The general public, abetted by the entertainment media, may think that over the past season Broadway theatre meant merely Spider-Man. But The Broadway League, the trade organisation that with the American Theatre Wing will present the Tony Awards on June 12 at New York’s Beacon Theatre, likes to remind everyone that the Great White Way is healthy with diverse offerings not created by Bono and The Edge. Ticket grosses for the year ending May 29 reached $1.08bn, up from $1.02bn in 2009-2010; overall attendance at Broadway’s 40 theatres was up 5.4 per cent.
That Spider-Man continues to create news – Bono and The Edge are likely to perform on the Tonys broadcast, even though their show hasn’t officially opened yet and thus isn’t nominated – reflects theatre’s connection to other forms of entertainment. As with movies and music, incessant web talk is as culturally meaningful as the events under discussion, and a high-profile super-hero project can cause more chat than an awards show.
Still, the sparks over who will win this year’s Tonys keep flaring online, starting with The Book of Mormon, the non-arachnid show of the moment. This hilariously irreverent musical comedy about a pair of white-bread Mormon missionaries who try to proselytise in an impoverished, Aids-ridden African village was lauded by critics, is setting box-office records and has a cast recording that has achieved a rare cross-over to the pop charts. The production received 14 Tony nominations and is likely to win at least seven: for Best Musical (the only award that matters much commercially), as well as for direction, book, score, orchestrations, lighting and sound.
The Mormon streak is unlikely to extend to actors, even though the show may be competitive in the Leading Actor in a Musical category. Some observers expect that award to go either to Norbert Leo Butz, the most appreciated aspect of the otherwise tepidly received Catch Me If You Can, or to Tony Sheldon, the blowsy soul of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which may also win for its costume design.
There is no squabbling about who will win Leading Actress in a Musical: Sutton Foster, who plays Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. The Cole Porter classic will also take home Best Revival of a Musical, as well as possible awards for choreography and set. The show’s John Larroquette could land the Featured Actor in a Musical statuette, though, as with the Oscars, the supporting categories are tricky to predict. A month ago, Laura Benanti, of the short-lived Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, seemed a long shot for Featured Actress in a Musical, but her chances swelled after she won the Drama Desk, a Tony bellwether.
Until late April, the Al Pacino-associated production of The Merchant of Venice, which leads non-musicals with seven Tony nominations, seemed to have a firm lock on Best Revival of a Play. But then Larry Kramer’s 1980s Aids drama, The Normal Heart, found a Broadway home. Now it is the favourite for the category.
Why has The Normal Heart struck a chord (apart from the feud the production has revived between Kramer and Barbra Streisand, who once owned the movie rights)? Partly, it has to do with the overriding message: the indifference of government in times of crisis. Partly, the play’s strength has to do with the Tony voters’ continuing affection for social-issue dramas.
I expect John Benjamin Hickey, who plays a New York Times journalist suffering from Aids, to win this year’s Tony for Featured Actor in a Play. Ellen Barkin, who plays an embattled physician, may win for Featured Actress in a Play. If so, she will be the only Hollywood-associated performer to receive laurels, reversing the trend in recent years for Tonys to flow to Tinseltown celebrities.
The performance of Mark Rylance in Jez Butterworth’s London import Jerusalem is too astonishing to be overlooked in the Best Actor in a Play category. This very English evening, which has been doing respectably at the box office, has a shot at winning Best Play. So does the popular, just-closed Good People, by David Lindsay-Abaire, which should garner a Leading Actress in a Play award for Frances McDormand, even though her main competition, Nina Arianda, made a big splash in a revival of Born Yesterday.
The other prime entrant in the Best Play competition, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s highly acclaimed production of War Horse, recast at Lincoln Center Theatre with New York actors, is a sell-out hit that has already announced a US tour.
Its potential Tony for Best Play has occasioned some reasonable criticism that spectacle should not blind voters to a simple script, but I am not persuaded that such an argument will sway tour organisers, a significant Tony-voting bloc who will want to corral the steed for their cities.
That The Book of Mormon and War Horse are Broadway’s biggest new-show hits proves that, even in an age of super-hero excess and fluctuating fashions in Tony voting, New York theatre sticks to the simplest rules of showbiz: make ’em laugh, make ’em cry.