The Tony Awards Are About a Lot More Than Theatrical Excellence

The voting process for the Tony Awards is a mashup of critical thinking, sentimentality, backscratching and behind the scenes wheeling and dealing. Janice Kaplan weighs the field.

06.06.12 8:45 AM ET

The Tony Awards on June 10 are supposed to honor the best of theater. But self-interested voters use the Tonys to sell seats on Broadway and get buzz for shows heading to road tours. This year has some juicy complications, and the behind-the scenes dealing could have as much effect on some outcomes as sheer talent. For example, Once, which led in number of nominations, is a small musical which might have closed if not for the unexpected attention. Will voters stand behind it?  “There’s a lot of trading favors in theater,” admits one producer.  “You want the best show to win, but you can’t forget about the people you may need next year." Here’s what to know as you watch.


Once, a sweet love story about a Dublin street musician and a mysterious Czech woman, is the hands-down winner for creativity and originality. But voters may support the all-American Newsies, a spirited, high-stepping show about brave urchin newsboys who fight greedy bosses. The real agenda is whether voters will give a thumbs up or down to how Disney has changed Broadway. Like other Disney musicals, Newsies attracts tourists and could play forever. The show may be trite, but Disney wisely had theater favorite Harvey Fierstein write the book. As for the other nominees, Nice Work If You Can Get It plods on with dull Matthew Broderick, possibly the only man unable to muster chemistry with his lithesome co-star Kelli O’Hara. Leap of Faith has already closed, despite the huge talent of star Raul Esparza.


Wonderfully imaginative and with the most inspired staging on Broadway, Peter and the Starcatchers earned the most nominations for a play. But launched by the forward-thinking New York Theater Workshop, which also nurtured Once, Peter may feel too inventive for straightlaced Broadway insiders. Venus in Fur was less a dazzling play than a vehicle for bravura performances, and Other Desert Cities got far more kudos than the somewhat ordinary story deserved.  Likely winner Clybourne Park is smart, surprising, and politically interesting. And producers eager to reach a new, more racially-mixed audience should be bold enough to reward this stellar production.


Tracie Bennett should walk away with the prize for her knock-out performance as Judy Garland in Over the Rainbow. But it probably won’t happen. A star in London, she’s not well known to Tony voters, who like to reward their own. The other exciting choice would be Nina Ariadna, whose sexy, dominatrix performance in Venus of Fur launched her into the stratosphere. “It was like watching a young Meryl Streep,” says one producer. “You felt like you were present at the start of what will be a brilliant career.” But voters could show affection for a Broadway insider like Linda Lavin (The Lyons), Cynthia Nixon (Wit), or—most likely—Stockard Channing who surpassed them both as a Palm Springs political wife in Other Desert Cities. If she wins, consider it a Lifetime Achievement Award.


The horse race in this category will be between Steve Kazee’s sensitive performance in Once and handsome Jeremy Jordan’s star-making turn in Newsies. The charismatic Jordan already has throngs of fans lining up at the stage door every night, wooed by his dancing, singing, and sex appeal. He should go home with the trophy. But if voters feel Disney doesn’t need any more marketing help, Norm Lewis, as the crippled title character in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, could slip through. His gentle performance brought dignity to the role, even if it didn’t define Porgy in any unexpected ways.


This category belongs to luminous Audra McDonald, starring in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Her rich soprano voice rocks with emotion as she plays the complex Bess, whose spirited veneer masks an anguished and deeply wounded soul. After winning four Tony Awards, McDonald went to Hollywood five years ago to become a regular on ABC’s Private Practice. But Broadway is always happy to welcome a star back home—particularly when she has the stunning range that McDonald displays. In the course of the play she is raped, beaten, and humiliated—but when she sings the lullaby “Summertime,” at the end, her gentleness is as powerful as her pain.

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Phillip Seymour Hoffman is one of Broadway’s favorite Serious Actors. Put him in the great Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and he’s almost a shoo-in for the Tony. Most Tony voters won’t have the guts to give the nod to James Corden for his hilarious turn in One Man, Two Guvnors. Though he has audiences shrieking in laughter, voters rarely reward comedy on Broadway (or at the Oscars, either). The three others in this category are older actors worth watching in almost anything. A tip of the hat to John Lithgow (The Columnist), Frank Langella (Man and Boy) and James Earl Jones (Best Man) whose A-plus performances lifted these otherwise B-level shows.

Movie stars who prove they can really act on Broadway are catnip for Tony voters. So soon-to-be-Spiderman Andrew Garfield should get the prize for his powerful performance as Biff in Death of a Salesman. Though it will be tough to fight a superhero-turned-tragic-son, competition could come from Christian Borle of TV’s Smash. As a mean but bumbling pirate in Peter and the Starcatchers, he stays just this side of over-the-top, and the scene where he loses a hand to become Captain Hook--moaning on and on and on—is as entertaining as anything on Broadway this season.


Once again the easy choice is the Serious Actress—Linda Emond from Death of a Salesman. But how exciting if voters paid attention to Condola Rashad, playing a young housekeeper in the Tony’s most overlooked show, Stick Fly. The juicy family drama about a well-to-do African-American family had great twists, and Rashad took in every moment with her big, knowing eyes, helping the audience see what she did. Voters who feel it’s not yet her turn could support Broadway veteran Judith Light (Other Desert Cities), for what she’s done in the past as well as her nice performance this year.


Snubbed in every major awards category, producers of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark still say they hope to snag “a record one-hundred Tonys.” Dishing back the scorn of critics who panned the show, they announced free tickets the Sunday afternoon of the Tonys for anyone named Anthony, Tony, Antoinette, Toni, or Antonia. “Nothing would make us prouder than to have more Tonys than any other show on Broadway,” the producers mockingly said. It won’t pay the $1 million per week bills, but revenge is its own reward.