NEW YORK — Sunday night, we will finally get the answer to a tense theater season cliffhanger: Will the Kennedy Center win its first Tony Award in 15 years?
We already know that Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company has one in the bag: The 25-year-old company headed by Michael Kahn has been named the recipient of the statuette for outstanding regional theater, a prize that went to another D.C. area troupe, Signature Theatre, in 2009. And Woolly Mammoth Theatre is a potential winner-once-removed. A work to which it gave a crucial early boost, the Pulitzer-winning “Clybourne Park,” is competing in several categories, including best play, in the awards ceremony’s 66th installment, to be hosted in the Upper West Side’s Beacon Theatre by Neil Patrick Harris.
But the Washington institution with the most on the line — gratifyingly and nail-bitingly — is the Kennedy Center. With the highly praised revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s “Follies,” which it transferred from the Eisenhower Theater to Broadway’s Marquis Theatre, it is a nominee eight times over. Alongside “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” — another import to Broadway from a nonprofit, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. — “Follies” is considered a front-runner for best revival of a musical. And if “Follies” wins that award, it will be the first time in memory that the Kennedy Center will approach the stage, in the person of President Michael M. Kaiser, as a show’s originating and lead producer.
Let’s stipulate here that a Tony represents something other than a recognition of the best that American theater can offer, which may be why some serious theater folks turn up their noses. The awards are intended as much as anything as a marketing tool, limited to the new productions in any season filling 40 Broadway houses in a theater district stretching from West 41st Street to Lincoln Center. During the 2011-12 season, that amounted to a little more than three dozen new and old plays and musicals.
But let’s also acknowledge that everybody wants one. The visibility and validation that a Tony confers may be a result of factors other than preeminent quality, such as whether the show is still running or whether it has potential as a touring production. Yet the psychic rewards can be enormous for an actor, a writer or even an entire city. And D.C., whose performing arts virtues are underappreciated and misunderstood by outsiders, stands in the potential receiving line as a worthy honoree by association.
The theater town on the Potomac seems underprepared to trumpet its strengths. I am amazed at how little effort the companies have expended over the past month to promote their nominations and accolades; Tony time is the only fleeting interlude in the year when the nation pulls off its blindfold and gives the American stage more than a cursory glance. This, too, is the rare year in which “Washington” and “theater” could be uttered in combination several times during a nationwide broadcast.