NEW YORK — The Tony Awards are too rarely a laughing matter. Much like the Oscars, whose voters tend to equate seriousness with prize-worthiness, Broadway’s most sought-after trophies are handed out far more regularly to plays and musicals that draw a tear rather than a guffaw.
This year’s statuettes — to be distributed Sunday at Radio City Music Hall and broadcast live on CBS — will be another annual test of this truism, particularly for the award with the largest box-office upside: best new musical. The nominees — “Hadestown,” “Tootsie,” “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” “Beetlejuice” and “The Prom” — present the night’s clearest choice between tragedy and comedy.
Will the producers and other stage professionals who make up the 800-member Tony electorate go for a poignant allegory based on Greek mythology (“Hadestown”), or an exuberant farce adapted from a hit movie (“Tootsie”)? Or, in this less than stellar Broadway season, will they spring a surprise? My heart is with “Tootsie,” largely because of the savvy star performance of Santino Fontana as Michael Dorsey and a funny script by book writer Robert Horn that allows a movie-to-musical to succeed on its own terms.
Hosted by James Corden, this 73rd installment of the Tonys recognizes achievement in what amounted to a so-so 2018-2019 Broadway season, one that felt as if it was a transitional confrontation between Broadway’s conventional values and newer forms. Nominated plays such as Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” and Taylor Mac’s “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” betokened the emergence of singular off-Broadway talents as major Broadway players. The other best-play nominees include James Graham’s “Ink,” Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” and the entry I’ll be rooting for, Jez Butterworth’s sprawling and dazzlingly acted Northern Irish drama “The Ferryman.”
The full menu of credible contenders for best play attested to the most encouraging outcome of the season: the comeback of original plays, after a dispiritingly paltry roster in 2017-2018 that resulted in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” walking away with the top prize. Still, the category this year also underlined the fickleness of the smaller jury of professionals who make all the nominations. In failing to place Aaron Sorkin’s exemplary version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in competition for best play, the nominators committed the season’s most glaring injustice.
Although I’ll be hoping for some other exceptional nominees to be rewarded — Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in “Mockingbird”; Elaine May as an aged art gallerist in “The Waverly Gallery”; Sergio Trujillo, for his choreography of “Ain’t Too Proud” — the most significant outcome will be the choice for best musical. Musical farces and satires have been standout Tony winners in some years, among them “The Book of Mormon,” “Spamalot” and, in one of the biggest Tony upsets ever, “Avenue Q” beating “Wicked” in 2004.
But if the triumph belongs to the underwhelming “Hadestown,” the most-nominated show this season, with book, music and lyrics by Anaïs Mitchell, I will chalk it up to the bias against lighter fare. “Hadestown” features inventive staging by Rachel Chavkin, the likely winner for best director. For all its slick, bluesy hipness, though, the show is devoid of real feeling. Maybe that is what passes these days for sophistication.
“Listen, it’s lovely to be included,” said Brooks Ashmanskas, who is up for leading actor in a musical for his priceless performance as a self-dramatizing Broadway actor who comes to the aid of a gay Indiana teenager in “The Prom.” Yet prize voters, he acknowledged, “tend to look at serious performance as being more difficult. And to be, hopefully, spontaneous and make people laugh eight times a week, it’s not easy. In a comedy, the audience is a real part of it, they’re an audible part of it. It’s both an obstacle and a challenge.”
Because the musical categories seem so up in the air this year — no clear favorite such as “Hamilton” or “Dear Evan Hansen” is in the running — the individual contest that may best define the voters’ discernment will be best book of a musical, a prize that should by rights go to Horn. (David Yazbek, nominated for the score for “Tootsie,” won the Tony last June for “The Band’s Visit.”) Horn, a longtime TV writer and producer whose credits include CBS’s “Designing Women” and the book of the musical “13,” spoke in an interview about the assignment of taking a much-loved movie — written by no less a comic luminary than Larry Gelbart — and remaking it for laughs on Broadway.
“Neither David nor I wanted to put the movie onstage,” he said, over coffee at a hotel near Times Square. One of the challenges was making the story, about a temperamental out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman to get a part, funny for an audience conditioned to more sophisticated depictions of gender issues.
“Our culture started to change daily as we were writing this,” Horn said. “There are land mines that you have to be aware of. But you also have to write a piece that feels relevant 10 years from now.”
A hallmark of Horn’s writing is that he borrows almost no jokes from the screenplay; the plot is essentially the same, except the venue for Michael’s disguise as Dorothy Michaels is now a Broadway musical, rather than a television soap opera. Perhaps the most radical remake occurs in the character of Julie, the actress whom Michael falls for. Jessica Lange won the Oscar playing her in the film, as a woman who drank too much and was controlled by a chauvinistic director. “Look, Jessica Lange was fantastic but also somewhat of a victim,” Horn explained. The Julie of the musical, portrayed by Tony nominee Lilli Cooper, is far less psychologically fragile and more of a touchstone for the audience.
It was after the show was cast that Horn found his keenest voice for “Tootsie.” “I love writing for an actor,” he said, adding that he’s flexible when it comes to homing in on the funniest ripostes. “With Julie Halston,” he continued, referring to the actress who plays the musical’s demanding producer, “I’d come to her and say: ‘Here are six new jokes. Which one do you think your character would say?’ ”
“Robert can write funny, but his gift is that he writes for characters who become funny,” observed Scott Ellis, who is nominated for his direction of “Tootsie” and has a second show in contention: “Kiss Me, Kate,” which received a nod for best musical revival.
We’ll know soon enough if Broadway duly recognizes Horn’s accomplishment. Naturally, Horn’s happy with the spotlight in which he’s already basking. “They let me do something most book writers don’t get to do,” he said of Ellis and the “Tootsie” team. “They let me write a whole play within a musical.”
The Tonys will be broadcast Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS.