AND THE WINNER IS...
The Great Tony Awards Debate of 2017: Who Will Win, and Who Should Win
The best of Broadway will be celebrated at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday. Will Bette Midler sing? Will it be ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ or ‘Come From Away’? Our critics duke it out.
And so, the time is near… On Sunday night, the Tony Awards, rewarding the best work on Broadway, will be broadcast live from New York’s Radio City Music Hall on CBS. The event will be presided over by Kevin Spacey.
The kinds of fireworks of last year—when Hamilton roamed the earth, and flattened all of Broadway before it—may not be as dramatic, but the evening, for Broadway and theater fans at least, still promises to be a night of chewed fingernails and high drama.
Although the Tolstoy-themed Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 commands the most nominations for a musical, it is unlikely to sweep the field, challenged as it is by Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away. So, take your pick: Russian intrigue versus teen suicide versus a big-hearted 9/11-themed musical.
For plays, eyes will be on the smackdown between Oslo, J.T. Rogers’ stunning play about the backroom negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords, and A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath’s brilliant extension of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Best Actor and Best Actress categories in both musicals and dramas are crowded and tightly fought, with the only certainty that Bette Midler will (most likely... surely...) scoop Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Hello, Dolly! However, questions still remain about her performing at the ceremony.
Here, culture editor and critic Tim Teeman and senior entertainment writer Kevin Fallon debate who will win versus who should win. Like any good theater audience, they will not stand to applaud just anything.
Kevin: Hi Tim! It’s been a good, very busy Broadway season! There was a stretch there when you were seeing and writing about so many shows that I feared you were just sleeping on the streets of Times Square on a bed of Playbills and surviving solely on sippy cup intermission wine.
Tim: Hello Kevin! Is the idea that we are supposed to keep those sippy cups for future use? I now feel a little bereft when champagne, or gin, or wine are brought to me in restaurants in glasses. I’m like: “Why isn’t this alcoholic beverage in an oversized kids’ beaker?” The most surprising moment of this present season wasn’t on stage, but at Sunday In The Park With George, where the champagne came in a glass, which you could take into the theater. My buddy and I felt so fancy that night.
Kevin: My takeaway from the season is that I cried a lot: Falsettos, Significant Other, Come From Away, parts of Dear Evan Hansen (though not as much as I thought), Glenn Close singing “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” when I couldn’t get tickets to Hello Dolly!… I tell ya, you think you’re a well-connected gay in this town and then no one comes through with Dolly tickets. What did you make of the season, in general?
Tim: First, I’m sorry about you not being my Dolly buddy when I went to see it. It was very generous of you to offer to pay my rent for the year if I gave you the second ticket, but I wanted to keep things professional between us. I don’t think I cried as much as you this season, but what impressed me was the breadth of the musicals and dramas, the performances, and the shows. If you look at the Tony categories, there isn’t one where you think, “Why is she/he in there?” or “Why is xxx show nominated?” Everyone and everything deserves their place. The quality was so high the more pressing question is, “Why did xxx miss out on a nomination?” “Why is xxx not in there?”
OK, let’s get down to it. What did you love and what didn’t you love?
Kevin: I hate to bring up our biggest fight, Tim, but I am still not healed from your panning of Significant Other, the best play I saw this season and yet which received zero Tony nominations. I’ve never felt a character’s angst so deeply, and was a puddle of tears by the time poor Gideon Glick was standing on stage swaying to the sounds of Celine Dion at the end.
Tim: Yes, I was a dissenter on Significant Other, I am sorry. As you know, I felt the play was bizarre, and the lead character a whining, self-involved millennial dunderhead with no commanding or substantive view of anything or anyone around him as his gaze was so firmly lodged in his own navel.
Kevin: That is so unsympathetic! We all feel these things, and one of the great roles of theater is the catharsis of seeing someone articulate them. I very much identified with him, and appreciated that a self-involved, neurotic mess was allowed enough compassion to feel it.
Tim: I was unable to feel any degree of sympathy for him, or even identification, as his self-involvement made him creepy not interesting, and the story was lacking in trajectory or depth. If a character simply spends an entire show mewling that they are single, and what are they going to do about that, and oh it’s so unfair, it grates. Fine: Have a lead character that is a self-involved, neurotic mess. But he has to go some place, or a journey of some kind, during a play to make us care.
Kevin: Enough talk about a show that wasn’t even nominated. What else did I love? Falsettos, a beautiful show.
Tim: Falsettos was glorious: That’s the show where I was in a mist of tears all the way through, and so important for a younger generation to see a show that deals with HIV and AIDS, and at the height of the pandemic and its terrible effects when they were either too young to know, or not even born yet. Christian Borle was ill-served in the poorly mounted Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, and extremely well-served by this. Hence, his Tony nom.
