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stage dive

Our Critics on the Tonys’ Eight Most Telling Races

Every Tony season it's a perennial temptation to frame the race as an apocalyptic battle for the soul of a perpetually embattled art form. Which is exactly what our theater critics (who'll also co-live-blog CBS’s Tonycast at 8 p.m. EST this Sunday here at Vulture) are prepared to do again this year, as Broadway theater — coming off a year of solid box office but eroding attendance, a year of abundant new work but persistent complaints about lack of creativity, deadening commercial-mindedness, and insufficient risk-taking — celebrates itself and its own for the 67th time. Insiders versus outsiders, old guard versus new, "family" shows versus more grown-up razzle-dazzle, dogged career dues-payers versus avid celebrity carpetbaggers: there are hundreds of ways to look at this year's Tony pileup, and not one of them tells the whole tale. So let's apply the philosophy of firebrand columnist Mike McAlary, as portrayed by Tom Hanks in Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy, and just print a few theories that may or may not be on their way to becoming fact.

WILL BEST MUSICAL GO FOR THE HEART (KINKY BOOTS) OR THE HEAD (MATILDA)?

Kinky Boots and Matilda, facing each other for the night’s biggest prize, are very different kinds of shows that have nevertheless arrived at nearly the same place. Performances began a day apart in early March at theaters of almost identical size; each has been running at about 100 percent capacity and has so far brought in a healthy $13 million, give or take. But they have dead opposite styles, so the way the vote falls here (and in their ten ancillary head-to-head matchups as well) may indicate which strain of musical theater has the upper hand right now. Will it be the Brittelectual style of Matilda, which is, after all, about the victory of intellect over stupidity? Or the “American,” emotional style of Kinky Boots, about the victory of pride over conformity?

Actually, the distinction isn’t quite as sharp as that. Matilda, though relatively dark for a Broadway musical, has, in its translation from the Roald Dahl novel, been mushed up and watered down with goofy subplots and a merit badge of redemption. Meanwhile, Kinky Boots is hardly naïve. For all it has to say about acceptance and forgiveness, its climax is a merchandising event. The real distinction between the two is in what kind of experiences they promote: The more cerebral Matilda wants you to reflect, while the more sentimental Kinky Boots all but rigs the seats with cattle prods to get you dancing in the aisles. My guess is that the Tonys will reward Matilda for — what else? — its book (by Dennis Kelly), giving Kinky Boots the nod for its score (by Cyndi Lauper) and leading actor (Billy Porter). As for the big prize, in a Broadway battle of head versus heart, heart usually wins, if only by a nose. — J.G.

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL: REHABBING THE OLD, OR LAUNCHING THE NEW?

The Best Musical battle continues downticket, between directors Jerry Mitchell of Kinky Boots and Matthew Warchus of Matilda. It hardly matters, though, because the category encompasses not just new musicals but revivals, and Diane Paulus will win it for Pippin. (Scott Ellis did a fine job with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but with three commercial behemoths in the ring, a limited-run oddity for the nonprofit Roundabout Theater hasn’t a chance.) Pippin should also sweep up Best Musical Revival itself, and several of the technical categories with it, because voters like it when an impossible property is proved possible after all.

But it does leave you wondering. Mitchell and Warchus each successfully shepherded new material to the stage (and Mitchell choreographed as well). In superimposing a circus onto a famously bad musical with a famously lovely score, did Paulus actually do something more deserving? (A lot of the credit for Pippin’s success probably belongs to Gypsy Snyder, who staged the circus material, but she wasn’t even included in its nomination for choreography.) Paulus no doubt worked miracles with what she had; perhaps I’d feel more comfortable with her win if you called the category Best Distraction from a Musical. — J.G.

THE LOPSIDED MUSICAL ACTING CATEGORIES: FROM TIGHT RACES TO UTTER LOCKS

Had Bertie Carvel — brilliant in drag as Matilda’s hideous schoolmistress Miss Trunchbull — been placed in the Featured instead of Leading Actor category, all would make sense in the men’s acting division. But whether because the show’s producers hoped to snag him a bigger award or because the Tony eligibility committee felt the role was more central than supporting, he got bumped up. As a result, he may lose to Billy Porter, brilliant in drag as a damaged son with footwear needs — and whose role in Kinky Boots is indisputably huge. Meanwhile, the Featured Actor category, in which Carvel belonged, is left strangely bereft; everyone’s good but no one’s extraordinary. Terrence Mann in Pippin is said to be the favorite, though I’d give the nod to Gabriel Ebert as the rubbery father in Matilda.

