Handicapping Sunday’s Tony Race

Dear June,

Usually, handicapping the annual Tony Awards is duck soup. Unlike Hollywood, which has hundreds of movies eligible each year for Oscar nominations, Broadway only has a few dozen shows that qualify for the Tony nominations. For the 2006-07 season, only 35 productions met the criteria, 28 of which snagged at least one nomination. Factor in that 10 of those 28 shows have already closed—and that voters tend to choose still-open shows—and there would seem to be not that much from which to choose.

Nevertheless, this year has more coin-toss races than usual. Spring Awakening, which led all shows with 11 nominations, seems to be the front-runner for best musical; it won that prize at the recent Drama Desk Awards (theater’s answer to the Golden Globes). Nevertheless, the 700-plus Tony voters include hundreds who operate and book theaters not in New York, but in the hinterlands. These outsiders know that their conservative audiences won’t cotton to a rock musical which deals with masturbation, abortion, and homosexuality. Road voters won’t be too enthusiastic about Grey Gardens, the offbeat show about the rise and fall of the Beales (aka Jackie Kennedy’s relatives), either. Neither show has been a box-office bonanza in New York, so why would anyone think that it will play well from New London to New Mexico? That leaves Curtains, a fun-filled murder-mystery musical, or even that ol’ standby Mary Poppins, brought to Broadway 42 years after Hollywood saw it, as sneak-through possibilities.

All season long, the forgone conclusion was that the winner of Best Actress in a Musical would be Grey GardensChristine Ebersole. She not only charmingly plays mater Edith Beale in the first act, set in 1941, but then also segues to become her unbalanced grown daughter Edie Beale in the second, set in 1975. But late in the season, Audra McDonald opened as Lizzie, the lovelorn spinster in 110 in the Shade. McDonald has been nominated for five Tonys and has won four of them. Does she have too many? Ebersole has one—but perhaps her performance, first seen off-Broadway 15 months ago, is just a little too remote for voters’ memories.

Audra McDonald in 110 in the Shade

110 in the Shade may also unseat Company in the race for best musical revival. The former, a touching musicalization of The Rainmaker, didn’t get enough acclaim when it first opened in 1963. The latter is John Doyle’s stark rethinking of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 classic, where the actors play instruments, too. Company had this award sewed up when it opened last November; has 110 unraveled the thread?

Of course, the winner for best play just has to be The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s mammoth masterwork about 19th-century Russia and the seeds of the Russian Revolution. To paraphrase and augment a Certs * ad of yore, “It’s three! Three! Three shows in one!” How could any normal-length play ever hope to compete with the nine hours’ worth of erudite entertainment? In other years, August Wilson’s Radio Golf would have taken the prize. The reason wouldn’t merely be from sentiment that Wilson completed this play just months before he died in 2005. The prize would go to it because it’s awfully good.

A similar dollop of sentiment could impact the race for best score. The Drama Desk rewarded the hip choice Spring Awakening with its pop-rock sound and not-always-rhyming lyrics. But John Kander, the composer who just turned 80, and Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, are longtime Broadway favorites, and though they have two other musicals yet to reach Broadway, Curtains could well be their last show on “the Street.” Giving them best score would be tantamount to a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Similarly speaking, Peter Stone was one of Broadway’s best librettists, most notably for his classic 1969 show, 1776. He, too, was working on Curtains when he died in 2003. Rupert Holmes took over, and both names now get credit on the poster. Their book for Curtains emerged victorious at the Drama Desks, where Spring Awakening was expected to win. Still, don’t count out Grey Gardens from this list. Author Doug Wright was inspired by a 1975 documentary film on the Beales, which showed them in the throes of despair and poverty, but he simply used that for his second act. That he completely invented a first act where we saw them alive and well was an exciting masterstroke.

But few other races offer sure things. Frank Langella has the lead for Best Actor in a Play as the disgraced president in Frost/Nixon, but Liev Schreiber is potent as a maniacal AM-host in Talk Radio. Eve Best could be judged best for her mannish virgin in A Moon for the Misbegotten, but Vanessa Redgrave holds the stage all alone for 95 minutes in The Year of Magical Thinking.

Finally, Journey’s End will be named Best Revival of a Play, even though it rarely sells even half its tickets each week and plays its last performance just hours before Sunday’s Tony ceremony. Doesn’t that contradict my earlier statement that the Tonys love money-yielding properties? Yes, but in the case of an awfully good anti-war play, Broadway will make a conscience-clearing exception.


Correction: June 8, 2007: The writer originally misidentified the product as Doublemint. (Return to the corrected sentence.)