Kevin: Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 was the most fun I’ve had at the theater in a long time. I clapped and clapped but still have no idea what the hell was happening.
Tim: You know, I think you are just swept up in that show, and you’re either along for the ride or you are not. The songs come at you like pinballs. The characters do the same, if you are lucky enough to be sitting on the stage for which special mention—and a likely Tony—must go to designer Mimi Lien, who has been with the show since it started out much smaller. She has transformed the inside of a Broadway theater into a magical mystery adventure. The show itself is a clash of genres—a great Russian narrative (it’s a slice of War and Peace) with ballads and folk rock. I’m not sure it will win everything it is up for, but its performers and team should be rewarded for getting this un-Broadway like epic to Broadway.
Kevin: Nothing surprised me more than Come From Away, which was joyous, emotional, scrappy, folksy, and for my money the deserved Best Musical winner. I fear Dear Evan Hansen, a problematic piece of theater that has won rave reviews but left me feeling extremely uncomfortable—for reasons articulated perfectly in this recent Slate piece, “Dear Evan Hansen, You Are a Creep”—will still win, though.
Tim: Come From Away—which, for readers who don’t know, is about the flights that landed on 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland, and what happened when all these people from all over the world mixed with the townsfolk—is lovely, glorious even. I saw it twice, and preferred it on a smaller stage in Washington than Broadway. It has had some dissenters who found it too darned nice for its own good. I agree that it feels like a fuller and more fulfilling night out than Dear Evan Hansen, but the latter is cooler and meaner and more complex. I loved CFA’s direction and songs, but if Tony voters are going to try and get down with the vexed kids, than DEH will win it.
Kevin: Come From Away organically and in a very un-showy way moves you. I remember distinctly there was a moment in the show where I just suddenly noticed tears in my eyes, and all around me heard sniffles and even a few audible sobs. It wasn’t a big moment in the show, or at a particularly climactic point. The genuineness of the emotion—so much of it joyous, it should be said—had just steadily been building. DEH, on the other hand, works hard to manipulate tears out of you.
Tim: Dear Evan Hansen will do well I think. It taps into—in a stylish, bravura way—a bunch of modern, hot-button issues. The very likeable and brilliant composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul won an Oscar for La La Land, and a Tony—which they are highly likely to win—would set them well on their way for an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). But, as that brilliant Slate piece makes clear, Dear Evan Hansen raises more problematic and unanswered questions than it supplies narrative answers.
Tim: Six Degrees of Separation was an extremely uneven, oddly paced evening, which maybe suffers most from how we perceive various big issues—like racism and homophobia—now as compared to then in the late 1980s/early ’90s. The play flirts in a very era-specific way with these things, but doesn’t really nail them satisfactorily for today.
Kevin: Our walk to the subway after that show was just one long extended quizzical eyebrow. I’m still flummoxed by its warm reception.
Tim: OK, here goes, I love Cats. I stand alone on this, but when I was 10, and my parents took me to London for the first time—I grew up in the countryside—we went to see Cats. The revolving stage blew my mind. (Bear in mind this was the Paleolithic Era.) On this trip I also discovered McDonald’s (had never been or seen one before), quarter-pound cheeseburgers, and the beauty of a thick strawberry milkshake. So, when Cats came back to Broadway, it had one dyed-in-the-wool fan ready to root for it. But yes, it does make it hard!
Kevin: Alright, give it to me. Just how good is Hello, Dolly? You called it, I believe, New York City’s hottest gay club. I very much want to go to there.
Tim: Honestly Hello Dolly! is amazing, a ridiculous joy, and Bette Midler has to do very little to have the audience calling, shouting, cheering, and clapping everything she does. Beautifully sung, performed, produced—and NYC’s best gay night out for sure. Seriously, watch out for those queens if you head to the bar for a gin and tonic. The current controversy about whether Bette Midler will perform on the CBS Tonys broadcast is bad for her and bad for the production, and rather sours the goodwill this wonderful show has rightly commanded to date. Suddenly it looks as if she and her producers are playing diva—and in a bad way. Just show up and perform. Everyone else does.
Kevin: I find it pretty deplorable that the biggest theatrical event of the year—Bette on Broadway—is going to be missing from the telecast that is supposed to give access to theater fans around the country to this otherwise exclusive world. Yes, it’s an awards show, but it’s also, as we both talked about last year, three hours once a year when “theater people”—populate that community how you will—revisit (or maybe have their eyes open for the first time) to the safe space and the joy of the arts.
