Remember 2016, the year of the Hamil-Tony Awards? Last year’s predictions went something like this: “Hamilton….Hamilton….Hamilton….some chick from Hamilton….another guy from Hamilton….” Yeah, for three freaking hours.
With a record thirteen new musicals that opened this season, and four constantly sold out shows on the same block, it’s a different song. This season is a fresh start in a world where Hamilton doesn’t exist. You’ve heard the name mentioned less in 2017 than the Scottish play in a high school theatre.
Due to the recent rise of lotteries and rush ticket sales (which in turn is due to the ungodly insane price of a Broadway show these days), I have been accidentally fortunate enough to have seen all seven musicals nominated this year, and a few others I contest were, to be kind, severely slighted. I could actually qualify as a Tony voter this year, if they wanted honest, non-political voters on the board.
Here’s a quick run down of the big players:
1) Dear Evan Hansen: Fresh from an Academy Award win for the score for La La Land, Pasek & Paul have delivered the season’s biggest new sensation. The story of a high school outcast who through a series of mistaken assumptions becomes an accidental hero, from the minute it opened it became this year’s Hamilton (which I and several other critics will argue is better and more deserving than last year’s Hamilton). Pitch Perfect costar Ben Platt gives a breathtaking performance as the anxiety ridden youth of the title.
2) Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812: The mobile pop-up dinner show has set up residence at the Imperial Theatre, transforming the house as never before into a giant Russian tea room to tell the story of a section of War & Peace as a Russian cabaret show . A stellar ensemble, made even more luminous by the addition of Josh Groban in a title role, compared with brilliant and inspired design and direction and a score that is equal parts pop, Russian folk, and club sounds blends into the most ambitious and innovative immersive experience ever on Broadway. Believe it, you’ve never seen anything like this.
3) Come From Away: At the other end of the spectrum, this intimate musical with no major stars tells the emotional and inspirational tale of the morning of 9/11, when all American airways were shut down post attack. Dozens of planes with hundreds of passengers descended on the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, and the community welcomed the visitors and showed a generosity of supplies and spirit. The perfect ensemble of twelve play at least one local and one visitor as well as extraneous characters and the result is an uplifting evening to give one hope in the human race (at least in Canada).
4) Groundhog Day: Ironically, the most American feeling new musical is the only English import of the season. The personal connection: Baltimore native and close personal friend Andy Karl gives the ultimate performance in a line of stellar showcase roles that have made a name for him in the last few years as one of the most bankable leading men on in the business. The writers and directors have adapted the Bill Murray movie to feature his strengths as a performer and the result is one that elevates the source material into another level with Karl and the script plumbing significantly deeper elements. Karl and the show are fresh off Olivier Awards in the weeks leading up to the American equivalent.
5) Bette Midler in Hello Dolly: It’s Bette Midler. In Hello Dolly. In a production that lives up to all the nostalgic grace and lushness of the legendary Gower Champion’s original visions. That’s all there is to know.
And that’s just the big guns. Yes, it’s a lot, a blessing to the theatre world that has looked ready to implode on bloated, pointless shows and inflated beyond reason ticket prices, restoring faith in the artform in twelve short months. So after much processing and wavering and weighing merits and politics, my predictions for the 2017 Tonys……
SHOULD WIN: Dear Evan Hansen; WILL WIN: Dear Evan Hansen
Personally, I feel Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 broke new ground as perhaps the most innovative and unique production ever conceived, reinventing theatrical boundaries and featuring revolutionary vision, smart designs, and amazing performances by the entire razor sharp ensemble with a nod to the classics. It deserves to win for raising the bar in ways never envisioned before (Hamilton who?). But the more modest Evan Hansen is timely, well crafted, perfectly executed, and perfectly cast, and hits all the right emotional notes at all the right times, buoyed by Ben Platt in a career making star performance. Again, any other year, Great Comet would be (no pun intended) revolutionary.
GOT ROBBED: A Bronx Tale. In a season of thirteen high quality best musical entrees, the field should be automatically expanded to five nominees, and this should have been the next in line. It got solid reviews, good word of mouth, and is selling better than some other nominees, with one of the season’s best scores by veteran Alan Menken. Leave it to the pretentious Tony committee to be as disclusive as the high school drama clique.
POTENTIAL SPOILER: Come From Away is an inspired and inspiring telling of a side of an important story we’ve never heard. As a testament to the goodness of the human soul, it could resonate with the New York voters who were there (and want to think they’re that good as people), and selfishly for the out of town voters who know Evan Hansen will sell out on the road, but this little airplane engine that could may benefit sales at their road and regional houses from the boost of a Tony. (This really happens. Remember Avenue Q over Wicked?). And let it not go unnoticed that a show that was giving tickets away all spring before the Tony nominations were announced is now the most difficult ticket to get on Broadway the weeks before the awards.
