Five Takeaways from the Tony Nominations

Rachel Syme | May 6th, 2011

"The Scottsboro Boys"

So, the Tony nominations are out, and with them, the one week of the year when the theater community gets incredibly chattery about who’s in, who’s out, who got snubbed, and why in the world someone decided to close The Scottsboro Boys back in December, given that it just racked up an impressive 12 nominations. It’s a jealous, self-congratulatory week of insider navel-gazing with a dollop of media cross-examination, and a lot of angry young actresses punching their pillows at home.

And of course we want to be a part of it!

So without further ado, here is our parsing of the five big trends running through this year’s Tony noms — our reading of the theatrical tea leaves. Enjoy the broad sweeping generalizations; we’re just calling it as we see it.

Robin Williams in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo"

1. The Hollywood Cold-Shoulder: Perhaps its a surge of New York pride taking over, or that (as Scott Brown noted) the Hunter Foster “Give the Tony’s Back!!” Facebook group has finally prevailed). Or maybe it’s just that one too many Tony committee members had to sit through Robin William’s skittish, over-elastic performance in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, but big names got stone-cold snubbed (for the most part) this year. Daniel Radcliffe’s British charms certainly translate on stage in How To Succeed in Business, but do not a nod make. No look for Ben Stiller in House of Blue Leaves; nor for Dan Lauria’s Lombardi moment or Chris Rock in The Mother—— With the Hat. In fact, the names that did get recognized that readers of Us Weekly might also have heard were Hollywood expats with deep roots in the theater world: Edie Falco, Al Pacino, Frances McDormand. Just as we lamented the surging loss of Broadway’s great roles to the reality TV machine, the Tony nominations seem to say that the fight is not completely over. Solidarity!

2. The Return of the Subversive Comic Musical: Remember a time when, beneath all of the theatrics and prop mastery, musical theater used catchy hooks and hummable choruses to spread subtle messages about the darker cracks that run through society? Though recent winners like Billy Elliot and Spring Awakening touched on sinister themes, it has been a long time since a comic musical has been used as a tool for incisive social commentary; that a stage spectacle has approached the acid wit found in The Onion or “The Daily Show.” Then came The Book of Mormon, from the creators of “Southpark,” and with it, a whopping 14 nods (one shy of the record set by The Producers). Even semi-unknowns like Rory O’Malley and Josh Gad were recognized for their work on the show, which is about as controversial in its themes as big-budget musicals get; investors took a leap on a show that skewers an entire religion, and came out looking smarter for their risks. The noms seem to say: dancing kids and bodega owners are nice, but we want something with an edge. Give us a musical that allows us to vent for a few hours, to channel our daily rage and fear into something — even if that thing is a vicious send-up of missionary culture.

Mark Rylance in "Jerusalem"

3. The Brits Are Still A Big Deal: The nominations honored New York’s homegrown talent (Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, Patina Miller, Nina Arianda, young Lily Rabe), but as expected, the British invasion extends to awards season. Mark Rylance (who is amazing in Jerusalem; see it if you haven’t) leads the pack, along with Brian Bedford, Hannah Yelland, and playwrights Jez Butterworth and Nick Stafford. The Best Play category is half-American, half-British — a reflection of the increasing presence of West End talent on our shores. The Bridge Project is clearly working.

"The Scottsboro Boys"

4. Whoever Made the Decision to Close The Scottsboro Boys in December Is Likely Kicking Him/Herself: Shows don’t always last, but then, they don’t always get 12 nominations months after closing, either. The Kander/Ebb finale may have received nods out of respect for the last collaborative effort of Broadway loyalty, but the fact that it received so many, and after only a two-month run, is surprising. Also surprising: two nominations for Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown, which broke down last fall. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the little-musical-that-could that everyone guessed would sweep the Tonys this year but crashed and burned on the big stage, also got two mentions, if only for the book and the set design.

Al Pacino in "The Merchant of Venice"

5. The Best Actor Category is Ridiculous: Pacino. Rylance. Mantello. Cannavale. Bedford. This is fierce competition; young bucks against old timers, New York vs. London, Pacino vs. everybody. It’s impossible to predict. We can almost guarantee you will lose to someone in your office pool over this. But it’s not about winning in the end. And the fact that all of the plays that these five are in are still running is a sign that we have really all won.

See you at the races!