This whole Hello Dolly! brouhaha is really poor form. And, given that this is an awards show and there are politics that accompany that, I’m hearing rumblings that it could hurt Bette’s chances of winning her once sure-thing Tony. Do you think that’s possible?
Tim: I was thinking/wondering the same. I certainly think that in these last few days of voting it isn’t exactly going to endear her to voters. But it is a Tony-winning performance, and it deserves to be recognized as such. Come on Bette: Just show up and sing!
Kevin: It also helps that there’s not really a performance in the category, though all lovely (Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole from War Paint, Great Comet’s Denée Benton, and Miss Saigon’s Eva Noblezada), that really is strong enough to pose a formidable threat.
Tim: War Paint sadly promises grand dames at war over lipstick shades. So much fun. But it’s not as much fun as that. Ebersole and LuPone are good, but can’t rise above the rather stiff staging. Don’t get me started on the racist, sexist mess of Miss Saigon—some readers agreed and others found my review too strongly worded, but I found the show genuinely repellent, but the performances of Noblezada and Jon Jon Briones excellent. The show is an ugly suitcase of stereotypes.
Kevin: The real exciting race, in my opinion, is Best Actor in a Musical. The frontrunner since it premiered off-Broadway is Ben Platt who, despite my opinions on Dear Evan Hansen, gives the kind of performance people will be talking about for years. It is so skilled and meticulous and guttural, literally dripping with snot. But Andy Karl from Groundhog Day is a come-from-behind threat, not only because of his athletic star turn but because his show-must-go-on triumphing over a horrific injury just before opening night is exactly the kind of narrative awards voters salivate over.
Tim: So true, Kevin. I was there the night Andy Karl had the injury, and it was pretty awful to watch the rest of that 30-45 minutes play out, as he received urgent treatment, then came back to the stage to finish, limping horribly. The cheers that night…
I was also there the Monday night, opening night, three days later, when he returned to perform after taking a couple of performances off. The response? Rapturous. Deservedly so. Theater people love that stuff, we all do: There’s nothing like a conquering-adversity story, and played out so publicly. The more distinctive performance is Platt’s: Whatever you think of Dear Evan Hansen, it’s an astonishing tour de force from someone so young. I think he’ll nab it from Karl.
Kevin: Now, as someone who once was asked for his opinion on a play and responded, “I dunno... I feel like it would’ve been better with singing,” I would like to first to defer to you on your expert opinions on the Best Play race.
Tim: Of course! Best Play is a rich category this year. Oslo absolutely stunned me, truly: its writing, performances, direction, story, design—everything. It’s amazing to think you could craft such immaculate stagecraft from politics. Then along comes A Doll’s House, Part 2 in the final openings week, and Laurie Metcalf, Condola Rashad, Chris Cooper, and Jayne Houdyshell absolutely own and relish performing this update of Ibsen’s classic play. All are nominated for Tonys too. I think Best Play is between these two shows.
But then there is Paula Vogel’s Indecent, about a lesbian theater scandal of the 1920s and oppression and repression, and Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s play about an American town in decline, which I saw first at the Public Theater and then on Broadway—and preferred it at the Public. Broadway seemed to make it shoutier and less concentrated. Indecent, I think, has picked up a late wave of love—but Oslo reigns supreme for me.
OK, I know what you want to talk about: actresses. I know this with the same burning certainty that anyone would not want to cross the viperish Regina Hubbard Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, a character played by both Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney in their amazing and winning experiment on Broadway, where they play Regina and Birdie Hubbard, Regina’s sister-in-law, on alternate performances—picking up two Tony noms (Linney lead actress, Nixon featured—which they told me they were just fine with). So, let’s talk actresses, Kev!
Kevin: If there is one thing I am an expert on, it is obsessing over and raving about strong womennnnn! All my faves are here this year. Laurie Metcalf! Sally Field! Laura Linney! Cynthia Nixon! Cate Blanchett! Jayne Freaking Houdyshell! It’s a gay boy’s vision board. It’s interesting that both Leading and Featured Actress seems to be a battle between A Doll’s House, Part 2 and The Little Foxes.
Metcalf is winning raves for Nora in the former, and Houdyshell’s “Fuck you, Nora,” is an iconic line reading. But the Little Foxes experiment is a wonder to behold, with both Linney and Nixon trading off roles each night and, in a wonderment, each superb in both. Metcalf vs. Linney? Houdyshell vs. Nixon? How does one possibly choose?
Tim: I will say the season kicked off in pretty grand style with one of the lead actress nominees, Cate Blanchett (The Present), dancing like a dervish and standing on a table firing a gun. Jennifer Ehle (Oslo) is the still beating heart of that amazing play, and I was one of the critics who loved Sally Field, indeed the whole production, of Sam Gold’s critics-dividing The Glass Menagerie. Linney and Metcalf were wonderful too.
