This was an adventurous year for Broadway, with several unconventional works that seemed a more comfortable fit Off-Broadway or even Off-Off Broadway.
This is a welcome development, albeit a complicated one when choosing who and what I think should win in the 2019 Tony Award’s 26 categories.
How much should one weigh fresh if sometimes raw originality against polished if often familiar professionalism?
It’s worth pointing out the obvious: As is usually the case, much of the best theater of the season was Off-Broadway, but the Tony Awards only consider shows on Broadway. There are a dozen other major New York theater awards, many of which offer a more accurate map of the theatrical landscape. (Here’s a guide to New York theater awards). But the Tonys are the only ones on network television.
Below are my preferences – not predictions – for the 2019 Tony Awards, in keeping with a tradition I’ve been maintaining for more than a decade. I am a critic, not a seer or a bookie. We’ll learn the choices of the Tony voters on Sunday, June 9th, which is soon enough.
I also continue another annual tradition, a survey of my readers for their preferences (again, not their predictions), which at least helps gauge the nominees’ popularity.
Poll pick: Hadestown
My preference: Hadestown
Anaïs Mitchell’s exquisite score of sweet and sexy folk music, rocking jazz, and down-home blues has made an impressive journey from concept album to inventively staged Off-Broadway sing-through musical to big Broadway show. The musical adapts two stories from Greek myth – Orpheus trying to rescue his wife Eurydice from the Underworld, and Hades reigning there with his kidnapped queen Persephone — updating them to modern times. A region of Hell now unmistakably resembles a New Orleans jazz club. Hades is now an industrialist exploiting the Workers Chorus. He’s even building a wall that will “keep us free” and “keeps out the enemy.”
What may be most winning about this show are the awesome performances (see actors’ categories below.)
The other nominated musicals have some standout performances as well, especially Ain’t Too Proud. And their plots are more readily grasped than the sole sung-through musical in the group. But none of the others offer a sound as fresh, and only The Prom even attempts something as original.
Poll pick: The Ferryman
My preference: The Ferryman
The Ferryman is a feast of Irish storytelling in a breathtaking mix of genres – from suspenseful thriller to family saga to ghost story to history lesson to morality tale. It took extraordinary coordination, acting and stagecraft to pull all this together, a technical-artistic achievement that none of the other productions come anywhere close to matching.
I find three of the other four plays in this category admirable works, groundbreaking in very different ways.
Choir Boy tells a sweet and substantive story that centers on a black gay youth; when’s the last time you saw that on Broadway? It also doubles as a wonderful entertainment. As with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night– both of which won Tony Awards for Best Play — one can be forgiven for misremembering Choir Boy as a musical.
What The Constitution Means To Me is Heidi Schreck’s smart, funny, moving, penetrating, personal and personable exploration of the United States Constitution and the way the Court has oppressed women. It has engendered an almost cult-like devotion, serving as a kind of communal salve for the politically shell-shocked and disaffected.
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, which marks Taylor Mac’s Broadway debut, feels as if it arrived on The Great White Way from Outer Space – or anyway from the Lower East Side, which to some mainstream Broadway theatergoers is much the same thing. The play, which basically focuses on three survivors from Shakespeare’s carnage cleaning up a pile of bodies, is funny and pointed and well-acted by three of the best comic stage actors in America. It’s also sophomoric and confusing and pretentious. Also very gooey.
It’s raw and original, and I just love that the Tony committee nominated it in seven categories.
It’s worth noting that To Kill A Mockingbird wasn’t even nominated, which surprised a lot of people. Presumably the reason for this rejection is that the play is adapted from a popular novel – which is a much more common practice for musicals than for straight plays.
This was a strong season for straight plays, which makes me hope that the Tony Awards ceremony will find some way this year to give them their full due, rather than letting the musicals dominate.
Best Revival of a Play
My preference: The Boys in the Band
The Boys in the Band is the only play in this category that made us look at the show – and the world it depicted — in an entirely fresh way.
