Will Broadway’s runaway hit run the trophy table tonight?
As far as musicals go, the real nail-biter at this year’s Tony Awards ceremony is not whether “Hamilton” wins a bunch of prizes. Because it will. The question is whether it wins them all.
Well, not all all, of course: It can’t grab a statuette for best revival or for best featured actor in a play. But it is possible that its 16 nominations, a record, could result in 13 Tonys —one more than reigning champ “The Producers,” which in 2001 scooped up 12 wins — including for best musical, the evening’s most coveted award.
And given the remarkable hoopla surrounding “Hamilton” — a level of public and media enthusiasm unlike anything I’ve witnessed in two decades of covering theater - wouldn’t a history-making sweep be a fitting capstone for a groundbreaking musical about the making of history?
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I will be rooting for “Hamilton” to rack up the lucky 13, and not just because it makes a better story to write up in the press room of New York’s Beacon Theatre, the hall on Manhattan’s Upper West Side from which CBS will broadcast the three-hour proceedings, hosted by James Corden. No, it’s because “Hamilton” deserves them. It’s because the theater community needs to acknowledge with outsize emphasis what this work and its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, have done: made seeing this musical a national obsession, and musical theater a vital link, again, at last, in the American cultural chain.
A total blowout, one in which “Hamilton” wins more than half of the prizes handed out in 24 categories, is not a done deal by any means. Recognition by the 700-plus Tony voters for some of the exceptional talent in other Broadway shows this season may deny “Hamilton” the top spot on the all-time leader board. What follows, then, is a primer on the potential Tony night returns, for musicals and others, what to look for in key races, and how history may in fact be made.
Consider seven categories sewn up by the front-runner: best musical; best original score (Lin-Manuel Miranda); best book (Miranda, again); best direction of a musical (Thomas Kail); best performance by a featured actress in a musical (Rene Elise Goldsberry); best performance by a featured actor in a musical (Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Groff or Christopher Jackson) and best orchestrations (Alex Lacamoire).
If “Hamilton” falters in any of these categories, chalk it up to the madness of this year’s national election campaigns infiltrating Broadway.
Four of the down-ballot races — the three visual-design categories and the award for best choreography — may swing to other shows. One of the most hotly contested races is between Andy Blankenbuehler, who devised the sensational, almost continual movement in “Hamilton,” and Savion Glover, whose enchanting tap choreography is the most elevating element of director George C. Wolfe’s “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.”
The costume designer par excellence for “Shuffle Along,” Ann Roth, could slip past the innovative Paul Tazewell of “Hamilton”; and the set and lighting designers of the satirical “American Psycho” might have been stronger contenders against “Hamilton” and “Shuffle Along” if the musical had not closed Sunday. (It’s not a strict rule, but the voters tend to favor current hits.)
Miranda’s claim on a separate record — that is, to be the first person to win a best-actor Tony as well as the awards for book and score - is on the line in the category of best actor in a musical. Nominated for his portrayal of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda faces formidable competition from his buzz-attracting cast mate, Leslie Odom Jr., who portrays Aaron Burr. If the “Hamilton” vote ends up being split between them, the potential exists for another estimable candidate to glide in: the well-liked Danny Burstein, who should have won a Tony a few years back for his turn as Buddy in the most recent revival of “Follies” and could be honored this year for his endearingly human Tevye in the fine, new revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Were “Hamilton” to waltz away with the dozen trophies to be awarded in the categories above, it would still have to get past Cynthia Erivo to carry home the full basket of 13. Who is Cynthia Erivo, you ask? Well, if you have to, it means you haven’t seen or heard about her rafter-raising work as tragic-to-triumphant Celie in the revelatory Broadway revival of “The Color Purple.” The British actress thrillingly anchors this admirably pared-back show — the deservedly odds-on winner, by the way, of best revival of a musical. And by many accounts, the Tony for best actress in a musical is hers to lose.
Phillipa Soo, whose Eliza Schuyler in “Hamilton” radiates its own softer magnetism, gives Erivo a good fight. But even if the Tony voters are getting behind a “Hamilton” landslide, this is the contest that you would most expect to hold the musical back. And given the breathtaking size of Erivo’s performance, there’s absolutely no injustice in losing to her.
The new plays
You live in hope that some day the Tony ceremony’s producers, directors and writers will find a way to present the nominated plays on television with the kind of verve that attends the sequences featuring the musicals. That hope is renewed especially vigorously this year because of the exceedingly interesting quartet of dramas nominated for best new play: “Eclipsed,” Danai Gurira’s story of women kept as concubines by a Liberian warlord, which had its debut in 2009 at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre; “The Father,” about the impact of Alzheimer’s on an elderly man, by France’s Florian Zeller; Stephen Karam’s family tragicomedy, “The Humans”; and Englishman Mike Bartlett’s ingenious “King Charles III,” a take in the style of Shakespeare on the succession to the British throne after Queen Elizabeth II.
The decision probably comes down to the two American plays, “Eclipsed” and “The Humans.” My money is on Karam’s exquisitely constructed, character-driven exploration of the financial, medical and emotional pressures bearing down on an average middle-class American couple, their grown children and a grandparent in the throes of dementia.
The older plays
Best revival of a play features several robust contenders. It’s the one category in which I have serious worries that the winner will be one of the least-worthy choices. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” with Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne, is a workmanlike treatment of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece and nowhere near as exciting or special as the pair of nominated revivals directed by Ivo van Hove: Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible.” “Bridge” should win for van Hove’s breathtaking achievement of stripping the play down to its rawest, most captivating elements. But the voters may be thinking more conventionally and elect the safer route represented by “Journey.”
A few other notables
In the categories covering acting in plays, my votes would go to Mark Strong in “A View From the Bridge” for best actor and Sophie Okonedo in “The Crucible” for best actress. But look to Lange (or perhaps Lupita Nyong’o in “Eclipsed”) and Frank Langella in “The Father” to ascend the podium. In the supporting contests, I’m all in for Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, who play the struggling parents in “The Humans.” And on that score, the Tony electorate and I may be in full agreement.
If you watch
What: The 70th annual Tony Awards
When: 8-11 p.m. today
Featuring: Performances from the casts of “Shuffle Along,” “She Loves Me,” “School of Rock — The Musical,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Color Purple,” “Hamilton,” “Waitress,” “Spring Awakening” and more.