SHOULD WIN: Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen); WILL WIN: Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen)
This one pains me. Full disclosure: Long time personal friend Andy Karl IS the entire production of Groundhog Day and is responsible for every ounce of its physical and emotional success. He’s been with the show for three years now, won the Olivier Award and carried the show to its own Olivier, when in a turn from every backstage movie ever, he became the hero and poster boy of the industry, after tearing his ACL onstage less than 48 hours before his scheduled opening, miraculously went on to ensure the show went on opening night as planned. His publicity and admiration were peaking at just the right time for Tony voters to move him neck and neck with early season coronated favorite Platt (who the Times in no uncertain words stated ,”give him the Tony now” on opening night). Then I witnessed the marvel of Ben Platt’s performance as Evan Hansen. While Karl is giving the performance of his career in a role tailored to all his many, varied strengths and unique talents, Platt is giving the performance of his life dissolving into his character as never seen in a musical in recent years, maybe ever. His Evan is a mess of tics, fidgets, nerves, and anxiety, speaking in rapid bursts and swallowed mumbles. He emotionally breaks down in sobs, doubling over in posture, yet maintains perfect breath and body control throughout. If Platt and the show don’t win these two categories, someone bought themselves a Tony.
GOT ROBBED: Not even robbed. Grand larceny. Unforgivable. Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer in Miss Saigon gives a performance that would have would have been a runaway win any year of the millennium so far. Intense, sleazy, and the only welcome bits of expert comic relief in this hyper-tragic piece, Briones drives the entire show and erases all memory of original Jonathon Pryce. It would have also made a great story that original company chorus boy 25 years later is the Tony nominated star. Shame on the Tonys for giving David Hyde Pierce a vanity nomination. Horace Vandergelder is not a Tony worthy role, especially in this category in this super competitive year. Cory Cott got merely robbed as the emotional center of WWII vet salute Bandstand. He probably should have had Christian Borle’s slot, who was excellent in Falsettos, but already has two Tonys for better work and was upstaged as the central character by all his stellar costars.
POTENTIAL SPOILER: The spoiler should have been Briones. The ONLY possibility now is Karl. Can we at least hope for a tie?
SHOULD WIN: Bette Midler (Hello Dolly); WILL WIN: Bette Midler (Hello Dolly)
Midler is all class and comedy as she breezes through the show as the legendary Dolly Levy, a role seemingly tailor made for her distinctive comic talents. She’s a legend in a legendary role and the show soars not only, but largely because of her.
GOT ROBBED: Every other actress this season, especially Laura Osnes (Bandstand) and Christy Altomere (Anastasia) AND Glenn Close (Sunset Boulevard) Again, the first two amazingly talented young leading ladies got bumped to make room for the big names in War Paint, who ought to thank Ryan Murphy for making show business diva feuds cool again this spring. Yes Patty LuPone and Christine Ebersole are seasoned veterans with two Tonys apiece (for significantly more substantial work). But a nominable role is only as good as the material, and while they elevate the show and are its only saving graces, the final effect is not worth what these two young actresses are doing this year. Again, two more unnecessary vanity nominations in too strong a year. And then there’s Glenn Close, giving the leading lady performance of the millennium as iconic Norma Desmond, who got shut out on an outdated technicality that prevented her from being nominated for the same role twice. Regional awards have revised the time limits to 5 to 10 years. Miss Close is giving an even richer performance than she did first time around, which was 22 years ago. Miss Midler ought to buy her a drink Tony night.
POTENTIAL SPOILER: In the off off off chance that the controversy over Midler performing or not at the Tonys and the tantrums and demands thrown about by her producers alienates enough critical voters in the last days of voting, there is a 0.6% chance that Eva Nobleza, who’d be happy to perform, could pull a victory of gratitude for Miss Saigon.
BEST FEATURED ACTOR
SHOULD WIN: Lucas Steele (Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812); WILL WIN: Gavin Creel (Hello Dolly)
Steele is a breakthrough tour de force performing in the intimidating shadow of Josh Groban, yet comes out the star playing bad boy Anatole, basically the driving plot device of the entire show while being the only character who doesn’t have a true solo. On top of that he has to sing crazy high pop tenor, dance Russian folk dance, play wild Gypsy violin, do about a hundred fights of stairs per show, and, according to the opening number, be hot. Unfortunately Creel has the advantage of playing Cornelius Hackl, perhaps the most likable and charming supporting character every written in musical theatre history. It plays to his strengths as a song and dance man, and he has the Dolly train (literally, in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”) behind him. While Steele creates a magnetic character from the elements, Creel rides one in on the congenial material.
