The cutest thing about this morning’s Tony nominations was Katharine McPhee’s steadily increasing inability to pronounce the words “SpongeBob SquarePants.” She had to say them a lot — the SpongeBob musical tied with Mean Girls to bring in the most nominations of any play or musical, each at 12 total. That’s cool I guess. I mean, they’re both genuinely fun, adorable, imaginative shows, so… Yay?
I’m sorry: Can you tell I’m having trouble getting excited? Like the Oscars, the Tonys just aren’t my scene. While plenty of this year’s nominations are going to wonderful performances, shows, and designs (and some to those that are not so wonderful), the whole annual affair feels predictable, commercial, and pretty distanced from most everything that I love about theater. It also feels, as with the Oscars, driven by the sparkliest, easiest-to-see categories, and revealing of some of the major frustrations of Broadway in general.
Let’s take the Best Play category: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the front-runner, but the competition for the magical behemoth is woefully thin. Its fellow nominees are Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children (fantastic); Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King (floppy); Ayad Akhtar’s Junk (structured, strong); and John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons (fun, sweet, upright; not theatrically mind-blowing). For one thing, the Tonys doesn’t distinguish between play and production, which means that Pottertacular 2018 will probably walk away with the award despite its uneven script: It’s a charming but pretty mediocre play on the page — its resources and creative team turned it into a great production. Kirkwood’s The Children, by contrast, is a brilliant play, and James Macdonald’s sharp, heartbreaking staging made an equally excellent production of it.
Additionally, Potter, The Children, and Farinelli are all British imports. And you can almost see the nominating committee bending over backwards to try to get some American titles into one of its biggest-deal categories. But, as is becoming more and more usual, there was a mere handful of true new plays on Broadway this year — eight in total. Above 42nd Street is an actively hostile environment for them. New plays are an actual risk, and this is a profession that — especially at its most commercial — loves to talk about risk but doesn’t like to take it. Thus the glut of star-studded revivals that make up the backbone of Broadway. Some end up refreshed and invigorating. Some, like The Iceman Cometh, make their heavy landings just in time for Tony nominations — like a Spielberg-Streep movie opening just before Oscar nods — and bank on everyone’s thinking they’re very important and brilliant. Most people do, or don’t want to say otherwise. Iceman got eight nominations. I question its deserving any.
I wish it weren’t the case, but the Tonys always leave me cranky. Sure, I love a party, and from Travesties to Angels in America to The Band’s Visit, there’s a good deal of brilliance out there rightfully receiving recognition (and some, as always, being passed over: Let’s pour one out for James McArdle’s Louis Ironson). I suppose I just want more. If we’re going to continue to look collectively to Broadway as the place where the best and brightest shows — not simply the biggest, best-funded ones — are brought to life, then I want more Band’s Visits, more Hailey Kilgores and Katrina Lenks, more Tina Landaus and Marianne Elliotts, more nuance, more risk, more weird, more mess, more stage configurations, more opportunities to experiment, more new faces, more new ideas, more life!
A pipe dream, perhaps. But the great work continues.