On Sunday, the Tony Awards will try to reassert normalcy in 2022. Everything is fine, the awards will say — hoping to distract a shaky Broadway from the wave of recently announced closings. But there is a lot of good news. According to some metrics, we have actually managed to have something approximating a “regular” season. Shows opened and audiences returned, if tentatively. And, because theater people know how to make art on a battleground, they showed us plenty of prizeworthy work.
In any year, though, conversations about “what will win” are shot through with practicality. Which show will appeal to the cadre of road producers? Will voters forget the stuff that closed in January? If you want that kind of clearheaded analysis, go to Jackson McHenry’s predictions, which he laid out in his indispensable Stage Whisperer newsletter. But accuracy isn’t everything. Recently, Jackson, theater critic Helen Shaw, and Vulture staff writer and Broadway superfan Devon Ivie huddled to talk about what should win, if the world were perfect and would simply obey what our particular hearts demand.
Helen Shaw: Jackson, in your newsletter, you laid out your predictions for the Tony Awards. What for you was your most painful prediction? The one where you were thinking, Oh, I know this is going to happen, but it breaks my soul?
Jackson McHenry: One of my friends already told me that my predictions are “chaotic” and “wrong to a one,” so please take them with a grain of salt. But, that said, the tough ones were the two lead actors in a musical. Hugh Jackman feels inevitable for The Music Man even though he’s miscast — his voice isn’t in the right range, but he’s just such a movie star. Sutton Foster won the Drama League performance prize, which made me think that Oh no, maybe Sutton Foster will also win. They’re up against so many other good people, like Jaquel Spivey for A Strange Loop and Sharon D Clarke for Caroline, or Change, or even Joaquina Kalukango — though possibly she has a chance because she’s fighting to be compelling in Paradise Square, which is a dud.
H.S.: Devon, did you see Hugh Jackman peddling his wares?
Devon Ivie: I did. And — okay, do you know the moment I realized I wasn’t so warm on Hugh Jackman’s performance? My favorite part of The Music Man is “You’ve Got Trouble.” And I felt like he spent 25 percent of the number with his back to the audience. Am I incorrect? He was always looking backwards. After that it was — sad trombone sound. [Pauses.] I didn’t make that joke on purpose.
H.S: Seventy-six sad trombone sounds.
D.I.: Also, I’m surprised that Billy Crystal got a nomination. His singing wasn’t great, and that has to count for something. I would have just liked to have him do stand-up comedy for the entirety of the musical! He is delightful.
H.S.: After watching Mr. Saturday Night I would absolutely nominate Billy Crystal for Best Lead Actor … in a play. The fact that the show was a musical was just a sad oversight.
There’s another practical concern at work here: It’s been difficult for people to see the performances. COVID closures and postponements, certainly, were part of it, but also several shows are happening without the nominated actor. Jaquel Spivey has been out of A Strange Loop because of a sinus infection and doctor-ordered rest. I know he’s not doing matinees anymore. For the Tonys, you’re not allowed to vote in a category unless you’ve seen all the nominated performances. And of course no one can see the astonishing Deirdre O’Connell in Dana H. or Rob McClure right now because Mrs. Doubtfire …
D.I.: Wait, Doubtfire closed already?
J.M.: It did.
H.S.: So for you, for you, Jackson, just purely on the merits of the performances that you saw, who would you say should win best leading actor?
J.M.: Jaquel Spivey. After seeing A Strange Loop Off Broadway with Larry Owens, I thought, Oh, if he’s not coming back, then that show may not work. But it does. He’s doing something different but equally compelling.
H.S.: I thought that the biggest effort — and I don’t mean that as a knock; I mean “purest Broadway effort” — was Rob McClure. Look at pictures of him before and after Mrs. Doubtfire — he has literally given several percent of his body weight, extracting laughs from a show that I thought was very … reluctant to give them up. On the other hand, Jaquel Spivey has that “It” quality — so that’s quite thrilling. His is the performance you tell your grandkids about. He’s very young, right?
J.M.: He’s 23!
H.S.: Wow. Yeah. [Thinks about her life.] How about you, Devon — if push came to shove, and you had to shove somebody on stage for the award, who would it be?
D.I.: I agree with both of you on Jaquel. He was amazing. Weirdly, this got me thinking about the biggest applause, or freaking out, or whatever you want to call it, I’ve seen this season. It was at The Music Man, when Hugh Jackman reveals himself at the end of the opening number, “Rock Island.”
H.S.: I was sitting next to somebody who shall remain nameless who surged toward the stage; she had to be held back by the hood of her sweatshirt.
D.I.: That said, I would like to get Rob an honorary Tony for Best Performance by an Actor (Physicality). And there should be a Tony award for elevating a mediocre show. The Rise Above Award.