GOT ROBBED: Nick Cordero (A Bronx Tale) Not so much in the nomination process, but in the classification process. Cordero is so strong as supporting character Sonny the gangster that the nominating committee classified him as a lead actor. The story is Bobby Conte Thornton’s as the narrator, everyone else is supporting characters in his story. So maybe Cordero already got credit for his performance by the upgrade.
POTENTIAL SPOILER: Andrew Rannells played so effectively against type in the critically acclaimed Falsettos, being brash, arrogant, charming, and ultimately heartbreaking. If Creel and Steele split the main votes, he could walk through a back door upset.
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS
SHOULD WIN: Stephanie Block (Falsettos); WILL WIN: Rachel Bay Jones (Dear Evan Hansen)
This is the toughest call of the evening, with these two and Jen Colella from Come From Away in a literal 3 way tie going into the evening. They all emerge as strong, important characters in other people’s stories, all giving the performances of their careers, and all tearing up a huge character number. Block’s performance is stronger yet subtler with the most complete character arc, and her expert delivery of her showstopper “I’m Breaking Down” as the beat down wife comically coming to terms with the fact that her husband is gay should be reason enough that one shouldn’t have to play the career award card against these two relative newcomers. But Falsettos was a limited run that closed in January, and voters have to vote from memory instead of being able to revisit her. Jones could ride the Evan Hansen express as Platt’s overwhelmed mother because of visibility, but don’t count out Colella as the first female American Airlines pilot in a feel good powerhouse show. Jones also has the distinct unfair advantage of having the most amazing actor of the season as her scene partner to play opposite.
GOT ROBBED: Whoever two of the three that don’t win. They’re all amazing.
POTENTIAL SPOILER: Colella could come from away with the award with all the show’s last minute momentum. This is the only realistic possible award for a very deserving show without going big for best musical.
SHOULD WIN: Miss Saigon; WILL WIN: Hello Dolly
Taking nothing away from Miss Midler and company, but New York has a long established prejudice against this show, jealous of the success of its British origins and to some degree still holding the stigma of the 1991 Jonathon Pryce controversy over its head. The Boublil/Schonberg follow up to megahit Les Misérables has never received the credit it deserves on this side of the Atlantic, having lost to embarrassing home grown fluff The Will Rogers Follies first time around. This should have been the chance to make right, considering in many ways it’s even superior to its original incarnation. But Hello Dolly nailed the casting and has built a beautiful pastel colored valentine around Midler, enough to again pull the all-American wool over the committee’s anti-British eyes.
GOT ROBBED: Sunset Boulevard. The production is not as bombastic in design as the original (which was used against them at the time as a critique), but the direction and concept is tighter, the orchestrations lusher, and Glenn Close even more brilliant with the distance 22 years has brought her perspective on her iconic Norma Desmond. But if there’s any Brit the New York theatre committee hates more than the Boublil/Shonberg machine, it’s Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. Forty years time has proven Lloyd Webber the undisputed champion; it’s time New York comes to term with that.
SHOULD WIN: Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812; WILL WIN: Rachel Chavkin (Great Comet)
Another strong field, Jerry Zaks reassembled the classic in Hello Dolly, Matthew Warchus had the smarts to cast Andy Karl and build the new version of Groundhog Day entirely around him and his unique talents, and Micheal Grief found and crushed the heart of Dear Evan Hansen. But Chavkin has reconceived and redefined theatre in her extraordinary vision for Great Comet, transforming War & Peace into a cabaret show at a Russian tea room with amazing success, creating a 360 degree, theatre wide spectacle while executing intimate story telling with a perfect cast. She took the art to a new level this year.
POTENTIAL SPOILER: Grief has a history of losing for big shows (how in the world did he lose for conceiving alleged game changer Rent to George Wolf for Bring in da Noise Bring in da Funk?). The voters may make up for that embarrassing year here for much better direction that shows in a much better musical.
SHOULD WIN: Dear Evan Hansen; WILL WIN: Dear Evan Hansen
Great Comet has a truly innovative dance club/Russian fusion score that is wonderfully effective, making narrative passages seem like actual songs. A clever opening number, a huge production number or two, and some new material custom written for Groban any other year would have been a lock, but Evan Hansen is contemporary, catchy, and heartfelt to downright heartbreaking at times. It’s the rare pop rock score that doesn’t sound nearly as emo as it is.