Fifty years after the Off-Broadway opening of Mart Crowley’s seminal play about a group of gay men at a birthday party, all of whom from a 21st century perspective seemed to embody various stereotypes of unhappy homosexuals. The Boys in the Band debuted on Broadway with an all-gay cast of A-list actors; both the director and all five producers were also gay. Together they created an inviting sense of camaraderie on stage, revealing the play to be both fun and funny. The nine good-looking, successful, popular out gay actors weren’t so much re-creating gay history, or even honoring gay history. By their very participation in this production, they were making history.
I was equally enamored of director Lila Neugebauer’s Broadway debut production of The Waverly Gallery, Kenneth Lonergan’s meticulously observed, funny and sad play about a woman’s decline and its effect on her family. All five cast members were splendid, with kudos in particular to Elaine May and Lucas Hedges making an impressive Broadway debut.
I’d ideally like a tie in this category.
Best Revival of a Musical
Poll pick: Oklahoma!
My preference: Oklahoma!
This is no contest for me. Director Daniel Fish offers a dark take on Oklahoma!, an interpretation sufficiently different from the many, many revivals of this classic musical as to inspire passionate camps of admirers and detractors. I more or less joined the first camp, after the show transferred to Broadway and eliminated many of the avant-garde excesses and affectations that had turned me off to it during its Off-Broadway run. By contrast, Kiss Me, Kate works so hard at being inoffensive that much of it no longer makes any sense. Although there is some spectacular dancing, it winds up a bland entertainment that misuses the talents of the great Kelli O’Hara.
Which of these the Tony voters choose will be a gauge of which side they favor in the original versus professional divide.
Best Book of a Musical
Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
Scott Brown & Anthony King
Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin
My preference: Dominique Morisseau
Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
This was a difficult category, because, while there were aspects to admire in all the books, they were all flawed. Robert Horn’s libretto for Tootsie, for example, has a lot of clever one-liners, but the choice to update the show to the present, and replace the soap opera with a Broadway musical as the show-within-a-show, causes as many problems as it solves. The book of Hadestown is much clearer on Broadway than it was Off-Broadway, but it is not what makes this sing-through musical stand out.
Indeed, the book of a musical is often the weakest aspect of the enterprise. This is certainly the case with Ain’t Too Proud, The Life and Times of The Temptations, where the dancing and the acting and the singing are all wow, and the book is …a jukebox musical bio of recording artists, an oddly proliferating Broadway sub-genre. Still, within the genre’s strict framework, Morisseau, an acclaimed Detroit-born playwright making her Broadway debut, offers a knowing, intelligent glimpse into the tensions of the time and place, and the temptations that descended on The Temptations. There is much thought-provoking back and forth, for example, about the requirements, restrictions, and resentments involved in being crossover artists.
There has been much praise for The Prom, which I can’t fully share. It is an odd hybrid, two musicals in one. One is a funny, knowing backstage comedy, satirizing the self-regard of New York theater folk. The other is a loud, fast high school musical. What ties them together, somewhat glibly, is a story of homophobia inspired by true events at a high school far from New York. A high school student is banned from taking her girlfriend to the prom. The Broadway folk, recovering from a flop, adopt the cause as their own as a way of gaining press and reviving their careers.
I should be predisposed to this book, not least because it’s co-written by the endlessly witty Bob Martin, who has given us such masterful stage spoofs as The Drowsy Chaperone and “Slings and Arrows.” But the cleverness and razzmatazz of the Broadway characters winds up so upstaging the serious issue of homophobia that it feels relegated to a subplot. And I’m nagged by a question: Is there much difference between the fictional theater people in The Prom cynically using a serious cause to repair their image and the actual theater people behind The Prom using that cause to inject purpose and heft to this giddy entertainment?
