Tonys Deep Dive No. 5: Tech, Music, and Direction

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Alex Lacamoire (likely winner for orchestration) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (likely winner for many things), from Hamilton. Photo: Theo Wargo/2016 WireImage

The Tony Awards and the Tony Awards telecast are not the same thing. The former has flaws; the latter usually has little else. One prediction I feel confident in making is that this year’s broadcast will be better than most recent ones, and reach a larger audience. Better because of the host, James Corden, whose straight-theater-queen enthusiasm is incredibly telegenic. And a larger audience because of Hamilton, which is redefining the notion of Broadway crossover success. (Its cast recording had the highest debut on the Billboard charts since Camelot's in 1961.) Still, I expect that almost half of the awards — all of the technical categories and even perhaps the prizes for musical book and score — will be given out before the show or during commercials, and only briefly acknowledged as bumpers to the main event. The main event, of course, will be a series of taped and fake-live performances from the season’s nominated musical productions, with perhaps a cameo for Lupita Nyong’o or The Crucible’s wolf. Actually the wolf is a bit of a fake, too — it’s a dog — but at least its priorities are in order. (It follows a trail of meat deployed by its trainer.) What are the telecast’s priorities? Well, it, too, follows the meat.

So in this final Deep Dive, let’s look at some of the categories that may go unheralded on the air. All are crucial to the theater experience — as is sound design, which was perversely eliminated from competition just as it began to reach the level of artistry we continue to acknowledge in the other technical fields. (For the record, if there were sound-design awards this year, they would likely go to Nevin Steinberg for Hamilton and Fitz Patton for The Humans.) Perhaps the solution to making these categories into good television is to have the nominees played by celebrities. Or dogs. 

Best Direction of a Play

Sensibly enough, this award often goes to the director of the year’s Tony-winning best play — or, failing that, the best revival. If you think the play winner will be The Humans, then Joe Mantello will win; if you think it will be Eclipsed, then expect to see Liesl Tommy at the podium. (Mantello has won two directing Tonys already; Eclipsed is Tommy’s Broadway debut.) For the same reason, I doubt that Rupert Goold, whose work on King Charles III I admired less, will win. Directors of revivals are at a disadvantage; if voters don’t really understand what people like Mantello and Tommy do with new work, they are less likely to understand what people like Ivo van Hove and Jonathan Kent do with classics like A View From the Bridge and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Actually, van Hove’s case is an exception because his tinkerings were hugely visible; he shrank the Miller text to a one-act, two-hour version and put it in a Plexiglas box, uprooted from specific place or time. This is the kind of thing that doesn’t work except when it does, and it did. Kent’s direction was more a question of gradations and gentle shaping, a matter of where to put Jessica Lange onstage, not having her, say, fly around it. 

BOTTOM LINE
WILL WIN: Joe Mantello, The Humans.
SHOULD WIN: Joe Mantello, The Humans.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Daniel Aukin, Fool for Love.

Best Direction of a Musical

Musicals involve so much high-level collaboration that the rule above is more porous; it often happens that the winner of the Best Direction prize is not the person who directed the Best Musical or Musical Revival. This year, though, the rule will likely hold, thanks to the Hamilton effect; Thomas Kail, who was involved with the show from its earliest days — and also collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda on their mutual Broadway debut, In the Heights — is almost certain to win. He has unusually strong competition, though, from directors of works both old and newish. In the old group are She Loves Me, which Scott Ellis polished up for a lovely Roundabout production, and The Color Purple, which John Doyle stripped down in a stunning gut job (in more ways than one). What the director Michael Arden did with Spring Awakening was similarly transformative, turning the somewhat treacly tale of adolescent angst into a much tougher parable about the history (and future) of deafness.

And then there’s George C. Wolfe, completely blurring the distinctions between new and old with Shuffle Along, an exploded version of the 1921 show of that name but with an entirely new book (by Wolfe) and musical program (assembled brilliantly by the arranger Daryl Waters). No show on Broadway comes at the audience in quite the same way, in tidal pulses of emotion, sound, razzmatazz, and history. (Hamilton of course brings the history, but its psychological posture is entirely different; it drags you in.) If Wolfe had corralled his book writer more effectively, this would have been the likeliest category to stem the Hamiltonys tide.

BOTTOM LINE
WILL WIN: Thomas Kail, Hamilton.
SHOULD WIN: George C. Wolfe, Shuffle Along.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Bartlett Sher, Fiddler on the Roof.

Best Choreography

Ditto the above. I personally found Andy Blankenbuehler’s Hamilton choreography a bit manic and semaphoric, but it suits the show’s music and style perfectly. It also felt like something new, which was not the case with the dancing created by Sergio Trujillo for On Your Feet! and Randy Skinner for Dames at Sea. (The former is ablaze with familiar Latin dance clichés; the latter was a tap-happy throwback with nothing to say that couldn’t have been said in 1933.) A chewier style was achieved by Hofesh Shechter, squirming his way out from under the shadow of Jerome Robbins, whose choreography for the original Fiddler on the Roof is usually mandated for Broadway revivals. Not in this case, and the results — more athletic and less folkloric — were powerful enough to have justified the exception. But to my taste only Savion Glover, with his fusillade of tap dances for Shuffle Along, did more than illustrate the story; he dramatized it, loading nearly a century’s worth of anger and longing into each explosive step. 

