan-era Manhattan is as funny and sad and special as ever, and feels just as pertinent today. If you’re at least a few years older than the characters in the play (that is, you’re at least 25, and that’s pushing it), you could also say that this starry revival—which, of course, you saw in its Chicago try-out at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company last summer—is every bit as good as the original. In a year with less formidable competition, in your opinion, Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi (Gevinson, of course) would have at least been nominated for their affecting performances.
You Can’t Take It With You
Feel free to be condescending about Kaufman and Hart’s Pulitzer-winning 1936 comedy about a wackily eccentric family and about Frank Capra’s syrupy (and Oscar-winning) screen adaptation. Then do a 180 and praise Scott Ellis’s lovingly meticulous revival, declaring, “Who knew that I would have so much fun?” Say what a pleasure it is to see James Earl Jones onstage so often these days, then add that he probably won’t ever be a plaintiff in a class action law suit over ageism in the theater. And predict with confidence that the delightful Annaleigh Ashford will win a Best Supporting Actress Tony for her winsome comic turn as one of the band of loveable zanies.
As is often the case, this category is shaping up to be a showdown between art and commerce, and as is also often the case, commerce appears to have the upper hand. Cite the 1984 Tonys, at which La Cage aux Folles bested Sunday in the Park With George, and if you’re really feeling it, add, “Really?” The consensus is that all the nominated musicals are lucky that Hamilton didn’t move to Broadway in time to be considered.
An American in Paris
Despite a hit out-of-town tryout in—bien sûr—Paris, this airborne stage adaptation of the beloved Gene Kelly MGM musical turned out to be a surprise smash. Never mind, you might note, that the original film is—how do you say?—un peu prétentieux, or that it made endless dream ballets de rigueur. And never mind that Craig Lucas’s adaptation, while an improvement on the original, remains more than a little hokey. Under the masterly direction and choreography of Christopher Wheeldon, the sight of ballet dancers Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, leaping, twirling, and twining around each other through designers Bob Crowley, Benjamin Pearcy, and Leo Warner’s breathtaking City of Lights—not to mention singing such classic Gershwin tunes as “The Man I Love,” “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”—is absolutely gorgeous. This is probably the one to beat.
Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home is the theater purists’ choice for Best Musical: the story of a lesbian cartoonist’s looking back on the signal events of her childhood and youth, which is to say her discovery and coming to terms with her emerging sexuality and the suicide of her closeted gay father, who ran a funeral home while longing for a life in the theater. If it doesn’t win, expect a lot of weeping and rending of garments, and, if you’re so inclined, feel free to join in. You can preemptively predict that Lisa Kron will win Best Book of a Musical and that Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori will win for their gorgeous score. As the show’s doomed patriarch, Michael Cerveris is probably the front-runner for Best Actor in a Musical (though his wig is a shoo-in for most egregious hairpiece), and Judy Kuhn, as his long-suffering wife, has a good shot at taking the Best Supporting Actress in a Musical prize. All three of the adorable—and superb—actresses who play Alison at various ages are also nominated.
The takeaway from this bawdy, gleefully lowbrow send-up of Broadway musicals and the Shakespearean canon is that sometimes exuberance, and word of mouth, trumps the New York Times. The Times’ chief drama critic Ben Brantley panned the show, which deliberately places itself in the tradition of The Producers, Spamalot, and The Book of Mormon, and yet it’s been doing bang-up business, with wildly enthusiastic crowds. You might want to cite its rollicking Act One showstopper “A Musical”—don’t describe it as “Heaven” unless that’s the way you roll—and the delightfully shameless and be-cod-pieced (and Tony-nominated) performances of Brian d’Arcy James and Christian Borle.
This dark musical, based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s dark 1956 revenge drama, probably doesn’t have a shot at Best Musical. But, with a score by the legendary Kander and Ebb and an equally legendary star—that would be the Tony-nominated, 82-year-old dynamo Chita Rivera, to whom you should refer simply as “Chita!”—it is to be spoken of in reverential tones. You can inform your pals that The Visit, among other things, may very well be the first musical whose opening number features a simulated act of cunnilingus, and if you’re feeling particularly audacious, tell them that Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda was in the matinee audience when you saw it, crying like a baby.
BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL
I’m afraid that you will have to take what I say about this category with a grain of salt, because, in this case, it’s impossible for me to separate my professional and personal selves. On the last night of his life, my father glumly told me, “Gee, I wish that Betty and I had a show on the boards this season.” Had he lived to see this season, I think that he would have been a happy man indeed, with not one but two Comden and Green shows on the boards, playing in theaters next door to each other, and both nominated for Tonys. The third nominee is by another storied team, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Some esoteric theater trivia you may want to toss around: Rodgers and Hammerstein were at the opening night of my father and Betty’s first musical, On the Town, in 1944, and afterward the already famous songwriters generously told them that they wished they had written the show’s hauntingly wistful ballad “Some Other Time.” My father, who with his On the Town collaborators had set out to create an integrated musical, repaid their kindness a few years later, in a letter to Leonard Bernstein, with this gracious passage: “There’s an item in the Sunday Times about the Hammerstein Rodgers show Allegro. Rodgers says ‘it will combine dance, music and drama as an integrated unit.’ About time too. It’s an unprecedented notion, very daring, never before attempted—Ahhhh!—shit, fuck, balls!!!”
The King and I
Bartlett Sher’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last great musical is, I’m profoundly sorry to report, a knockout, and it seems to have an edge over my father and Betty’s shows in the category. (We’ll see.) Visually stunning (the sets are by Michael Yeargan), it features such R&H classics as “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Shall We Dance?” performed by a sterling cast led by the perfect Kelli O’Hara (this is her sixth Tony nomination, though she’s yet to win). This is a musical, and a production, that is beautiful on every level. In fact, all you have to say is, “Beautiful show! Those songs! Kelli!” You can also praise Japanese movie star Ken Watanabe’s charismatic performance while noting that, when he sings, his English pronunciation falls into the “mouthful of marbles” category.
On the Town
The first show by a bunch of crazily talented kids—my father and Betty, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins, all in their twenties at the time—On the Town has always been famous for its opening number (“New York, New York”) and for the beloved but anemic MGM film version. But since its original smash run in 1944, it hasn’t fared well on Broadway—1971 and 1998 revivals both flopped—and this exuberant musical about three sailors on 24-hour shore-leave looking for love in New York City was starting to get a reputation as a quaint relic. Then along came John Rando’s joyous revival, with high-flying Robbins-inspired choreography by Josh Bergasse, and audiences are finally getting to see the show for what it has always been—a high-low comic romp, with an undertone of melancholy, bursting with youth and erotic energy, and featuring, in Bernstein’s score, some of the most ravishing music ever written for the stage. As the lovelorn sailor Gabey, Tony Yazbeck sings and dances like a dream, and whether or not he wins the Best Actor in a Musical Tony, this performance has made him a star.
On the Twentieth Century
Written nearly 35 years after On the Town, this 1978 screwball operetta, based on the play and the Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century, with a Rossini-esque score by Cy Coleman, has never been revived on Broadway until now. A few haters have said, “I can see why,” but the majority opinion, based on Scott Ellis’s gleaming new production, seems to be: “Where have you been all my life?” Set aboard the Twentieth Century, Ltd., making a sixteen-hour railroad trip from Chicago to New York City, it concerns a megalomaniacal theater impresario named Oscar Jaffee, played with brio and scenery-chewing élan by Peter Gallagher, who, after four flops, needs to convince his former protégée and lover Lily Garland to sign a contract for a new (nonexistent) play before the train reaches Grand Central. The show’s assets include hilarious songs, tap-dancing porters, a superbly hammy Andy Karl as a lunkheaded leading man, and, above all, a tour de force of hurricane proportions by Kristin Chenoweth as the spoiled, vainglorious Lily Garland, giving one of the greatest musical comedy performances you will ever see. It will be a photo finish between her and O’Hara for the Best Actress in a Musical trophy. They both deserve it.
I wish that my father were around to enjoy, win or lose, such a helluva season for him and his partner. But I definitely feel his presence in Act One of On the Twentieth Century, when Gallagher, as the beleaguered Oscar, turns to his sidekicks, who have informed him that he’s broke, and says, “Traitors! Look at the two of you—Judas Iscariot. And his sister, Sue.” He then launches into a defiant anthem, which my father used to perform (at the drop of a hat) at parties, that ends:
From the false reports of my demise
Like the phoenix right before their eyes
With my back up against the wall
I rise again!
The post Your Tonys Cheat Sheet: Everything You Need to Know About This Year’s Nominated Productions appeared first on Vogue.
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