Take a look at the “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play” category for this Sunday’s Tony Awards, and it might seem strange at first sight: Four out of the five names are far better known as high-profile film and television actresses than Broadway stars.
Helen Mirren, Elisabeth Moss, Carey Mulligan and Ruth Wilson are up against Geneva Carr, the only actress that doesn’t also regularly show up at the Oscars or the Emmy awards. Not to mention, movie stars Bradley Cooper and Bill Nighy landed nods for lead actor in a play, while Patricia Clarkson and Ken Watanabe also scored nominations.
If you’re thinking it’s odd (not to mention presumptuous) for Hollywood to storm Broadway’s biggest night, allow us to give a brief reminder: This happens every single year. Plus, it’s actually about an average number of TV and movie stars to populate the list of nominees, at least in recent years.
While the star power of this year’s nominees may be more pronounced, there are generally always several actors better known for movies or television who wind up with a Tony nod. Examples are as varied from Judd Hirsch in 1980 (“Talley’s Folly”) to Katharine Hepburn in 1982 (“West Side Waltz”) to Alec Baldwin in 1992 (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) to Christina Applegate in 2005 (“Sweet Charity”).
There are lots of advantages to casting a big-name celeb in your musical or play, many of them financial. However, the one year when the Broadway community wasn’t so thrilled? Back in 2010 when A-listers weren’t only nominated, they nearly swept the major categories: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis of “Fences” won lead actor and actress in a play; Scarlett Johansson (“A View From the Bridge”) was named featured actress in a play; and Catherine Zeta-Jones (“A Little Night Music”) landed the win for lead actress in a musical.
That year’s nomination was chock-full of other Hollywood stars, including Laura Linney, Jude Law, Kelsey Grammer, Sean Hayes, Liev Schrieber, Alfred Molina and Christopher Walken. Some were also annoyed that Paula Abdul was randomly in attendance.
That year was the tipping point for many, including stage actor Hunter Foster, who started a Facebook group called “Give the Tonys Back to Broadway.” It got lots of attention, but people pointed out that bringing marquee names was always an important factor in bringing mainstream crowds to the theater. “Until audiences start showing up for starless plays and musicals, producers will keep looking for insurance in the form of a name commodity, letting questions of aesthetic integrity come second,” New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood wrote.
Ever since, awards nominations have continued to stream in for Hollywood over the past few years, such as Bryan Cranston and Tony Shalhoub (2014); Tom Hanks and Laurie Metcalf (2013); Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Lithgow (2012); and Al Pacino and Edie Falco (2011).
Meanwhile, on Sunday, look for Dame Helen Mirren (“The Audience”) to likely conquer the competition for actress in a play; but it would be an upset if Bradley Cooper (“The Elephant Man”) lands the win for actor in a play, given that Alex Sharp (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) is the favorite.