If justice is served, “Matilda,” an adaptation of the Roald Dahl story that originated at the Royal Shakespeare Company, will accept the trophies for (at the very least) best musical, direction, book, score, orchestrations, choreography, set design and lead actor Bertie Carvel. As Miss Trunchbull, the most demonic head of a British school this side of Charles Dickens’s Wackford Squeers, Carvel gives hands down the most thrilling Broadway performance of the season.
But as anyone who follows Broadway knows, justice is what the Tonys are only sporadically about. Excellence is just one in a matrix of factors determining who wins. Sentimental favoritism sometimes plays a role, and, surprise, so does politics. The burnishing prospect of “Tony-winning” in a production’s ad can funnel votes of tour producers and regional presenters to a show counting on an afterlife on the road.
And as always, the buzz among those who produce and publicize Broadway’s permanent floating crap game is as much about which nominees might get the biggest box-office boost from the awards as it is about who really deserves them.
Given the artistically mediocre season that just ended, a theatergoer can be forgiven for not getting too worked up over who loses out. (Remember: the Tonys, administered by a trade group, the Broadway League, and a theater support and education organization, the American Theater Wing, only go to shows in one of the 40 officially designated Broadway houses. Plays and musicals in smaller off-Broadway theaters, such as the spaces of the Public Theater, are not eligible.)
Still, a few of those in the running are especially worth rooting for. Aside from almost anything connected to “Matilda,” they include Stark Sands and Billy Porter, standout actors in the vivacious new musical “Kinky Boots”; Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon, nominees in acting categories for the strong revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that previously ran at Arena Stage; William Ivey Long for costuming “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” and best of all, Andrea Martin for her age-defying turn as a trapeze-flying granny in the souped-up revival of the 1972 musical “Pippin.”
Watch for “Pippin” to glide easily to the award for best revival of a musical, up against “Annie,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” (Broadway likes to rebrand shows to include the names of their famous creators.) And look to see whether “Pippin” director Diane Paulus —who staged both the Tony-winning revival of “Hair” that visited the Kennedy Center and the Tony-winning revival of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” that’s coming to the National Theatre next season — wrests the best-director statuette away from “Matilda’s” Matthew Warchus.
“Pippin,” with a score by Stephen Schwartz of “Wicked” fame, is a crowd favorite in part because the original production, featuring Ben Vereen as the Leading Player, under Bob Fosse’s direction, is so fondly remembered. And with its schematic book, it had been considered a tough show to revive. Taking a hint from its famous opening number, “Magic to Do,” Paulus collaborated with the Montreal-based New Circus group Les 7 Doigts de la Main (The 7 Fingers of the Hand) to restage “Pippin” as a flipping, tripping and skipping series of big-top acts.
The results, for me, though, were disappointing — a decidedly minority view, in the wake of the mostly rave reviews. The over-caffeinated portrayals and acrobatics gave me a case of theatricality-fatigue. If I had a Tony vote, my lonely one would have gone to the revival of “Annie.” The material is a bit worn-down, but director James Lapine’s effort is noteworthy for its sincere attempt to remind us of America’s strengths, even in times of economic disaster. And also for Lilla Crawford’s spiky, underappreciated turn as Annie.
Speaking of underappreciated: what is with the lack of Tony recognition of any sort for Bette Midler? She gives true heft and charisma to a lightweight solo show about Hollywood agent Sue Mengers in “I’ll Eat You Last.”
The cold shoulder to “Eat You Last” contrasts sharply with the excess of attention paid to another ho-hum new play, one about which you will hear a lot on Sunday night: the late Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy,” starring Tom Hanks as the rough-and-tumble New York City tabloid columnist Mike McAlary, who died in 1998 at the age of 41. (Intriguingly, both the Midler and Hanks shows are runaway commercial hits.)
In one of the stronger acting categories — a best-actor group including Letts, David Hyde Pierce (for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”), Nathan Lane (“The Nance”) and Tom Sturridge (“Orphans”) — Hanks would seem to hold the edge. He confirms his stage chops in this unpersuasive valentine to the newspaper business. Alas, he’s temperamentally unsuited for the charmless character he’s called on to embody.
“Lucky Guy’s” chief competition in the thin field of new-play nominees is probably Christopher Durang’s comic “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” No acknowledgment from the podium is likely, however, of what to my mind are the real contenders this season for best play in New York: Annie Baker’s “The Flick,” at Playwrights Horizons; Richard Nelson’s “Sorry” at the Public and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar, at Lincoln Center Theater.
That’s because they all ran off-Broadway.
So in an off-year for inspirational theater on the stages of Times Square, let’s hope some sense of standard is retained. And that the night belongs to the story of a heinous British boarding school and the children who revolt against it, told in the best Broadway tradition of dazzling dance, song and design.
The Tony Awards
live from Radio City Music Hall. Sunday night at 8 p.m. EDT on CBS. Visit www.tonyawards.com.