GOT ROBBED: Again, sadly, A Bronx Tale. Alan Menken turns in his best score since Disney’s Hercules, a wonderful 50s-60s doo wop blend with hints of early Motown that no one writes like him. Besides Evan Hansen, it’s the only cast recording that flows and plays like a good pop album with catchy tunes, great orchestrations, and touching lyrics all true to the period. Groundhog Day got a bandwagon nomination. That score, which is actually mostly underscore with dozens of lazy rhymes, is the least impressive aspect of the show. And again thirteen new shows—expand the category, tired Tony people.
SHOULD WIN: Dear Evan Hansen; WILL WIN: Dear Evan Hansen
Great Comet is the classic War & Peace and Groundhog Day is a B movie. Both musical incarnations elevate their source material infinitely, but Evan Hansen is contemporary, relevant, and strikes all the emotional chords with the audience, mostly due to young Platt’s endearing and eventually heart wrenching interpretation.
POTENTIAL SPOILER: You can’t rule out Come From Away for it’s interesting method of telling an important and true story in the city most directly affected by it.
SHOULD WIN: Great Comet; WILL WIN: Great Comet
Andy Blankenbuehler turns in fun and fascinating 40s swing moves for Bandstand, throwing his ensemble ladies all over the stage, and adds interpretational dance scene transitions that are generally stunning, but a sometimes seem a little overthought for the style and content of the show. But Great Comet, again, everything, all the time, 360 degrees, throughout the theatre. Never been done.
GOT ROBBED: Hello Dolly
Yes, it’s derived from Gower Champion’s original, but rather than looking at it as dated, appreciate it as precise, clean, and pretty, appropriate to the nostalgic era of the show. And the Waiter’s Gallop alone is worth a nod. Groundhog Day moving around an overzealous moving set is the true choreography. Come From Away is moving chairs.
POTENTIAL SPOILER: Defending champion Blankenbuehler (Hamilton) is the up and coming big name, and the only chance of rewarding audience darling Bandstand.
SHOULD WIN: Great Comet; WILL WIN: Hello Dolly
Great Comet mixes a perfect blend of traditional Russian folk and Imperial Russian period attire with punk, club, and other contemporary influences to match the timeless fluidity of the show, but Dolly is traditionally perfect as a pastel colored valentine to the turn of the century. Oh, and THE red dress even surpasses Carol Channing’s iconic one.
POTENTIAL SPOILER: Here’s the opportunity to throw a bone to the leading ladies of War Paint. If you can’t win for acting, you can at least win for looking spectacular throughout.
SHOULD WIN: Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812; WILL WIN: Great Comet
Unlike anything ever done on Broadway, Mimi Lien has transformed the entire Imperial Theatre from the lobby as a war bunker to the theatre as a grand Russian tea room, draping the entirety in red velvet curtains, moved the audience to where the stage was, and the stage to the former front of the audience as well as throughout the house and balcony. Her design is visionary and critical to Chavkin’s concept of the show.
POTENTIAL SPOILER: Groundhog Day’s set is a series of pieces that revolve, rotate, and drift in and out of place in a choreographed inanimate dance along five concentric revolves. Completely unnecessary for the show but visually impressive nonetheless.
SHOULD WIN: Great Comet; WILL WIN: Great Comet
Not only does Bradley King have to design lights for the set, he has to design lights for the entire theatre, both levels, as well as transform it into a dance club. Again, unprecedented.
BEST PLAY: Honestly, we all know the Tonys are only televised for the musicals. So, Kevin Kline, Laurie Metcalf, Danny DeVito and a bunch of people no one knows in shows we didn’t see. The end.
Mark Briner, your blog host, is a veteran performer, director, and costume and set designer who has been involved with Tidewater Players since 2003, debuting as Siegfried and a dozen other characters in Das Barbecü, which also premiered his costume designs in a production where three women and 2 men played 30 comic characters. Over the years, audiences may remember him also as flighty Sir Robin in Spamalot, flashy Baltimore bandstand host Corny Collins in Hairspray, the Union Captain in The Civil War, perpetual bad guy Rooster Hannigan in both productions of Annie, defending champion Chip Tolentino in both productions of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, obnoxious yuppie Glen Guglio in The Wedding Singer, and Cinderella’s philandering Prince in Into the Woods. He has also designed costumes for Tidewater productions of Into the Woods,The Wedding Singer, Annie, Hairspray, Spamalot, Altar Boyz, and our extremely successful final production in the old space, the area premiere of Les Misérables. He also is a accomplished director throughout the Maryland/DC area known for such extravagant productions as Dreamgirls, Chess, The Wedding Singer, Mary Poppins, Altar Boyz, and the premiere of Catch Me If You Can. He currently serves as secretary for the Tidewater P layers Board of Directors.