Sunday, June 6, is, of course, the glittering night of the year when the entire nation reaches a fever pitch of excitement over the Tony Awards.
Here are my informed, utterly biased Tony tips for the big night. And the envelope, please …. Oh my goodness, we have a shock for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical! It’s Hugh Jackman!
True, the only competition for his brilliant performance as Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz is Alfred Molina as Tevye, the most famous Jewish milkman in the world. But we shouldn’t blind ourselves to the pleasure of Mr. Jackman’s thrilling achievement. Simply put, he’s given us one of the best performances in a musical we could wish to see.
Leading Actress in a Musical is a tough one, though. I’m a little off the audience favorite, tiny Kristin Chenoweth of Wicked , since she mugged and screeched her cute little way through the New York Philharmonic’s recent concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide . Still, anyone can have an off night, and it’s no reason not to vote for her, of course.
The excellent Idina Menzel, also of Wicked , will deplete Ms. Chenoweth’s support, however. Donna Murphy of Wonderful Town has won a Tony twice before, and the show itself is struggling. Which leaves the newcomer Stephanie D’Abruzzo’s Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut of Avenue Q versus Tonya Pinkins’ stunning black maid of Caroline, or Change .
Do not be too surprised at an upset in favor of Ms. D’Abruzzo. But when it comes to the infantilized charms of a puppet or a real, live, extraordinary human being, I’ll take the human being every time. Ms. Pinkins’ performance is magnificent. Her ultimate song and howl of grief and desolation to an indifferent God reminds us that even a musical on Broadway can burn a tragic way into our memory.
I’m glad to be biased in favor of Caroline, or Change , and I’m looking forward to a surprisingly good night at the Tonys for the musical nobody likes. Who is this “nobody”? (He’s nobody!) Revisiting the show recently for first time since it transferred to Broadway, I found the house full and enraptured (and Ms. Pinkins received a thoroughly deserved standing ovation). The retrograde idea that there aren’t enough intelligent people left on earth to appreciate a serious musical is grotesque and defeatist. Caroline changes the rules governing what a musical should be. Let’s support the new.
Except in the case of Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife , which will win Best Play.
This hasn’t been a good season for plays on Broadway, when we recall the one about the gorilla who was taught sign language by a deaf anthropologist ( Prymate ), among a handful of other bizarre choices that would blow your mind. All the best work comes, as usual, via Off Broadway, which produced my favorite play of the season, Lynn Nottage’s lovely poem of imaginative restraint, Intimate Apparel . It’s unlikely the Tony voters will give the award to Frozen , the grim British import about a murderous pedophile who hangs himself. The other nominations this year, the mediocre The Retreat from Moscow and Anna in the Tropics , have long since closed. I Am My Own Wife , Mr. Wright’s wildly overpraised monologue about a Nazi collaborator and transvestite-described by the author as “Notes toward a play”-is therefore the easy winner.
The competition for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play is stiff, but Kevin Kline in Henry IV and Christopher Plummer in King Lear were seen in limited runs earlier in the season. It’s likely that a good proportion of the 735 Tony voters-particularly the decisively powerful bloc of out-of-town voters-won’t even have seen Mr. Kline’s fine portrait of Shakespeare’s old tosspot, Falstaff, or Mr. Plummer’s less admired, choleric comedy of old age as the “ruin’d piece of nature,” Lear. There ought to be a rule compelling Tony voters to return their ticket stubs with their ballots, thus proving they’ve actually seen all the nominees in the category they’re voting for. Let’s tighten things up here! No ticket, no vote.
Which leaves one of England’s leading actors, the portly Brit, Simon Russell Beale, as Best Leading Actor for his star turn in Tom Stoppard’s nearly incomprehensible Jumpers , the only farce ever likely to be written about logical positivism and Wittgenstein. But did the Tony voters get the joke? There was also a surprise nomination for audience favorite Frank Langella for his ability to knit with limp wrists in the campy thriller Match (recently closed). Jefferson Mays, looking as prim as a nun in a string of pearls, plays over 40 characters in I Am My Own Wife , and Mr. Mays will take the award for Leading Actor.
The award for Featured Actor in a Play will go to the remarkable, scary Brian F. O’Byrne for the unrepentant killer in Frozen .
Best Actress? I admired Frozen ‘s Swoosie Kurtz above all other nominees for her brilliantly contained performance, which cauterizes a damaged mother’s unbearable grief. Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony is a popular favorite. But the award will go to Phylicia Rashad’s moving performance as the stoic matriarch in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 A Raisin in the Sun .
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play? It’s hard. Sanaa Lathan and Audra McDonald of A Raisin in the Sun could easily cancel each other out. Or either of them could win. I’m going to take a gamble on delicious Essie Davis of Jumpers .
Best Revival of a Play? See above, A Raisin in the Sun .
Tony voters always vote for Stephen Sondheim. It’s like voting for God. The Best Revival of a Musical will be Assassins -or my name isn’t Frank Rich.
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical is between Denis O’Hare for Assassins and Michael McElroy for Big River . The pity is that Big River is long gone. Mr. McElroy would be my sentimental vote. Mr. O’Hare, mugging his way to the mad assassin’s gallows in the sky, is likely to win.
Come what may, I’m voting for the beautiful young newcomer, Anika Noni Rose of Caroline, or Change , for Featured Actress in a Musical. She’s up against formidable opposition, including Tony favorite Karen Ziemba for Never Gonna Dance . But if ever there was a star in the making, it’s Ms. Rose. She doesn’t make a false or showy move. She’s modest and lovely and sings like an angel. Anika Noni Rose is the one .
Things are hotting up! Best Book of a Musical is between Tony Kushner for the musical tragedy Caroline, or Change and Jeff Whitty for the musical cartoon Avenue Q . Watch out for Winnie Holzman of Wicked , though the story wasn’t its strong suit.
If I were in my right mind, I’d bet on Mr. Whitty. But my heart’s not in it. My vote goes to the libretto that breaks the showbiz rules. I’m betting on Mr. Kushner’s poetic libretto, which isn’t consciously “poetic” but unadorned and muscular, speaking the language of essential truth.
Best Original Score? Right mind: Wicked . Out of my mind: Caroline, or Change .
Best Musical: The heart wants what the heart wants. But I need to recoup. The winner will be Wicked .
Best Direction of a Musical: George C. Wolfe did his very best work on Caroline , but the winner will be Joe Mantello, who didn’t, I regret, do his best work on Assassins .
Finally, Best Direction of Play is between Moises Kaufman for I Am My Own Wife and Jack O’Brien for Henry IV , with David Leveaux a long shot for Jumpers . Let it be said that the critics loved Mr. O’Brien’s hack production of Henry lV . But whatever we think of the provincial values of the show itself, I can’t vote for a director who believes we’re inferior to the British. In a staggering announcement, Mr. O’Brien explained why he condensed parts one and two of Henry IV into a single play for us at Lincoln Center. Although it’s commonplace for both parts to be staged in England, it would be too much-said Jack-for Americans.
I still haven’t gotten over it. We don’t have enough intelligence, you see, to appreciate anything except Shakespeare lite. And how, may I inquire, does it feel to be less intelligent than the British?
The Best Direction of a Play Award goes to Moises Kaufman for I Am My Own Wife . You know what I think of the play. (Or notes toward a play.) But Mr. Kaufman has done first-rate work with I Am My Own Wife -and besides, he hasn’t patronized anyone. I’m happy to say Mr. Kaufman takes the Tony.