A lack of extraordinariness is not the problem in the featured actress category, which is overstuffed with awardable performances (Annaleigh Ashford in Kinky Boots, Victoria Clark in Cinderella, Keala Settle in Hands on a Hardbody), but which Andrea Martin will take as handily as she takes the audience in her hand and crushes them for ten minutes of joy in Pippin. As if in compensation — is there a rule of awards ecology that matches overabundance with scarcity? — the Leading Actress category feels commensurately thin. In its showdown between Patina Miller (as Pippin’s somewhat hardened leading player) and Laura Osnes (as Cinderella’s princess of softness) I sense another move toward opposites, as if the nominators, the voters, and even the theatrical culture at large wanted to recognize all the incompatible directions the musical theater is taking us now. — J.G.

WHERE GOES THE MUSICAL, SO GO THE TECHNICAL CATEGORIES

The designers of sets, costumes, and lighting — and sometimes but not always sound — have reached such a level of reliable excellence that there hardly seems to be much point to their competition. The distinctions discernible in their work are not about quality but about the opportunities the material itself provides. Does the show suggest a pop-up children’s book, as in Rob Howell’s scenic design for Matilda, or a carnivalesque dreamscape, as in Scott Pask’s for Pippin? Or a rather more dour factory brought back to life, as in David Rockwell’s for Kinky Boots? The last serves its show as beautifully as the first, which will likely win. Similarly, the award for costume design will probably not say as much about Gregg Barnes or Dominique Lemieux or William Ivey Long as about a current zeitgeist-y preference for either the spangly drag of Kinky Boots or a tent’s worth of circus tights in Pippin or thousands of yards of tulle in Cinderella. (Tulle wins.) In the lighting category the distinctions are even less about the designers themselves: Kenneth Posner is up against himself for three shows (Kinky Boots, Pippin, and Cinderella) with Hugh Vanstone of Matilda his sole competitor. As for sound, it seems to me that the guys who make all of Pippin audible even when the actors are spinning on trapezes may well win, but they have nothing on Peter Hylenski, who deserves some sort of award for his work on Motown, delivering to the audience's ears every last syllable of the season's most idiotic dialogue. — J.G.

BEST LEADING ACTOR IN A PLAY: DON’T FEAR A TOM HANKS WIN (TOO MUCH)

Let me, Scott Brown, begin with an admission of ignorance: I’ve been on hiatus for three months, leaving me in arrears on many of the 2013 nominees. (Many thanks to the superb Jesse Green, who covered the above musical categories, for his tremendous work in my absence.) Because of my lack of completism, I’ll be restricting my specific opinions in the play categories to shows I’ve seen — and largely use these horse races to look at the larger theater issues they illuminate.

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way: I’m hunkered down for the usual caterwauling about the perils of star-fucking — sorry, star-casting — if, as expected, Tom Hanks takes the trophy for Best Actor in a Play for Lucky Guy, Nora Ephron’s Jameson-scented ode to the tabloid swashbucklers of New York’s late-eighties bad old days. Purists could see this as a shot across Broadway’s bow: Just a few blocks away, fellow nominee Nathan Lane — a true creature of the theater — is giving what many consider the performance of his life in The Nance (a play that's actually about theater, as much as it’s about the glass closet). Meanwhile, the undersung stage great Tracy Letts stomped into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and delivered his unforgettable George, a performance both counter-canonical and utterly definitive. (David Hyde Pierce is beloved, if not favored, for his inside-out lampoon of the Pierce persona in Vanya and Sonja and Masha and Spike; young Tom Sturridge in the orphaned Orphans wouldn’t seem to have a prayer.) Yet here’s Hanks, his I.M. Pei award shelf already triple-titanium-reinforced, slouching toward EGOT in a funny mustache. (A look any mere mortal would be embarrassed to leave the house in after Cloud Atlas.) The nerve! Right?  

Wrong. Fact is, Hanks is giving a damned fine, rabble-rousingly populist, highly magnetic performance in Lucky Guy: no Hollywood curve, no grade inflation. He wouldn’t be my pick, personally — I’m firmly in the Letts camp. (I’d also have nominated the explosive Seth Numrich for taking a role that’s almost a punch line — Golden Boy’s sensitive boxer, a scrappy kid who'll literally never play the violin again — and making him archetypal, mythological.) But Hanks is also doing top-flight ensemble work, alongside a band of zhlubs and she-zhlubs that includes many a standout, including Richard Masur, a classily understated Maura Tierney, and Featured Actor nominee Courtney Vance. Hanks's McAlary is the spine of the story, but he can recede in service of other performances and broader ideas. That's a choice on his part, not simply a lack of stage presence. If smooth group play is the future of Hollywood carpetbagging (which, let's face it, isn't going anywhere, even in the absence of clear economic evidence that it always works), then I will delay all blanket fatwas. — S.B.

