Tony Awards' top races: A theater critic's opinionated guide
Of the many cliffhangers the Tony Awards will resolve on Sunday, the story line that has me on the edge of my seat is whether "Hadestown" will be crowned best musical.
Anais Mitchell is bound to win for her lustrous, New Orleans-inflected folk opera score. But the show faces stiff competition from "Tootsie," an ingenious update of the beloved movie that is bound to win for best book.
Really, anything could happen. "The Prom," a favorite of Broadway traditionalists, and "Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations," a box office force with great dance moves, are spoilers in waiting. "Beetlejuice" is widely considered an also-ran (one of the few consensus points in a year in which no one can agree on anything), but these are unpredictable times.
The best play race may seem to be all sewn up, with Jez Butterworth's "The Ferryman" as the heavy favorite. But the sleeper in the field, Heidi Schreck's "What the Constitution Means to Me," is generating some welcome suspense. The play has passionate proponents (count me among them), and the recent onslaught of attacks on women's reproductive rights (a central theme of Schreck's stirring civics lesson) is only strengthening the case for an upset.
"To Kill a Mockingbird," adapted from Harper Lee's novel by Aaron Sorkin, was unaccountably left out of the best play running. But will the year's most consequential dramatic production come up short at the Tonys?
Bartlett Sher would be my choice to win for the rough-hewn elegance of his staging, which invites us to experience "Mockingbird" with new eyes. But Sam Mendes is likely to take the directing prize for his deft production of "The Ferryman" — an acknowledgment in large part of his superlative ensemble, which despite its excellence across the board probably won't be hoisting any acting trophies on Sunday.
Celia Keenan-Bolger should win for featured actress in a play for her wise-child portrayal of Scout in "Mockingbird." But Jeff Daniels, who plays Atticus Finch in a complete departure from Gregory Peck's chiseled, soothing white knight, faces intense competition from Bryan Cranston, whose performance in Ivo van Hove's production of "Network" is so electrifying that it almost compensates for the erratic auteur treatment. If ever there was a year to declare a tie, this is the one — Daniels' shambling, doubt-filled Atticus and Cranston's maniacal anchorman-turned-prophet Howard Beale galvanized what was an uneven Broadway season.
Jeremy Pope is nominated not only for his lead performance in Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Choir Boy" but also for his supporting performance in "Ain't Too Proud." He should have some support from L.A. theatergoers who saw him in "Choir Boy" at the Geffen Playhouse in 2014 and "Ain't Too Proud" at the Ahmanson Theatre last summer. He's a long shot in these categories, but as a rare double nominee he's already won the adulation of the theater community.
Stephanie J. Block, who makes a better Broadway Cher than Cher herself could pull off in "The Cher Show," seems like a lock for lead actress in a musical. No lead actress in a Broadway play this year gave a better performance than Elaine May, who ought to win for her by turns adorable and maddening portrait of an open-hearted, strong-willed grandmother succumbing to dementia in Kenneth Lonergan's "The Waverly Gallery."
It seems almost unfair to single out any of the five superlative nominees for featured actress in a musical. But Ali Stroker, who plays Ado Annie as a bubbly, wheelchair-riding flirt in Daniel Fish's boldly unconventional revival of "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!," has a slight edge.
Santino Fontana, the prohibitive favorite for lead actor in a musical, has so successfully reinvented the role of Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels in "Tootsie" that Dustin Hoffman ought to present the award. The featured actor in a musical category is filled with nothing but winners, but if Andre De Shields doesn't get the Tony for his slick and smooth narrator-preacher turn in "Hadestown" I will declare, a la Trump, that the contest is rigged.
"The Waverly Gallery" is my choice for best play revival, but "All My Sons" and "The Boys in the Band" are in with a shot. "Burn This" has its partisans, and no one can write off "Torch Song" with its author, Broadway mayor Harvey Fierstein, working rooms with his raspy ebullience.
For those who want to see the musical past reborn in a new era, Fish's darkly transformative staging of "Oklahoma!" is the choice over Scott Ellis' energetic (if emotionally thin) production of "Kiss Me, Kate" for best musical revival. In another year, I'd gladly see Fish win best director for his daring deconstruction, but there's someone else who is even more impressively pushing the musical forward.
Rachel Chavkin, who deserved a Tony for her staging of "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812," simply has to win for the sublime hypnotic swirl of her direction of "Hadestown," a musical that merges story and song into rapturous theater. More than any work this season, Chavkin's production illustrates the truth of Walter Pater's remark that "all art aspires to the condition of music."