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Why we watch the Tony Awards

By Liz Wollman

Awards season brings out everyone’s inner analyst. The moment that nominations are announced, everyone starts trying to figure out what the list of nominees says about the state of whatever medium is being lauded. During the Grammy, Emmy, Academy, and Tony Awards seasons, critics use the nominees to analyze the state of the art, fans align themselves in solidarity behind performers both honored and snubbed, and everyone rushes to hear or see whatever they have missed.

Then, during the awards shows, journalists, bloggers, scholars and fans take to their couches, and break the Internet with rapid-fire opinions about every damn thing on the screen. The next morning, talk centers on who wore what and who said what and who deserved what. People dish in the office and on the phone and on the web. And then, by midweek, no one cares anymore and we’ve all moved on.

While the Tonys (airing this year on Sunday, 8 June at 8 p.m. on CBS) are never watched by as many people as are the Academy Awards, the Emmys, or the Grammys (or even the Country Music Awards, which attracted nearly double the audience of the Tonys in 2013), the same rules apply. This year, Tony talk is particularly fevered because the nominations seem so random. Since late April, journalists, bloggers, and — ahem — scholars have weighed in on what this strange roster says about the sanity of the nominating committee, the implications of the current season for the future of the industry, and, of course, what it means for the State of Commercial Theater in New York.

I’ve seen many of the shows that were nominated this year, along with quite a few that were not, and I can assert — with scholarly authority — that I have absolutely no idea who is going to win anything, or what this year’s nominations say about the State of Commercial Theater in New York or, indeed, on Earth. Don’t believe anyone who claims they do.

Some background: Last year, many nominations went to a relative handful of commercially and critically successful shows like Matilda, Kinky Boots, and Pippin. This year’s list features no clear frontrunners and does not cluster around a handful of top-grossing productions or clear standout performances.

Maybe that is because this year has been comparatively disappointing, at least as far as monster-hit musicals go. The most anticipated spectacles — Rocky, If/Then, and The Bridges of Madison County — failed to connect solidly with critics or audiences. (To be fair, Rocky seems to have connected with people who enjoy watching half-naked guys belt out tunes while punching meat and other half-naked guys. I suppose that counts for something?) As a result, nominations in the Best Musical category went to shows that were reasonably well-received—like Beautiful and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder—if not critically or commercially ecstatic or particularly aesthetically groundbreaking.

The cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, nominated for Best Musical, photo by Joan Marcus, via BeautifulonBroadway.com
The cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, nominated for Best Musical, photo by Joan Marcus, via BeautifulonBroadway.com

As for plays, while one was completely shut out (Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses), most have gotten at least a few nods, if not for best play or revival, then for actress, actor, or supporting roles. The biggest surprise to some is the clutch of nominations that went to the Shakespeare’s Globe all-male Twelfth Night, a big hit this past fall. This is particularly big news to people who presume that (a) Broadway audiences are morons, (b) Tony voters are morons, or (c) Shakespeare was a moron.

The other big surprise was the omission of Denzel Washington and Daniel Radcliffe from the Best Leading Actor in a Play category. This might have more to do with the large number of prominent male roles on offer this year than anything else, though New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley gamely suggested recently that Radcliffe and Washington were passed over because they are so very, very good in their roles. Sure, Ben, whatever.

Here’s the thing: While I am sure Radcliffe and Washington were irked by the oversight — along with the producers of If/Then and Rocky and Bridges of Madison County and the rest of the snubbed — the Tonys don’t matter. At least not in the way that people seem to want them to matter.

The awards themselves say nothing, in the long run, about the State of Commercial Theater in New York or, indeed, on Earth. The awards ceremony is meaningful. The actual winning and losing? Not so much. What makes any awards ceremony important is the care and love people put into it. For better or worse, we Americans are world-famous for our commercial entertainment, and in honoring it, we celebrate ourselves.

Tonys are particularly sweet because they give us a break from endless laments about how the theater is dead or dying, too expensive, too inaccessible. For a few weeks in the late spring, we get to celebrate the very fact that Broadway continues to matter at all, regardless of what kind of season it’s been or who walks away with laurels.

So instead of offering a list of predictions, I will tell you what I am hoping to see and celebrate during the festivities on 8 June 2014:

(1)  Audra McDonald

The ludicrously talented McDonald could become the first performer to win six Tonys for acting. Also, since Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is being considered as a play and not a musical, McDonald could also become the first person to win a Tony in each of the four acting categories (she’s won in the past for Best Actress in a Musical, Best Featured Actress in a Musical, and Best Featured Actress in a Play). This would be great to see, it’s certainly well deserved, and as an added extra, I bet some lucky contractor will be hired to expand her mantelpiece, yet another way that commercial theater boosts the city’s economy! When Audra wins, everybody wins. And if she doesn’t win this year, you can bet she’ll still perform during the broadcast and be typically thrilling, so no one will suffer overmuch one way or the other.

(2) Kelli O’Hara

Like McDonald, O’Hara has been astounding us for quite a while. I would pay to watch her knit a scarf. She even managed to convince me that The Bridges of Madison County — a loathsome novel made into an even more loathsome movie — actually has a right to exist. But unlike McDonald, O’Hara has yet to take home a Tony, which is absolutely unacceptable. O’Hara has been nominated for Best Actress in Musical five times. If she doesn’t win this time around, I can’t promise I won’t fly into an uncontrollable rage and take out my frustration on some poor, unsuspecting soul, probably Robert James Waller.

(3)  Mark Rylance

Rylance is nominated for Best Actor (Richard III) and Best Actor in a Featured Role (Twelfth Night). Both times he won in the past, he recited verses by the Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins in lieu of a formal acceptance speech. The poems are irreverent and sweet and often hilarious, and so is Rylance. I hope we get to hear another. Again, though, if he doesn’t win this time, we’ll all survive.

Mark Rylance (left) and Stephen Fry (right) appear in the Shakespeare's Globe productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, via Shakespeare Broadway.
Samuel Barnett (left) and Liam Brennan (right) appear in the Shakespeare’s Globe productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, via Shakespeare Broadway.

(4) Actors Who Got the Shaft

Last year, Alan Cumming (Macbeth) and Scarlett Johansson (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) weren’t nominated, but they showed up for the awards ceremony anyway; so did Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane when they were passed over for their work in The Addams Family in 2010. They joked about their respective slights before graciously reading the nominations and handing out trophies. Their grace and aplomb remind us that theater is as often a collaborative art form that depends on trust and sharing as it is a vicious snake-pit of betrayal and recrimination. I hope that Denzel Washington, Daniel Radcliffe, Ian McKellan, and Patrick Stewart all get invited to hand out hardware, and agree to do so, setting aside any ego for the night. Bonus points if Captain Picard and Gandalf appear in their bowler hats, holding hands.

(5)  Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman

If these two men took over the world and repopulated it entirely with their love-children, no one would mind. I hope they hold a fabulous throw-down, judged by the equally awesome and beloved Lin-Manuel Miranda.

In sum: this year’s scattershot nominations make predicting winners tough, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Tony ceremony is going to be on the TV, and I’ll be watching (and snarking, and snacking, and tweeting) with a couple million other people. That strikes me as cause enough for celebration.

Liz Wollman is Associate Professor of Music at Baruch College in New York City, and author of The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig and Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City.

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Image credits: Poster for Twelfth Night and Richard III from Shakespeare Broadway. Photo of cast of Beautiful by Joan Marcus, via BeautifulonBroadway.com.

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