BEST LEADING ACTRESS IN A PLAY: A PLEA FOR LAURIE METCALF

I'd like to put in one final word for early fave Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place, who (if the early handicapping is to be believed, which it probably shouldn't be) is only an outside bank shot for Best Leading Actress in a Play. (The smart money is seeing a horse race between Cecily Tyson for A Trip to Bountiful and Kristine Nielsen for Vanya and Sonia.) I haven't seen Bountiful, nor Holland Taylor in Ann, but Metcalf's work in The Other Place — playing a sharp, wary woman throwing elbows in a man's world, until mental illness reveals deeper fissures in her life — is more than a single great performance of striking intellectual and physical coordination: It's a suite of interlocking selves, a sustained illusion, a flickering Mind Descending the Staircase. I have trouble believing there's anything else quite like it on the boards this year. — S.B.

BEST PLAY (THOUGH THE REAL BEST PLAYS ARE OFF BROADWAY)

Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike appears to be the front-runner, and while I consider it a small tragedy that a great playwright will receive his first Tony for what I consider substandard, harrumphing sketch-work, I'd rather concentrate on the larger problem here: Is Broadway playwriting terminally stuck in the past? I'm in agreement with my distinguished colleague Charles Isherwood of the Times, who's persuasively argued that there's a dangerous gulf yawning between vigorous Off Broadway and torpid On. Next to Lisa D'Amour's furious Detroit or Annie Baker's mesmeric The Flick, Nora Ephron's solidly expository Lucky Guy (decoupled from George Wolfe's spry, bandy-legged staging) looks more and more like a well-done TV movie, Douglas Carter Beane's The Nance a wiki-stubbed parable about internalized intolerance, and Durang's Vanya and Sonia a crazy quilt of cocktail-party allusions held together with nothing more than cantankerousness. Of course, as Isherwood also notes, many of these laudable Off Broadway experiments would not transfer intact to Broadway; it would be like opening Frances Ha on Iron Man 3's 5,000 screens and expecting the same returns. Still, it's increasingly obvious that a significant new cohort of fresh, young writing talent, burning through Off Broadway in too-brief runs, isn't finding an outlet on the Great White Way. (And then it's off to Nurse Jackie or Boardwalk Empire for a season or three … perhaps never to return.) I haven't yet seen Richard Greenberg's The Assembled Parties, nor Colm Toiban's The Testament of Mary, and I don't wish to speculate on their probable innovations or lack thereof, but I'll pose a more basic question: Why is Broadway so hellbent on celebrating yesterday when tomorrow is mere blocks away, waiting for a commission? Is it because yesterday is the only thing that sells? Or because the Money lacks the stomach to pull a Steve Jobs and TELL consumers (or even, heaven help us, subscribers) the next thing they want, instead of simply selling them the last thing they bought? — S.B.

Then again, that sounds a lot like a director's job. Which brings us to...

BEST DIRECTION OF A PLAY: HERE’S TO THE BIGGEST EVENT

George C. Wolfe appears to be the front-runner for Lucky Guy, and absolutely deserves to be. The late Ms. Ephron left him an abundantly witty, deeply sympathetic but never hagiographic script about Mike McAlary and his hard-living tabloid brethren … but the text also happens to be riddled with narrative corner-cutting and lemme-tell-ya-how-it-went-down spoon-feeding. Out of this handsome but crooked timber, Wolfe fashioned a rousing populist monument honoring the death of print media, which hasn't been successfully pulled off in any medium, including print media. Bart Sher conjured real magic onstage, rehydrating Clifford Odets's Golden Boy and releasing its anthemic American energies; Pam Mackinnon, a bona fide actor-whisperer, led her extraordinary cast to dark new places in an oft (some would say too oft) revived classic, Who's Afraid of  Virginia Woolf; and Nicholas Martin pleased many (just not this critic) with his laffy-taffy interpretation of Vanya and Sonia. But Wolfe created an event, and found novel ways to deploy and subvert his marquee superstar's image in the play itself, not just above-the-title. I fervently hope the future of Broadway isn't simply the creative repackaging of legacy-celebrity, but if Broadway needs Barnums – and it certainly does – you could do much worse than Wolfe. — S.B.

Make sure to come to Vulture when you watch the Tonys: Scott Brown and Jesse Green will be live-blogging the event starting at 8 p.m.

Photo: Matthew Murphy ( Kinky Boots), Joan Marcus (remaining)