Reflections on the 2020 Tony nominations while Broadway remains dark

The 2020 Tony award nominations were announced this week, and in what is perhaps the most 2020 of theatrical metaphors, nobody actually knows when the winners will be announced. Much like the uncertain future of Broadway theatres, which will remain closed through May 30th 2021. The belated nominations announcement, which should of course have happened in the summer, felt at once like a light in the dark and a reminder of what Broadway has lost this year, and potentially next.

So many shows that should have been eligible, from SIX, which was due to open just the day after theatres closed, to Marianne Elliott’s gender-swapped revival of Company, which never made it to opening night, never mind Tony voters getting to attend. Many others that opened were ineligible, under Tony voting regulations. And so, it’s a smaller pool, with the Musical Revival category being dropped entirely due to a lack of eligible entrants. But despite the air of sadness that surrounds what should be a celebration of New York theatre, it feels more vital than ever to celebrate the nominees that were eligible, and the winners – whenever they may be announced.

So, who did catch the eye of the Tony voters this year?

In the play categories it was Jerry O. Harris’ Slave Play with 12 nominations and Matthew Lopez’s two-part epic The Inheritance with 11 nominations which dominated. Harris’ play was a vital addition to the Broadway season, exploring the legacy of slavery in America through an imaginary sex-therapy session. That it was so extensively recognised, particularly in the wake of the heightened conversations about race in America since and a summer of national Black Lives Matter protests, and that it is nominated for Best Play and Best Direction among other key categories alongside The Inheritance, marks a timely recognition of two plays with urgent messages about social justice in contemporary America.

Lopez’s work is the most New York of the nominated plays, that gained critical acclaim in London, but lacked sustained commercial success in the West End. Following the 2018 season that saw the return of The Boys in the Band and Angels in America, this felt like an evolution of gay theatre on the main stages of Broadway. Like Angels before it, The Inheritance is a huge ask for an audience, not least in its all-day or two-evening run time. It was always a play destined for a ‘home’ in the city, with its story of New York ghosts and versions of gay history lost. It might have been too sprawling, or not hard hitting enough for some critics, but there is no doubt that Lopez’s tying together the age of AIDS with the cracks in the current gay community hit home with many. And as with many of its precursors about AIDS a play that has only gained resonance even in its closing through this exceptional circumstances.

Other leaders in the play category were the British import Seawall/A Life, which to anyone who saw Andrew Scott’s definitive performance of the original might feel jarring to see with Jake Gyllenhaal in the role. But both productions were a masterclass in writing and performance. Other British imports in the play categories include a nomination for Tom Hiddleston in Pinter’s Betrayal, first staged in London in 2019, and Laura Linney for My Name is Lucy Barton which originated at The Bridge Theatre in London. Other performance nominations in the plays categories included Mary Louise Parker for The Sound Inside, marking her fourth Tony nomination, and Audra McDonald receiving her ninth. In Actor categories The Inheritance dominated, perhaps unsurprising given the virtually all-male cast that is about the largest you’ll see on Broadway outside of a Shakespeare play.

The nominations across the play categories feel, on paper at least, relatively ‘normal’ in this most extraordinary year. The leading plays feel like the kinds of plays that win Tonys, and deservedly so. And we see a mix of veteran actors and up-and-comers along with the odd ‘celebrity’ amidst the acting nominations. The play categories feel rich and varied across the technical awards and looking, on paper, you’d be forgiven for assuming we were back in June and everything was normal. The musical categories tell a different story however, and for Broadway, that home of musical theatre, here the reality of 2020 seems to hit home a bit more.

The most glaring example is of course the Best Performance in a Leading Role category in which only Aaron Tveit is nominated. Tveit is a spectacularly talented actor who arguably has been snubbed in previous roles, notably his debut in Next to Normal (2009). After waiting 10 years for a nomination, it is probably fair to say this isn’t how Tveit wanted it to go. Despite being the only nominee, his trophy is not guaranteed. Tony rules dictate that 60% of the voters have to vote for him in order to secure a win. This solo nomination comes out of a combination of factors, from shows not opening due to theatre closures, to good old-fashioned Tony Award snubs. Several musicals never quite made it to opening night, such as SIX (which granted with its female cast wouldn’t affect the Tveit category), while Company had just started previews. If that production’s London run was anything to go by it would likely have racked up an impressive number of awards (not least with Patti LuPone’s eye on another Tony for her scene-stealing turn as Joanne). Elsewhere in the revivals camp, a category that was totally dropped due to a lack of eligible shows, West Side Story, would surely have created an array of nominations, particularly for performance.

As it stands the musical theatre categories are split between Moulin Rogue! and Jagged Little Pill, along with Tina – The Tina Turner Musical. All ‘jukebox’ musicals. The only musical with an original score eligible for this year’s awards, Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, was totally ignored by the Tony’s.

What did Percy Jackson do wrong? Hard to tell. Perhaps being a ‘Young Adult’ musical that fails to fit neatly in the category of ‘family’ theatre or ‘theatre for grown ups’. It was in the staging, quite off-Broadway in its look- deliberately maintaining the off-Broadway feel with cast doubling, minimal props and a set that might for different musical have be praised as ‘innovative’ or ‘Brechtian’. Perhaps then it just didn’t feel ‘high brow’ enough for Tony voters. Which is a shame, because beneath the surface of a ‘Young Adult musical about gods and monsters’ is a cleverly staged, witty new musical. At a time when the future of musicals could seriously be in danger for the foreseeable future, not acknowledging the only original musical on Broadway this year, seems a great shame. And frankly, Percy Jackson also offers that often-overlooked element of theatre going, a good evening’s entertainment.

Not that the other musical nominations were lacking in the entertainment department. Moulin Rogue! is without doubt a true Broadway spectacle. Taking the glamour and glitz of both Broadway and Hollywood musicals and fusing them. Its score, while technically being ‘jukebox’ in using existing songs, is cleverly orchestrated and curated, with an updating of the film score to incorporate more contemporary songs. The reorchestrations and use of the songs all feel original. The performances, particularly vocally from Tveit and fellow nominee, Karen Olivio, are Great White Way tour-de forces. Similarly, it would have been a true Tony upset for voters to overlook Adrienne Warren’s performance as Tina Turner in Tina – The Tina Turner Musical a performance, originated by Warren in London, that in terms of energy, emotion and technical prowess probably has no rivals this season.

Leading the way in terms of the number of nominations was Jagged Little Pill, based around the Alanis Morrissette album of the same name. It defied the same kind of criticism the original album gained in 1995 (where it was criticised, among other things for being ‘too angry’) to gain critical and popular acclaim. Prevented from making a bio-musical from what was an autobiographical album, the musical is instead a messier, bigger look at the issues of a group of characters. But it resonated both with the generation who remembers the album, and younger audiences who still see themselves in the lyrics and the characters. And despite not being ‘original’ in its score, Jagged Little Pill managed to offer something fresh and original to the season too.

The Tony Awards were always going to be a difficult, messy affair in 2020 and this feels like a best of a bad situation set of nominations. Still nominating, and eventually holding the awards ceremony, in whatever form that might take, feels like the right thing to do. In fact, the act of holding the awards might prove more important than the nominations themselves. For the Broadway community, a reason to celebrate and say ‘we’re still here’ and to remind the wider world of what they’re been missing while Broadway remains dark.

By Dr. Emily Garside

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