Broadway honors its finest Sunday with the Tony Awards

[10 June 2007]

By Howard Shapiro

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

The most coveted prize on Broadway? For a producer, it’s you in a paid seat, and for just about everyone else, it’s a Tony Award. The producers are already celebrating another record-setting year in paid seats, so tonight is Tony’s time.

It’s always questionable to predict awards—in this case, soothsaying the collective choices of 785 voters—but a critic unwilling to risk humiliation is probably good for nothing, and worse, no fun. So here goes:

Two shows, the bold musical “Spring Awakening” and Tom Stoppard’s ambitious three-play work “The Coast of Utopia,” will dominate tonight’s ceremonies. Each, coincidentally, is set in the 19th century, and both focus the stage lights on characters trying to change the world—for very different reasons.

“Spring Awakening’s” German teens are fighting a society they believe represses everything about them; “Utopia’s” Russian intellectuals are out to convince a nation of dead-end peasants that a bright new Europe will abandon them to a society of darkness.

“Awakening” is still running, while the “Utopia” trilogy played out its complicated schedule at Lincoln Center last month.

The awards will air for three hours beginning at 8 EDT on CBS—unfortunate timing, given tonight’s competition: the much-anticipated finale of the “Sopranos” series, about another Tony entirely, and Game 2 of the NBA finals, also a probable slam dunk.

But on Broadway, as Arthur Miller wrote, attention must be paid, and the Tonys, broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall, will have a TV audience of dedicated theatergoers.

Thirty-five new productions opened on Broadway this season: a dozen musicals, 11 plays and another dozen revivals. None was a blockbuster, a show that threatened to eclipse any of Broadway’s current long runs. But several have done well—musicals “Grey Gardens,” “Legally Blonde” and “Curtains,” and plays “Deuce,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Year of Magical Thinking”—and continue to play to healthy houses.

During the season that began May 29, 2006, and ended May 27, paid attendance was 12.31 million—up from last season, when it passed the 12-million mark for the first time since the League of American Theaters and Producers began keeping records in 1957. The league presents the Tonys, along with the American Theatre Wing.

Grosses—$939 millon—also set a record, helped in part by what box offices call “premium tickets,” last-minute seats in some of the best rows, frequently selling for $300 or more. Still, investors are as likely to make fortunes on Broadway as they are at casino gambling; the majority of shows do not make profits.

Tonight, Broadway focuses more on art than commerce—or at least on what grabbed the Tony voters, who are producers, theater professionals and critics (including this one). As usual, the presenters will include a long list of celebrities, among them Harry Connick Jr., Angela Lansbury, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, David Hyde Pierce, Liev Schreiber, Kevin Spacey, Usher and Vanessa Williams.

The season brimmed with talent, particularly fine performances. Here’s a rundown of nominees to watch:

Best play. Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” seems a virtual shoo-in. It’s really three plays (and the season’s most expensive collective ticket), an impressive, rigorously researched historical sweep that limns 19th-century Russia through the eyes of intellectuals crying out for their nation to reach its potential. The trilogy has been called lecturish, and it would benefit from a keen-eared editor—and, yes, Stoppard gave it a galvanizing second part and a disappointing third. But any way you slice it, “Utopia” was an overwhelming achievement, staged and acted with class and passion.

The late August Wilson’s final play, “Radio Golf”—the 10th in his survey of black American life in each decade of the 20th century—is the closest competitor, an accessible, fast-moving story about modern-day politics and greed. Also nominated are the pointed Hollywood comedy “The Little Dog Laughed” and the “Frost/Nixon” account of the late president’s post-resignation TV interviews.

Best musical. “Spring Awakening” is a beautifully realized musical taken from the 19th-century play by Frank Wedekind. Still set in that time, its teens struggle with changing bodies and psyches in a repressive German society. But when the characters sing about what they’re feeling, they whip out wireless mikes and let go in no-holds-barred modern terms.