Best Original Score
Be More Chill
Music & Lyrics: Joe Iconis
Music & Lyrics: Eddie Perfect
Music & Lyrics: Anaïs Mitchell
Music: Matthew Sklar
Lyrics: Chad Beguelin
To Kill a Mockingbird
Music: Adam Guettel
Music & Lyrics: David Yazbek
Poll pick: Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown
My preference: Anaïs Mitchell, Music & Lyrics, Hadestown
Notice how odd it is that To Kill A Mockingbird was not nominated for best play, but it was nominated for best score.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Paddy Considine, The Ferryman
Bryan Cranston, Network
Jeff Daniels, To Kill a Mockingbird
Adam Driver, Burn This
Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy
Poll pick: Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy
My preference: Bryan Cranston, Network
Pope would be such a warmhearted choice – a talented and charismatic performer who has been nominated in two different categories for two different shows (only the sixth time this has happened in Broadway history, and the first involving a theater artist of color.) This is just the beginning of what promises to be a stellar career.
Both Paddy Considine and Jeff Daniels do fine jobs as the fulcrum of their respective shows. (Adam Driver is very watchable but his performance is also very showy, and feels to me to be at the expense of the other actors.)
I didn’t even like Network very much. But I just can’t deny how good Bryan Cranston’s performance is. Nobody can do a nervous breakdown like Bryan Cranston. As Howard Beale, long-time network news anchor gone mad, he sits in front of the camera, unable to speak, his face a dramatic repertoire expressing varying shades of reddened desperation. And that’s just one of Cranston’s many memorable moments. In presenting an Outer Critics Award to Cranston, Tina Fey said his role required “the gravitas of a president, the emotional fluidity of a lunatic, and the stamina of a porn star.”
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
in a Play
Annette Bening, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
Laura Donnelly, The Ferryman
Elaine May, The Waverly Gallery
Janet McTeer, Bernhardt/Hamlet
Laurie Metcalf, Hillary and Clinton
Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me
Poll pick: Elaine May, The Waverly Gallery
My preference Elaine May, The Waverly Gallery
It was thrilling to watch May, who was herself 86 years old, as Gladys Green, once a lawyer married to a doctor, cultured, socially conscious, a garrulous and gregarious raconteur. Gladys is light and bright and eccentric, with May exhibiting the comic timing that launched her career as one-half the comedy duo Nichols and May. But, from the get-go, there is something off about her. Her deterioration over the course of the play is so realistic that it’s not just heartbreaking; it’s annoying.
A shout-out to Heidi Schreck, who is remarkable in portraying herself, both when she was a bubbly teenager, and her amiable adult self. There are moments when she reveals unpleasant truths about herself or her family in which she seems genuinely upset. It’s bracing to think of her doing this eight times a week.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
in a Musical
Brooks Ashmanskas, The Prom
Derrick Baskin, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
Alex Brightman, Beetlejuice
Damon Daunno, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Santino Fontana, Tootsie
Poll pick: Santino Fontana, Tootie
My preference: Santino Fontana, Tootsie
Santino Fontana is a charmer and a tremendous talent – he acts! he dances! he sings in different octaves! After an initial bumpy ride, Fontana seems clearly on his way to major stardom.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
in a Musical
Stephanie J. Block, The Cher Show
Caitlin Kinnunen, The Prom
Beth Leavel, The Prom
Eva Noblezada, Hadestown
Kelli O’Hara, Kiss Me, Kate
Poll pick: Stephanie J. Block
My preference: Stephanie J.Block, The Cher Show
Block goes beyond just a spot-on impersonation of the mature Cher, embodying her dry wit, and sharing her talent in putting over a song.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Bertie Carvel, Ink
Robin De Jesús, The Boys in the Band
Gideon Glick, To Kill a Mockingbird
Brandon Uranowitz, Burn This
Benjamin Walker, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
Poll pick: Gideon Glick
My preference: Benjamin Walker, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
The poll for this category fluctuated wildly, giving it first to De Jesus then Uranowitz, finally Gideon Glick. All three play different versions of gay sidekick roles.