Missing out in Lead Actress is Janney, and Heisenberg’s Mary-Louise Parker, while her on-stage partner, Daily Beast interviewee Denis Arndt, made it into the Best Actor category. I loved Heisenberg, which maybe suffered from playing so early. Ruthlessly winnowing down, I’d say it was Linney versus Metcalf.
Kevin: My crystal ball (I flipped a coin) says... Metcalf!
Tim: I’ll go Linney. I think we’d be fine with either. In the featured actress category, we should not forget Houdyshell’s castmate, Condola Rashad, who has a pivotal role as Nora’s daughter, and Johanna Day and Michelle Wilson, the best friends-rent-asunder in Sweat. In that category, again all amazing performances, though it feels like it should be Houdyshell versus Nixon. Too close to call. Both fantastic. Hardest coin toss ever: Nixon.
Kevin: Alright, because this piece is already longer than The Present (it was a really long show, guys!) let’s lightning round the male categories we haven’t talked about. Give me your picks for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Best Actor in a Play, and Best Featured Actor in a Play. Mine: Andrew Rannells, Falsettos; Kevin Kline, Present Laughter; Danny DeVito, The Price. Now you go!
Tim: I’m going to do, should win; will win for these. Should win (featured actor, musical): Lucas Steele from Great Comet, will win, Gavin Creel from Dolly; should win (best actor, play): Denis Arndt (Heisenberg); will win Kevin Kline, Present Laughter; should win (best featured actor, play): Danny DeVito, The Price. Will win: Danny DeVito, The Price.
Some important codas: John Douglas Thompson (August Wilson’s Jitney), Michael Aronov (Oslo), Richard Thomas (The Little Foxes), and Nathan Lane (The Front Page) all absolutely merit praise for their performances. DeVito though—wow. He bustled on stage, and saved an airless play from folding in on itself. One of the funniest things I have seen on stage or screen this year is Danny DeVito eating an egg. Or shredding an egg is more apposite.
And in the best actor, totally overlooked and sadly so are Richard Roxburgh (The Present), Henry Shields (The Play That Goes Wrong), and Simon McBurney (The Encounter).
Kevin: I am very much looking forward to a Danny DeVito acceptance speech.
Tim: We should also talk for a second about best featured actress in a musical, Kevin, because that category is brimming with passion and life. Kate Baldwin in Hello, Dolly! is a joy, Stephanie J. Block in Falsettos was brilliant (I hope she wins for managing to sing and smash a stage up at the same time). Also brilliant: Jenn Colella from Come From Away, Rachel Bay Jones (Dear Evan Hansen—another possible winner), and Mary Beth Peil (Anastasia—she makes me cry automatically, because she’s Grams from Dawson’s Creek and I’m hardwired that way). Winner: for me, Block. For the Tonys: Rachel Bay Jones.
Kevin: I... agree! This is maybe the best category in the bunch (and, honestly, usually is). It’s most likely a three-way race between Block, Colella, and Jones. I want desperately for Block to win. I think Bay Jones will, if only because DEH is still running and she gets to leave that devastating mark each night still, whereas Block’s impression is just a memory (though one forever instilled in mine). Last, biggest question: How are you spending Sunday night?
Tim: Wine… Working… Watching… And a-wishin’ and a-hopin’ for Bette. I will first have a few hours reflection. My Tony nominations list, which I composed pre- the announcement, was pretty spot-on apart from one glaring flaw. Kevin, as you know, I loved Anastasia. Loved it. Still love it. I hope it wins for what it has been nominated for—it has the best projections on Broadway. I want real snow to fall like it falls in Anastasia. But otherwise, it’s pretty unloved. The costumes were delicious too. Not as delicious as The Little Foxes, but close.
Kevin: Fun fact: The Anastasia Fan Club headquarters is located at Tim Teeman’s desk.
Tim: Quick! Let us all take a train to Moscow to find grandmama and claim our royal inheritance! For you is anything missing from the categories? Any much-loved and not-there for you?
Kevin: [Climbs up onto the rooftop, clears throat, shouts]: SIGNIFICANT OTHERRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Tim: I’m locking the door to the roof. Let’s also take a moment to think about the other shows left unloved: Amelie, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, In Transit...and look at what’s missing from the Best Revival (Play) category: starry productions of The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller’s The Price, The Front Page, The Cherry Orchard, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Celebs in and of themselves do not guarantee success on Broadway. How will your Tonys night be, mon ami?
Kevin: Me? Wine. Happy Tonys!
Tim: Happy Tonys, everyone! Be sure to check in with our coverage on the night.
Kevin: SIGNIFICANT OTHERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!