Tony tips for Broadway’s best

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New York’s theatre professionals ritually rue the low ratings received every year by the television broadcast of the Tony awards. But the truth is that the prizes, which honour Broadway’s best, and which this year will be given on June 10, now kick up more creative response on YouTube than on the boob tube.

What’s more, online sites such as theatermania.com and talkinbroadway.com feature partisans for whom even obscure Tony categories such as Best Book excite Kremlinologist-type scrutiny, while the TV audience’s concerns – this year, the appearance on the telecast of American Idol winner Fantasia, now in The Color Purple musical – instil condescending yawns.

As with the Oscars, the internet is where one turns to learn the likely winners. Another Hollywood parallel, at least this year: the laureates tend to have Peter Morgan’s name stamped on their work. Morgan came up with the script for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, yielding Oscars for Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker, and he wrote the play Frost/Nixon, which will almost certainly result in a Best Actor in a Play Tony for Frank Langella’s turn as the Watergate president.

Any thought that Frost/Nixon, originally produced by the Donmar Warehouse, could roar over from London and sweep the Tonys the way The History Boys did last year seems to have dwindled. All the critics’ awards prior to the Tonys have named Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, done at London’s National in 2002 and produced in revised form in New York by Lincoln Centre Theater, as the season’s best drama.

Having a professional association with Utopia’s now-closed American production, I cannot pretend to be impartial. I can say, however, that Stoppard’s look at a band of 19th-century Russian radicals is the favourite to win Tonys in all design categories and for its director, Jack O’Brien, even as some bloggers found the three-part play itself too long and sporadically dull.

Utopia is also the frontrunner in Best Featured performer categories, although, as with the Oscars, these tricky supporting races spell the difference in one’s office pools.
The Featured Actress in a Play category pits the Utopians Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton against each other. Vying in the Featured Actor race are Utopia’s Ethan
Hawke, as the anarchist Michael Bakunin, and the same play’s Billy Crudup.

Crudup portrayed Vissarion Belinsky, generally described as a “consumptive critic” – a phrase that one online chatterer, probably an actor, recently called “redundant”.

If London-originated dramas dominate the Play categories, America reasserts itself in the musical division. Two off-Broadway transfers, Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening, have been piling up the pre-Tony honours.

Grey Gardens is a musical version of a 1975 documentary about two of Jackie Onassis’s relatives, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie. The movie, among other things, shows what happens when elderly women start preferring pets to people. Nothing short of a June snowstorm will prevent Grey Gardens’ Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson from grabbing Tonys for Best Actress and Best Featured Actress in a musical.

Spring Awakening, which is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play about adolescent sexuality, will sweep the other musical categories: direction (Michael Mayer), best original score (Duncan Sheik, Steven Sater) , choreography (Bill T Jones), best featured actor (John Gallagher Jr), and the evening’s biggest prize, best musical.

Even on Broadway, Spring Awakening feels to me like a glorified concert, but any show that attracts a young demographic impresses fat-cat theatre producers. They and their fellow Tony voters are perpetually worried that Broadway, with its middle-aged audiences and sometimes prohibitive ticket prices, will turn into a grey garden – and not the kind with lovable Bouviers in it.


The 61st annual Tony Awards will be held on June 10 at Radio City Music Hall, New York

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