BOTTOM LINE
WILL WIN: Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton.
SHOULD WIN: Savion Glover, Shuffle Along. 
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: None.

Best Orchestrations

No matter how well he did it, and he did it very well, Larry Hochman had the unfortunate job of reducing one of the great theater orchestrations — Don Walker’s 1963 original charts for She Loves Me — from a band of 21 to 14. No one gets awards for doing that. And though the bluegrass-y orchestrations by August Eriksmoen for Bright Star are charming, the songs they accompany — by Edie Brickell and Steve Martin — don’t make much of a show. (Since few voters know what orchestrators do, the winner is usually attached to a critical or commercial hit.) That brings us back to the usual two-way competition, in this case between Alex Lacamoire, who created the sound world of Hamilton, and Daryl Waters, who made a score for Shuffle Along from a pile of half-forgotten songs and musical scraps. Lacamoire’s work is more restrained, smartly pulling back to foreground the words that drive the show. Waters’s work is almost cataclysmically exciting in itself. Both do what their shows require, but Waters’s does that and then some.

BOTTOM LINE
WILL WIN: Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton.
SHOULD WIN: Daryl Waters, Shuffle Along.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: None.

Technical Categories

As I’ve often said, the level of scenic, costume, and lighting design on Broadway is so high that it basically defies attempts to rank it. It thus defies odds-making as well. (Is an understated or static set that works perfectly for its show less award-worthy than a whirligigging, multiple-turntable design with confetti cannonades?) For those reasons I’m just going to note some of the season’s design highlights and give my stab-in-the-dark predictions without analyzing every shoulda/coulda contender.

Though it didn’t quite work as a play, Thérèse Raquin, at the Roundabout, was one of the most gorgeous productions of the season, with Beowulf Boritt’s three-foot-deep Seine lit by Keith Parham, and Jane Greenwood’s sadly expressive period costumes.

Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s glowering lighting designs for Shuffle Along, sometimes coming at you from below and behind, sometimes seemingly from nowhere, translated the power of Savion Glover’s tap dancing into electricity.

I hated American Psycho, but loved the way it looked, especially Es Devlin and Finn Ross’s shiny-chic set and projections, circa 1989.

Clint Ramos’s costumes for Eclipsed (he also designed the sets) were filled with witty — and then, on second thought, mortifying — details. Was that not Tweety Bird on a T-shirt worn by one of the Liberian women, a captive sex slave to a rebel warlord? After the laugh came the realization that she (and the others) were wearing American castoffs, just as the play showed they were populating their imagination with the same.

The varieties of desolation as expressed in the architecture and light of Blackbird (Scott Pask; Brian MacDevitt), The Humans (David Zinn; Justin Townsend), and Hughie (Christopher Oram; Neil Austin). 

Ann Roth’s hilarious suitings for the quartet of male leads in Shuffle Along. And the parade of period styles for Audra McDonald — now let out about as far as they can go.

The cast of Fiddler on the Roof rising up from the back of Michael Yeargan’s set as if from memory, both historical and theatrical.

ŸThe three Hamilton duels. Perfect staging on a perfect turntable set by David Korins.

The color of the walls — somewhere between cobalt and oblivion — in Scott Pask’s Paris apartment for The Father.

ŸThe colors of the fabrics — somewhere between hideous and nauseous — in Michael Krass’s English countryside costumes for Noises Off.

ŸThe moment David Rockwell’s Fabergé egg of a set for She Loves Me opened to reveal the interior of Maraczek’s perfumery. And Laura Benanti’s happy, striped pajamas, by Jeff Mahshie.

ŸJessica Lange slurping up the last bits of light that Natasha Katz allowed her in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

ŸAnd even in a bomb — Our Mother’s Brief Affair — there was a perfect Tom Broecker trench coat for Linda Lavin.

Set Design of a Play

WILL WIN: Christopher Oram, Hughie.
SHOULD WIN: Beowulf Boritt, Thérèse Raquin.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Scott Pask, Blackbird.

Set Design of a Musical

WILL WIN: David Rockwell, She Loves Me.
SHOULD WIN: Es Devlin and Finn Ross, American Psycho.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Michael Yeargan, Fiddler on the Roof.

Costume Design of a Play

WILL WIN: Clint Ramos, Eclipsed.
SHOULD WIN: Clint Ramos, Eclipsed.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Jane Greenwood, Thérèse Raquin.

Costume Design of a Musical

WILL WIN: Paul Tazewell, Hamilton.
SHOULD WIN: Ann Roth, Shuffle Along.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: None.

Lighting Design of a Play

WILL WIN: Natasha Katz, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. 
SHOULD WIN: Natasha Katz, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. 
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Keith Parham, Thérèse Raquin.

Lighting Design of a Musical

WILL WIN: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Shuffle Along.
SHOULD WIN: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Shuffle Along.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: None.

One more post, with final predictions, to follow before the broadcast.
Join me as I liveblog the Tonys, which air on CBS on Sunday starting at 8 p.m.

 

 


One more post, with final predictions, to follow before the broadcast.
Join me as I liveblog the Tonys, which air on CBS on Sunday starting at 8 p.m.