Tony Preview 2011

Paul Kolnik / Lincoln Center Theater / AP Photo

Joan Marcus / Boneau / Bryan-Brown / AP Photo

The Book of Mormon

The most talked-about—and downright hilarious—show of the year is also the most decorated, garnering 14 Tony Awards nominations, including: Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction, a whopping four acting nominations, and more. From South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez, The Book of Mormon tells the story of a pair of optimistic Mormon missionaries who go to AIDS and poverty-stricken Uganda to try and attract converts. It lampoons the relentless joyfulness and naïveté of Mormons, as well as the First World's myopic view of Third World problems, epitomized by the ditty, "I Am Africa," where the missionaries hilariously claim they're the voice of the African people. In an ironic twist, there's even a Bono joke thrown in. "That was always in there, too, before Spider-Man or anything else happened!" co-director Casey Nicholaw told The Daily Beast. Above all else, the play is about how all religious orthodoxy is a bit bizarre, and that the real importance of religion is to bond people together to create a better world. "We may laugh at [Mormons'] silly beliefs," co-creator Stone told Newsweek. "but at the end of the day, we really liked them. We wanted it to be a feel-good musical. And one that inspires people as well."

Joan Marcus

The Merchant of Venice

Receiving seven Tony Awards nominations, including Best Revival, Best Direction, Best Performance by a Leading Actor (Al Pacino), and Best Performance by a Leading Actress (Lily Rabe), director Daniel J. Sullivan's adaptation of Shakespeare's tragic comedy debuted as part of Central Park's Shakespeare in the Park program before moving to Broadway. It tells the tale of Antonio, a young man who pledges a pound of his flesh to a Jewish moneylender, Shylock (Pacino), so his friend can woo an heiress, Portia (Rabe), in style. When Antonio is unable to pay, Shylock vows revenge. According to The New York Times' Ben Brantley, not only does Rabe offer a "smashing breakout performance" as Portia, "but it is to the credit of both actor and director that Mr. Pacino serves Mr. Sullivan's vision perfectly here... it suddenly hits you that Shakespeare's vengeance-addled Jew is neither merely the victim nor the villain of this piece; he is instead the very soul of the money-drunk society he serves and despises."

Simon Annand / Boneau / Bryan-Brown

Jerusalem

After mesmerizing West End audiences—and collecting a heap of awards—during its run at London's Apollo Theatre, Jez Butterworth's play has taken Broadway by storm, earning six Tony Awards nominations, including Best Play, and Best Performance by a Leading Actor (Mark Rylance). On the morning of St. George's Day, Johnny Byron (Rylance) is being attacked on all sides. The local council wants to evict him, his son, Mark, wants his dad to take him to the fair, and several local thugs are after his booze and drugs supply. Rylance's magnetic performance steals the show, but he's no newcomer. The British thespian has acted in theater for over 30 years, and even served as the Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe in London from 1995 to 2005. He also won a Best Actor Tony in 2008 for his performance in Boeing Boeing, but Jerusalem holds a special place in his heart. "I knew people like this when I was a kid, and I was always drawn to these types of people on the fringes of society, so I wanted to play someone like this," Rylance told The Daily Beast. "I played a character in Sam Shepard's play True West that was a bit like this, but I don't think there's ever been a character written like Johnny Byron."

Boneau / Bryan-Brown

The Scottsboro Boys

Despite receiving mixed reviews, this musical reimagining of the plight of the Scottsboro Boys--nine black teenagers wrongly accused of raping white women in 1931 Alabama—received 12 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, Best Director (Susan Stroman), and several acting nominations. The musical follows the basic framework of a minstrel show, but cleverly refashions it in order to create a musically inspired social commentary about an incident that provoked national outrage—and served as a catalyst for the American Civil Rights Movement. The Scottsboro Boys also marks one of the last collaborations between composer Jon Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, who passed away in 2004. "Let's get right to the point. The Scottsboro Boys is a staggeringly inventive piece of musical theater," wrote the Associated Press. "Its intentions are serious, its execution pretty much pitch perfect, and its entertainment value—featuring what is the final score by John Kander and Fred Ebb—of the highest order."

Boneau / Bryan-Brown

Good People

David Lindsay-Abaire, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Rabbit Hole, returns to Broadway with his latest play, <i>Good People</i>. The story centers on Margie Walsh, played by Frances McDormand—a single mother from South Boston who is fired from her job, and, out of desperation, looks for employment from her old boyfriend Mike (Tate Donovan)—a wealthy doctor who has lost touch with his old Southie neighborhood. Margie shows up to Mike's house unexpectedly, leading to a series of increasingly tense encounters between the ex-couple, and Mike's new, bourgeois wife, who is black. "There's nothing pure about the goodness or badness of the folks who inhabit this play," wrote The New York Times' theater critic Ben Brantley. "This makes them among the most fully human residents of Broadway these days." The show earned Tony Awards nominations for Best Play, and Best Actress in a Play (McDormand).

