This Year’s Tony Tip-Offs: Can Jersey Be Stopped?

061206 article heilpern3 This Year’s Tony Tip Offs:  Can Jersey Be Stopped?The June 11 Tony Awards ceremony on CBS is sure to be the usual riveting event, and I’ll certainly be watching the broadcast along with the other 322 viewers across the nation. Not to be too cynical, but at least 199 of them will be from New Jersey. They’ll be cheering for Jersey Boys, the hit jukebox musical about the life and times of the Four Seasons, of all people. (“Big Girls Don’t Cry”; “Walk Like a Man.” Give me a break.) A jukebox musical has no new score, of course, but that won’t stop Jersey Boys from taking home the Tony for the season’s best new musical.

That’s the way the world works in Tonyland. It’s nuts. Unless—unless!—The Drowsy Chaperone, the hilarious, loving satire of vintage Broadway musicals, beats the favorite at the post. After all, Chaperone has a sparkling (and very witty) original score by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. But let me make one thing perfectly clear at the outset: When it comes to a fight to the finish between blue-collar butch and musical queens, I know where I stand.

But, alas, my fear is they’ll give the Best Musical award to Jersey Boys. Best Original Score will go to The Drowsy Chaperone. The award for best actor in a musical is between John Lloyd Young for his miraculously falsetto Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys and Michael Cerveris for his admired Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. The Tony goes to Mr. Lloyd Young in his Broadway debut.

It’s harder to pick the winner in the stronger category for best actress in a musical. Kelli O’Hara is a refreshing delight in partnership with Harry Connick Jr. in the successful revival of The Pajama Game. LaChanze is the scintillating young star of the Oprah Winfrey–backed (though mediocre) The Color Purple. Chita Rivera is, of course, a legend, but her Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life didn’t ignite with the public. Sutton Foster is perfect playing the somewhat narcissistic musical star in my favorite, The Drowsy Chaperone. And I wouldn’t discount the popular appeal of Patti LuPone (Sweeney Todd) in anything; I wouldn’t dare.

Let’s see … I think the Tony will go to LaChanze in The Color Purple.

The category for best actress in a play has excelled itself this year: All five nominees were in Broadway plays that folded. It seems like a century ago since I enjoyed Souvenir, Stephen Temperley’s fantasia on Florence Foster Jenkins, the society dame with the notoriously deaf ear who became famous for singing opera tunelessly.

But how many Tony voters actually saw Judy Kaye’s wonderful performance as the delusional diva? There ought to be an unbreakable Tony rule that they can’t vote unless they’ve seen all the shows in the category. No ticket, no vote. At least two of the five nominees for best actress are there to make up the numbers (thereby squeezing out the unfortunate Julia Roberts). Cynthia Nixon starred as the grieving mother in David Lindsay-Abaire’s overpraised virtual soap opera, Rabbit Hole—the show that closed most recently. Ms. Nixon is the favorite to win the Tony.

Though I’m anticipating a very good night for Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, one of the boys—Samuel Barnett—must give way to the veteran British character actor, Ian McDiarmid of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. Put simply, Mr. McDiarmid’s portrait of stoic failure is one of the greatest performances we could wish to see, and he’ll win the Tony.

Without the usual suspects—the Brits and the Irish—this season, like many a season, would have scarcely been open for serious business. I anticipate The History Boys winning the Tony for Best Play over the best bloody play I’ve ever seen, Martin McDonagh’s terrific black comedy about terrorism, The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Wilson Milam’s direction of the Inishmore ensemble is superb, but so is the work of Nicholas Hytner. Mr. Hytner of History Boys for the Tony.

The strongest category of all this season is for best actor in a play. Oliver Platt as Shining City’s lost soul in desperate need of therapy, or company, made an outstanding Broadway debut. Inishmore’s David Wilmot is another smashing actor in the category that also includes Ralph Fiennes. But if only for sentimental reasons, my money’s on Richard Griffiths for his idealistic and suffering schoolteacher of History Boys. Permit me to tell a story about how Mr. Griffiths came to be an actor in the first place, though the story begins sadly.

Two or three years ago, I learned that a friend of mine from Oxford days had suddenly died and hurried in shock to the memorial service in London, at which Richard Griffiths spoke. Though the shaky pinnacles of fame eluded Doug Fisher, he was the actor of our Oxford generation, and there was not a time when I wasn’t happy to be in his company. Many actors performed in tribute to him at the memorial, including two of his oldest friends from college—Michael Palin and Terry Jones, who became one-third of Monty Python. Among many other of Doug’s friends and contemporaries, David Aukin—who became executive director at the National Theatre—was there, and Doug’s beautiful Oxford girlfriend Annabel Leventon, who became a well-known actress, hosted the evening. But Richard Griffiths was the odd one out: the stranger at the memorial.

When it came his turn to speak, he rose shyly, and firstly gave a brilliant recital entirely from memory of a chunk of William Hazlitt’s “On Actors and Acting.” “The neglected actor may be excused if he drinks oblivion of his disappointments; the successful one if he quaffs the applause of the world …. There is no path so steep as that of fame; no labour so hard as the pursuit of excellence.”

Then he explained apologetically that he hadn’t known Doug Fisher well, but wanted to tell us something. And he told of the time when he was a student at the Manchester Polytechnic and took a chance on a new play with Doug in it at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival. He explained to affectionate laughter that, until then, he could never understand how on earth an actor could perform the same role night after night. He went to see the play three times to find out, and it was Doug’s performance that changed his life. It convinced him to try his luck as an actor.

Mr. Griffiths didn’t name the play, nor did it matter. It was the acting that mattered to him. But I went cold as he told his story. You see, I wrote the play he saw. And I too witnessed the staggering performance when everything in life came together for Doug Fisher and he held up greatness for us.

Such things are not easy for me to write about. But if Richard Griffiths receives the Tony Award, I will be very glad.