H.S.: For Leading Actress in a Musical, it sounds like you are also a Sharon D Clarke fan, Jackson.
J.M.: That’s where I would land. I hope for the ceremony she does the “Lot’s Wife” number during the show, because in later years I’ll enjoy revisiting it when I’m going down a Tony Awards YouTube rabbit hole. [The Tonys has just announced that there wouldn’t be a Caroline, or Change performance, but we’ll always have the Oliviers.] But she’s not likely to win, because Caroline, or Change already closed.
H.S.: Did you feel there were any notable un-nominated performances? Did either of you feel powerfully about Jeanna De Waal in Diana?
J.M.: That’s another Working Uphill Against the Material nominee.
H.S.: If the Tonys had a Best Ensemble Award, who would get your vote?
J.M.: The women of Six. For nomination eligibility, they decided they were all to be considered “Lead,” since each has almost exactly one-sixth of the show. Each queen gets a starring moment, but no one of them is really the lead — and so none of them got nominated.
H.S.: You’re saying they cut off their heads to spite their face.
D.I.: It’s got to be The Minutes ensemble. They jelled so well. Also, The Lehman Trilogy. Hell, it’s three chaps playing 100 years’ worth of people for three and a half hours. That deserves a special mention.
H.S.: Just to be a pain in the neck, I will say Ruben Santiago-Hudson should get Best Ensemble for his one-man show Lackawanna Blues. He played so many people — dozens! — and he did it all after he had thrown out his back. Just tremendous.
J.M.: Speaking of COVID accommodations, there should be some understudy recognition. The women of Company who subbed in for Bobbie, and Jennifer Simard, who played Joanne, which — imagine facing an audience of people who are thinking, We’re not getting Patti LuPone. So many others too, like the swings of mega-shows like The Lion King, or all the emergency Elphabas of Wicked.
H.S.: What about actors in plays? I’m still thinking about David Morse in How I Learned to Drive and Chuck Cooper in Trouble in Mind …
J.M.: I love Julie White for POTUS. She throws it all against the wall and holds it all together. She also just has a very fun Instagram presence — it’s always her dog with Rachel Dratch or a selfie she’s trying to send to John Benjamin Hickey.
H.S.: That photo can be the win for Plaza Suite.
J.M.: I also loved Gabby Beans in The Skin of Our Teeth. Vocally, she does this Eartha Kitt–style mid-Atlantic voice when she’s playing the maid, then switches to a regular 2022 affect while she vapes. It was hilarious to me every time. Also, three men were nominated for Take Me Out but somehow Brandon J. Dirden was not. It was a small role, but he was incredible. And he was also so good in the same season with Skeleton Crew.
H.S.: I agree — I am his superfan. It’s cheesy because he’s in a baseball play, but he should win Broadway MVP at the Tonys — or is that a different kind of sport? Are you allowed to have MVP as a baseball player?
[Confusion on the call; no one knows anything about sports.]
H.S.: For me, Best Featured Actress in a Play has to go to the woman who performed her part until she gave birth! That would be Kenita R. Miller as the Lady in Red in for colored girls who have considered suicide … It’s a heartrending performance, and she did it while she was eight-and-nine-tenths months pregnant? Unreal.
D.I.: In that category, I’ll give a special shout out to Uzo Aduba in Clyde’s — her performance was stellar. She was like a firecracker; I didn’t know when her fuse was going to blow.
H.S.: I can get right behind you on that. And I think we’ve talked about most of the nominated performances that affected us, apart from the woman in my row who stood up and danced along with every single song in MJ.
D.I.: And Adam Godley in The Lehman Trilogy! I will never forget him doing the Twist in that show; it was my favorite moment of the entire season.
H.S.: But there were quite a few things that got on their feet in 2021 that seem to have vanished from nominators’ memories. Not a peep about Is This a Room (which I would have nominated for both Best Play and for Emily Davis’s translucent performance) or Thoughts of a Colored Man or Chicken & Biscuits or Pass Over. And Pass Over was major. The playwright Antoinette Nwandu has changed the ending in all three of its major productions, and of course a play that’s (partly) a response to police violence is iterative — it returns with new things to say each time. I find that incredibly powerful. It was the first Broadway play back after the shutdown, and the performances were immense. So I’m pretty cheesed off that that show didn’t make the Tonys list at all.
Okay, so let’s turn our attention to what things look and sound like. For instance, I thought Justin Ellington used his composer chops to sound design for colored girls to a T. Let’s just consider the plays and musicals together for the sake of confusion. What out of all of those plays and musicals had the biggest sensory impact on you?