Glick does this with particular nuance, a stand-in for Truman Capote, who was Mockingbird author Harper Lee’s childhood friend.
I too went back and forth in this category, finally landing on Benjamin Walker, because his character as the surviving son home from World War II moved me in a way that the others did not. He’s convincingly terrified to reveal his feelings to the girlfriend of his dead brother, and he is shattered and outraged by the revelations about his father.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role
in a Play
Fionnula Flanagan, The Ferryman
Celia Keenan-Bolger, To Kill a Mockingbird
Kristine Nielsen, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Julie White, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Ruth Wilson, King Lear
Poll pick: Celia Keenan-Bolger
My preference: Celia Keenan-Bolger, To Kill a Mockingbird
I bow to the inevitable in choosing Celia Keenan-Bolger, the beloved 41-year-old actress in the beloved role of Scout, who is a precocious six-year-old tomboy, as well as the adult Scout looking back. Somehow Keenan-Bolger pulls this off with convincing intensity and wonder yet devoid of the coyness that you might have thought unavoidable.
I love both Gary actresses to death, which seems an apt way to talk about their impossibly challenging roles in this gruesome comedy about dead bodies. That they can make audiences laugh anyway is more proof they are among the finest comic actresses in America who deserve wider recognition.
A shout-out as well to Fionnula Flanagan, the Irish actress portraying a mostly comatose Aunt Maggie Faraway, but who wakes up from time to time to tell riveting ghost stories from the past and predict her nieces’ futures.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role
in a Musical
André De Shields, Hadestown
Andy Grotelueschen, Tootsie
Patrick Page, Hadestown
Jeremy Pope, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
Ephraim Sykes, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
Poll pick: Patrick Page
My preference: Andre De Shields, Hadestown
This is one of those categories that make you question the very idea of having theater award contests. All five of these nominees give astonishing performances. I would give Tony Awards to all of them. It’s nearly an outrage that the Tonys are forcing cast members from the same shows to compete with one another.
But, portraying Hermes in Hadestown, De Shields commands the stage in a way that few performers can. The show begins in silence while, dressed in an elegant grey silk suit, he simply slides into position, opens a button to reveal a loud and splendid vest, before trombone lets out a blast an De Shields launches into the Heavenly jazz song “Road to Hell.” De Shields is also 73 years old – the oldest by far of the nominees in this category — and has been nominated for a Tony twice before. It’s time.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role
in a Musical
Lilli Cooper, Tootsie
Amber Gray, Hadestown
Sarah Stiles, Tootsie
Ali Stroker, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Mary Testa, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Poll pick: Amber Gray
My preference: Amber Gray, Hadestown
Gray opens Act II of Hadestown with down and dirty “Our Lady of the Underground,” delivered like a jazz chanteuse who had too much to drink – who always has too much to drink – at a late-night soiree. It is the definition of show-stopping.
Shout-outs to Sarah Stiles, who’s delightful neurotic in the smartly rewritten role of Sandy and to both Ali Sroker and Mary Testa.
Best Scenic Design of a Play
Miriam Buether, To Kill a Mockingbird
Bunny Christie, Ink
Rob Howell, The Ferryman
Santo Loquasto, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Jan Versweyveld, Network
My preference: Santo Loquasto, Gary
It must be a vertiginous leap to go from Tony winning costume designer of Hello, Dolly, with all those bright pastel colored nineteenth century suits and dresses to Tony-nominated scenic design of Gary, with that pile of corpses, but, as Santo Loquasto demonstrated over a 50-year career, he is nothing if not versatile.
Shout-out to Rob Howell’s sturdy farmhouse in The Ferryman
Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Robert Brill and Peter Nigrini, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
Peter England, King Kong
Rachel Hauck, Hadestown
Laura Jellinek, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
David Korins, Beetlejuice
My preference: Peter England, King Kong
I loved the vertiginous projection design of King Kong, which accompanied the giant ape’s rampage down Fifth Avenue and the climb up the Empire State Building. The Tonys do not (yet?) give an award specifically for projection design, but England was both the projection designer and the scenic designer for this musical.
Korins is a close second for the creative way he translated for the stage the design of Tim Burton’s 1988 film.
Shout-out to Laura Jellinek, who took some risks with her re-creation of a wood planked community center in Oklahoma, which paid off in the Broadway transfer (more so than the original Off-Broadway production, where the sight lines were bad and the seats uncomfortable as if by design.) Rachel Hauck also deserves kudos for completely rethinking the set for Hadestown for Broadway.
Camille A. Brown, Choir Boy
Warren Carlyle, Kiss Me, Kate
Denis Jones, Tootsie
David Neumann, Hadestown
Sergio Trujillo, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
Poll pick: David Neumann
My preference: Warren Carlyle, Kiss Me, Kate
Best Costume Design of a Play
Rob Howell, The Ferryman
Toni-Leslie James, Bernhardt/Hamlet
Clint Ramos, Torch Song
Ann Roth, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Ann Roth, To Kill a Mockingbird
My preference: Toni-Leslie James, Bernhardt/Hamlet
Best Costume Design of a Musical
Michael Krass, Hadestown
William Ivey Long, Beetlejuice
William Ivey Long, Tootsie
Bob Mackie, The Cher Show
Paul Tazewell, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
My preference: Bob Mackie, The Cher Show
I mean come on. None of the other nominees spent more than 50 years designing their show’s outfits.
Best Lighting Design of a Play
Neil Austin, Ink
Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Peter Mumford, The Ferryman
Jennifer Tipton, To Kill a Mockingbird
Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden, Network
My preference: Peter Mumford, The Ferryman
Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Kevin Adams, The Cher Show
Howell Binkley, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
Bradley King, Hadestown
Peter Mumford, King Kong
Kenneth Posner and Peter Nigrini, Beetlejuice
My preference: Peter Mumford, King Kong
If King Kong weren’t in the running I would choose Bradley King for Hadestown. (Considering the general and inexplicable contempt for King Kong, I suspect Bradley King will win it.)
Best Sound Design of a Play
Adam Cork, Ink
Scott Lehrer, To Kill a Mockingbird
Fitz Patton, Choir Boy
Nick Powell, The Ferryman
Eric Sleichim, Network
My preference: Fitz Patton, Choir Boy
Best Sound Design of a Musical
Peter Hylenski, Beetlejuice
Peter Hylenski, King Kong
Steve Canyon Kennedy, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
Drew Levy, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, Hadestown
My preference: Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, Hadestown
Best Direction of a Play
Rupert Goold, Ink
Sam Mendes, The Ferryman
Bartlett Sher, To Kill a Mockingbird
Ivo van Hove, Network
George C. Wolfe, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Poll pick: Sam Mendes
My preference: Sam Mendes, The Ferryman
Mendes had to put together a show that includes two dozen cast members, an actual baby, a rabbit, and a live goose, which sources tell needs to defecate every 15 minutes.
Best Direction of a Musical
Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown
Scott Ellis, Tootsie
Daniel Fish, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Des McAnuff, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
Casey Nicholaw, The Prom
Poll pick: Rachel Chavkin
My preference: Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown
Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, Hadestown
Simon Hale, Tootsie
Larry Hochman, Kiss Me, Kate
Daniel Kluger, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Harold Wheeler, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations
My preference: Daniel Kluger, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Part of what’s re-imagined in the Oklahoma! revival is the big Broadway sound. Instead, the music is countrified, and played by a handful of musicians onstage (and some of the actors) , their instruments accordion, banjo, guitars – a sound, in other words, more likely to have been heard in the territory of Oklahoma in the early 1900s.
Shout out to Harold Wheeler for Ain’t Too Proud, and Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose for Hadestown.
The 2019 Tony Awards, hosted by James Corden, will broadcast live Sunday, June 9 from Radio City Music Hall. View it on CBS starting at 8pm ET. Here’s your printable ballot.