When the The Broadway League and the American Theater Wing announced their 2013 Tony Award nominations on Tuesday morning in New York, preliminary to a June 9 ceremony at Radio City Music Hall, two things leapt out: Broadway is a drag. And black is beautiful. For Best Actor in a Musical, the two serious contenders – Bertie Carvel in the Roald Dahl adaptation Matilda and Billy Porter in the shoe-factory show Kinky Boots, which led the field with 13 nominations – donned wigs. Meanwhile, Nathan Lane, nominated for Best Actor in a Play for his sensational turn in Douglas Carter Beane’s burlesque pageant The Nance – a category he will probably lose to Tom Hanks, portraying a newspaper columnist in Lucky Guy – shuffles onstage at the end of his show as a worn-out female prostitute named Hortense.
As for that other notable bit of sociology: for the first time since the statuettes were bestowed in 1947, three of the likely winners for the top four acting honours could be African-American. In addition to Porter, who is neck-and-neck with Carvel, there are the much-better-positioned Cicely Tyson, nominated as Best Actress in a Play for a revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, and Patina Miller, as Best Actress in a Musical, for a revival of the 1972 show Pippin.
Pippin – which will also probably win Andrea Martin the Featured Actress in a Musical award – received 10 Tony nominations, and will take the Best Revival of a Musical award or my surname isn’t citric. And Matilda, with 12 nominations, will win Best Musical – unless there is an anti-Brit-musical backlash resulting in the crowning of Kinky Boots.
The April arrivals of Pippin, from the American Repertory Theater, and Matilda, from the Royal Shakespeare Company, provided refreshment for parched souls. At the season’s halfway point, only revivals of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Odets’ Golden Boy, which received the most nominations of any play (eight) and vies with Bountiful for Best Revival of a Play, had brought lustre to the Great White Way. At this point, The Broadway League tried to put a brave face on the business: in inflation-unadjusted dollars, the gross box-office figure for 2012 was an all-time annual high of $1.158bn. But creativity was sagging.
Enter the four little Matildas. I refer to Sophia Gennusa, Bailey Ryon, Oona Laurence and Milly Shapiro, whose tremendous poise gave a boost to Broadway in April. Cries of sexism were heard when the Tony administrative committee last week decided to bestow a special award on the girls, disallowing their candidacy for the kind of competitive honours granted to the three boys who starred four years ago in Billy Elliot. But few of the 868 Tony voters ever see multiple interpreters of a role, so there is logic – if not political correctness – to the decision.
The committee also decided that Kristine Nielsen, who brilliantly plays a depressive in Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, must compete for leading actress honours against Tyson: the nominators snubbed Fiona Shaw, for The Testament of Mary, and Bette Midler, for her sell-out I’ll Eat You Last. Since Nielsen is Durang’s muse, she can draw solace from the fact the Vanya, an audience-pleasing comedy, will probably beat Lucky Guy for Best Play.
Tony nominators showed much less love for the biggest new hit on Broadway, the 1960s jukebox musical Motown. Its relative snub in nominations (four, but not for the coveted Best Musical) doesn’t mean the organisers of the telecast won’t ask the show’s mastermind, Berry Gordy, to have his actors appear on awards night. TV producers ain’t too proud to beg – especially in a year when Broadway has wondrously become the Great Black Way.