The closest competition is “Grey Gardens,” about Jackie Kennedy’s oddball relatives who sank from riches into rags; it’s schizophrenic, with a plodding first act and a remarkable second act. Sprightly “Mary Poppins” also is nominated, along with the zany, sweet mystery “Curtains.”

Best play revival. “Journey’s End,” which closes this weekend, is my choice, a 1929 play that put audiences in the midst of World War I without showing a second of combat. In its staging, the play, set in an officers’ bunker, has shattering power. Competition is stiff: “Inherit the Wind,” “Talk Radio” and “Translations,” all top-level productions.

Best musical revival. I had a tough time casting a vote because two of the four nominees—“A Chorus Line” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”—are top-notch. I revisited each two weeks ago, and still had trouble. In the end, I went with “A Chorus Line,” whose cast is as talented as the original. “Company,” with a cast that plays all the music, and sings “and dances, also is exceptional, but the production seems even more cynical about its theme—marriage—than the script demands. My guess: Voting will be close. The other nominees: “The Apple Tree” and “110 in the Shade,” both Roundabout Theatre Company productions.

Best actor in a play. Whew! Five outstanding performances in a season ripe with them make for a great race. Boyd Gaines brings nuance and smarts to his role as a commander in “Journey’s End”; Frank Langella is a crafty ex-prez in “Frost/Nixon”; Brian F. O’Byrne, in all three parts of “Utopia,” emerges naturally as a world-wise intellectual; Christopher Plummer’s defense attorney in “Inherit the Wind” is imposing and real, and Liev Schreiber (my choice) delivers a knockout performance as the maladjusted host of “Talk Radio,” turning a questionable play into a must-see.

Best actress in a play. Double whew! Eve Best is the put-upon daughter in “A Moon for the Misbegotten”; Angela Lansbury is thoroughly charming in the new comedy “Deuce”; Swoosie Kurtz fought hard to rule “Heartbreak House” in an otherwise ho-hum revival; Vanessa Redgrave (my vote) holds an audience fully in her hands as the sole character in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” and Julie White was a stitch as a reckless screen agent in “The Little Dog Laughed.”

Best actor in a musical. Two leading contenders are Raul Esparza, who portrayed his conflicted character in “Company” with such aloofness it made me not care, and David Hyde Pierce, the detective in “Curtains.” Pierce, who leaped from stardom on TV to stardom in musicals, is wonderful. My vote, though, went to Jonathan Groff, an actor barely out of his teens, an unstoppable force in “Spring Awakening.” Gavin Lee, as Mary Poppins’ sidekick, Bert, and the estimable Michael Cerveris, as Kurt Weil in “LoveMusik,” are also in the running.

Best actress in a musical. Although I disliked her performance as the mother of a Hamptons household in “Grey Gardens’” sleepy first act, Christine Ebersole then plays her own daughter, years later, in the second act—and with such intensity and clarity, the audience is locked in her thrall. I voted for her. She has two strong rivals: Audra McDonald, who lifts the revival of “110 in the Shade” to a high level, and Donna Murphy, whose portrayal of Lotte Lenya in “LoveMusik” sizzles even if the show does not. Debra Monk, fiercely funny as a producer in “Curtains,” and the constantly energetic Laura Bell Bundy of “Legally Blonde” also are in the race.

Others. My bet is the bizarre mock-lounge act Kiki & Herb to win the Tony over brilliant ventriloquist Jay Johnson; K&H are my by-a-hair choice for the “special theatrical event” category, but both shows were commanding and pure fun. ... It’s a toss-up between Rob Ashford (“Curtains”) and Jerry Mitchell (“Legally Blonde”) for choreography; Mitchell’s wild dance with jump ropes won my vote. ... Look for the enthusiastic, single-named Orfeh to win featured (supporting) actress for a musical, for her hairdresser role in “Legally Blonde,” and for John Gallagher Jr., a fine young actor, to take the male-counterpart Tony for his sidekick in “Spring Awakening.”

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