May 6, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
So the 2017 Tony Award nominations were announced this week, and much like everyone else interested in these sorts of things, an eyebrow (or sometimes both) were raised in reaction to a few of the choices as well as the non-choices — those tough decisions resulting in those who failed to make the final cut. It has to be mentioned that for every good season (like this one), there are inevitably shows and performances left out of a tight race. Conversely, there have also been weak seasons when certain shows and performances have been included that were less than deserving; nominated merely to fill out a category. It’s just the way the ball bounces. In a year such as this one, with four very well reviewed (and well received) nominees like Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, Groundhog Day or Natasha and Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, each would be a deserved Best Musical winner in a less competitive year. But unless there is a tie (which has only happened once in this category in seventy-five years), three of these shows will not be taking home the evening’s most coveted trophy on June 11th. Me? I’m rooting for a tie.
I think ties are great and that there should be more of them. The Tonys have done so in a number of categories over its seventy year history (twice in the Best Actress in a Musical category alone). And why not? Sometimes the comparing of two Oklahoma flowers like Kelli O’Hara in The King and I against Kristin Chenoweth in On the 20th Century two seasons back for Best Actress in a Musical is impossible (Okay, the voters chose Ms. O’Hara — so it actually was possible). But as another example: imagine you were a Tony voter in 1995 and had to make a choice between Nathan Lane’s hilarious and touching performance in Terrance McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion, and Ralph Fiennes tearing up the stage as Hamlet? Well, now that I think of it … ummm… well, another bad example. The Tony nominating committee made that one easy when they failed to nominate Lane.
And if you’re thinking they did Nathan Lane a favor because he wouldn’t have had a chance against anybody playing Hamlet, think again. It’s often assumed that drama beats comedy, right?. And why is it that it’s thought an actor who can shed tears is more deserving of one who leaves us in tears? Though that theory was shot down as recently as 2012 when James Corden’s hilarious performance in One Man, Two Guvnors was the winner over Philip Seymour Hoffman’s devastating dramatic turn in Death of a Salesman. Again, having seen both, I don’t really know who I would have marked my ballot for. Then again, without an actual ballot, it’s a choice I wasn’t faced with.
And if you think anybody playing the tile role in Hamlet has an edge because he was playing one of the greatest roles ever written, guess again. Ralph Fiennes is the only actor out of ten who have been eligible since the Tonys started in 1947 to ever win for playing Hamlet. The only other Melancholy Dane to receive a nomination was Jude Law in 2010. In fact, it’s just five actors all told who have ever won Tonys for playing any Shakespearean role (with only one being a woman). Dozens of men and women have won for classical plays from Medea to Ibsen, but Shakespeare is either tougher to get a Tony for — or tougher to get right. But it’s certainly no guarantee of a Tony lock.
And what is the definition of a Tony lock? Well, after Tuesday’s nominations, in spite of a category that yielded five choices and left out three actresses who in any other season would have been included in that five, the Best Actress in a Musical is going be Bette Midler for Hello, Dolly! That’s just going to happen. No suspense there. And it will still prove one of the most emotional moments of the night. Midler is a beloved entertainer, who hasn’t appeared in a Broadway musical since the one she made her debut in back in 1966, when as a twenty-year old from Hawaii, she landed the part of Rivka, a villager, in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, then in its second year. She graduated up to the supporting role of Tzeitel, went on to became a Grammy Award winning recording artist and one of the great concert performers of all-time, and even an Academy Award nominated actress. The full-circle “it’s so nice to have you back where you belong” aspect of her journey is as irresistible to Tony voters, as it is proving to audiences, who are paying more money for a single ticket to anything since that musical from last season. What was it called again? Oh, right — Hamilton.
There’s a lot of time to report between now and the Tony telecast in five weeks, so I’ll have a lot more to say. For now, I have to admit that there are definitely a few people I’m personally rooting for. Some for the show for which they are nominated, but also as much for their body of work; hard to ignore if that person is overdue for awards recognition. The first one who comes to mind is the director Michael Grief, who with Dear Evan Hansen has given us a show for the ages. His work is beyond reproach, and his having had three previous nominations makes this fourth time the one I hope will be the charm.
It is also the fourth nomination for Laurie Metcalf, who I believe is giving the performance of the season by an actress in a play. A Doll’s Life, Part 2 had it’s entire four-person cast nominated and if there was an award for Best Ensemble, this would be the one to beat. That said, it’s Metcalf who never leaves the stage for its ninety-minute intermission-less duration, and she is giving a life lesson in the art of acting. She has never been less than great in everything I have ever seen her in since she made her debut Off-Broadway in a revival of Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, one of the earliest plays the Chicago Theatre Company Steppenwolf ever brought to New York. I have never forgotten the effect of the twenty-minute searing monologue she gave. I can picture where she sat, how she delivered it, how it was lit, the music that was used … everything. Memorable doesn’t begin to describe it.
Things like that are what will swirl through my mind when the Tonys are handed out. I’ve watched every telecast since they first started airing nationally in 1967. It’s always the most fun show with the best speeches, even though they have now become more and more a three-hour commercial for Broadway. I can only shrug and admit, “What’s so terrible about that?”
Oh, and that one-time tie for Best Musical I mentioned? It was back in 1960. Neither of two hit musicals received a majority of the votes, and so a tie was determined. One was the last Tony ever given to Rodgers and Hammerstein (The Sound of Music) and the other, the first ever given to Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock (Fiorello!). And what did they “beat?” Two little musicals called Once Upon a Mattress and Gypsy.
You didn’t think I’d leave out a “Those were the days” reference did you? Of course not.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/