D.I.: It’s got to be Lehman’s rotating glass-office set by Es Devlin. I remember when I first sat down, I was like, This is it? But then it spins, and the actors glide along with the rectangle’s movement — there was beauty in its simplicity.
H.S.: So Jackson, what rotated its way into your heart this season?
J.M.: I had a very emotional reaction to the design work of The Skin of Our Teeth. The boardwalk! The way Adam Rigg squeezed so much out of a Lincoln Center budget! The walking dinosaur (designed by James Ortiz) made an impact, but I was also floored by the last act, when Rigg shows us a burned-out war-torn house with a hill of flowers in the background.
D.I.: Best Use of Clothing was POTUS. Vanessa Williams in stiletto Crocs — we got to give them their due. Just fabulous.
J.M.: There should be some sort of commendation for the Company cast just for surviving their set.
H.S.: My problem with the Company set is my problem with Company in general, which is that it was the least New York–y version of Company possible. Those rooms don’t exist in New York. And the Alice in Wonderland bit, with Bobbie crawling through holes in the floor from room to room … does that mean she’s going into the sewer? It’s New York; it’s just not pleasant to think about going down “below.” Ugh, I need to shower.
Now let’s turn our thoughts to direction. Diep Tran wrote a piece in our very own magazine about the development process of A Strange Loop, and it makes it clear how deep director Stephen Brackett’s involvement really goes. Did that sway your vote?
J.M.: So much of A Strange Loop is the alchemy of getting the six Thoughts to read clearly so that the audience understands. But you know Six is also a show that depends on making sure that the ensemble is all working together, and I loved Lucy Moss’s work with Jamie Armitage making something that could be so cloying fun and funny.
H.S.: I thought Neil Pepe’s work on American Buffalo was beautifully modulated. Sam Rockwell is a wonderful stage performer, but he’s a bold color to paint with, and the orchestration of Rockwell’s danger in that show comes down to very deft touches from Neil. But really, oh my gosh, what a cavalcade of gorgeousness. Choreographer Camille Brown turning into a director for for colored girls paid off big time, but again, that’s a show that’s just closed — a lot of voters won’t get to see it.
So what was the best play? What was it?
J.M.: If they had nominated it, I would have chosen Dana H., though it feels strange to reward a verbatim text as a play. It’s such a complicated piece in terms of authorship that almost makes me more interested in the thought, Well, what happens when you give it an award? But of the ones on the list … Skeleton Crew? I’m not sure.
D.I.: You know what, I tremendously enjoyed all five of these nominated plays. I can’t say the same for the six musicals — and that’s heartbreaking to admit as a Bob Dylan fan. It’s got to be Lehman for me. I remember saying to anyone who would listen after the show: It could have been double the run-time at seven hours and I still would’ve been at the edge of my seat, absorbing every syllable. Those three actors pulled off a tremendous feat.
H.S.: Okay, musical revival. Choose among: Caroline, or Change, Company, or The Music Man.
J.M.: Caroline, or Change. In terms of cohesion of image, Clarke’s performance, as well as Caissie Levy’s performance, though sadly not nominated …
H.S.: It’s time to talk about Best New Musical. Okay, here are your options: Girl From the North Country, MJ, Mr. Saturday Night, Paradise Square, Six, A Strange Loop. What should win, Jackson?
J.M.: A Strange Loop. Michael R. Jackson’s show is the rare American new musical that is so specifically New York, so specifically black and queer, so specifically of itself. I will say that in a perfect world, obviously, if we had had a full, functional 2019–20 season, Six would have already won! But at least it already has all of this money.
D.I.: I’m going to agree on A Strange Loop — it really is a special show for 2022. But it seems Six has more general popularity when I talk to people about the season. I don’t know how much of a factor that will be for voters. I just wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Six.
H.S.: My heart cries out for A Strange Loop — it is ambitious, powerful, innovative. It’s head-and-shoulders above the other projects. But let’s look at that list. There’s the Bob Dylan–catalogue show Girl From the North Country, the Michael Jackson–catalogue show MJ, and the musicalization of the movie Mr. Saturday Night —all three are based on “properties.” Even Paradise Square started, way back, as a musical based on Stephen Foster’s catalogue. There are passionate, committed, even brilliant artists trying to make lovely work in each of them, but they still smell to varying degrees of commerce — a certain “Let’s see if we can make something from this asset” odor. Then you look at Six and A Strange Loop — both sui generis shows made by people to please and express themselves, often produced for the first time in tiny spaces and kept alive with passion rather than with cash. It’s too rare that stuff like this manages to fight its way onto Broadway. That is, again, something we need to address. These two shows are clearly so excellent, but we make it as difficult as possible for work like that to rise.
Anyway, happy Tonys, everybody! Every year is a chance to be better. See you Sunday night.