Paul Kolnik / Lincoln Center Theater / AP Photo

War Horse

Based on a book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, War Horse is one of the most inventively staged plays in years. Nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Play, it's the tale of a young British farmhand who develops a deep bond with his horse. When the steed is sold into the cavalry and shipped to France during World War I, the underage boy enlists in the army and travels to the front lines to reunite with his best friend. The play boasts an epic story and awe-inspiring design—including thrillingly alive horse puppets—by Tony-nominated Rae Smith. "I was watching the actors and the horses, and thinking of the language of a show that has to move very fast in a big, open space, and with its center and its heart in the horse world," Smith told The Daily Beast. "It was really important to design a revolve so you could get the puppets around stage quickly and elegantly, without anyone thinking they were slow. Puppets are fabulous and interesting, but they're also much slower than a human being—to both perceive and to move." Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of the play will hit theaters this Christmas.

Joan Marcus / The O and M Co. / AP Photo

The Normal Heart

Larry Kramer's semi-autobiographical play about the rise of HIV-AIDS in New York City in the early 1980s centers on two contrasting characters: Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello), the gay Jewish founder of an HIV advocacy group, and his closeted—and composed—lover, Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey). After debuting Off-Broadway in 1985, The Normal Heart made its Broadway debut in April 2011, and has been nominated for five Tonys, including Best Revival, Best Direction, and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play (Ellen Barkin, in her Broadway debut). The play "blasts you like an open, overstoked furnace," wrote critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times. "Your eyes are pretty much guaranteed to start stinging before the first act is over, and by the play's end even people who think they have no patience for polemical theater may find their resistance has melted into tears. No, make that sobs."

Joan Marcus / Boneau / Bryan-Brown

The Motherf**ker With the Hat

Nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Direction, and Best Actor in a Play (Bobby Cannavale), Stephen Adly Guirgis' cheekily titled The Motherf**ker With the Hat is a rapid-fire, verbal sparring match involving Jackie (Cannavale), a former drug dealer fresh out of prison who finds a hat that doesn't belong to him in his cokehead girlfriend's apartment. Jackie accuses her of cheating, and goes to his drug and parole counselor, Ralph D. (Chris Rock) for guidance. The Wall Street Journal called it an "unromantically romantic comedy that keeps you laughing, then sends you home thinking." Emmy Award-winning character actor Cannavale echoed these sentiments, telling The Daily Beast, "I think the hardest thing to do is change our behavior, and it's easier not to, and sometimes I think people will keep going around the same circle. I like playing characters who are at that crossroads. It becomes a visceral experience watching that. And if the event is written very well, like this is, it makes for sitting-at-the-edge-of-your-seat theater."

The Hartman Group

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Though best known for Harry Potter, star Daniel Radcliffe's leading role as J. Pierrepont Finch, this adaptation of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical comedy centers on a crafty window washer (Radcliffe), who, with the help of his trusty self-help book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, experiences a dramatic rise up the corporate ladder. Naturally, hijinx and hilarity ensues. The revival has been nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Revival, Best Direction, Best Choreography, and several acting nominations. "Directed by Rob Ashford, How To Succeed has an attractive retro palette similar to the one he used in last year's Promises, Promises…and his resourceful choreography is danced by a superbly athletic chorus," wrote Time Out New York.

Joan Marcus / Boneau / Bryan-Brown

The House of Blue Leaves

First staged in 1966, playwright John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, a scathing critique of our celebrity-obsessed culture, is now as relevant as ever. Set in 1965 Queens on the day Pope Paul VI visited New York City, David Cromer's Tony-nominated 2011 Broadway revival of Guare's black comedy features nuns, GI's, a zookeeper-cum-songwriter, Artie (Ben Stiller), who has dreams of Hollywood, and his schizophrenic wife, Bananas (Edie Falco). Stiller, interestingly enough, made his stage debut as a minor character in a 1986 Off-Broadway revival of the play. "It's very funny and has broad humor but then there's all these really dark undertones and events that happen, and characters that are really cruel to one another," Stiller told Newsweek. "What's amazing about the play is that it saw this very different world back in 1971. All the characters feel like they need to be validated somehow by celebrity or being noticed. And that's the sadness of the play; the idea that people can't just be happy with who they are."