The Tony nominations were announced Tuesday, but before we plunge into the big race between "Kinky Boots" and "Matilda the Musical," one obvious question should be addressed before any other: Given the crassly commercial direction of Broadway, why do we continue to make such a fuss about these awards?
Because, like it or not, Broadway is still the highest aspiration for many of the theater's most talented artists and because it continues to have such an influence on the American repertory, as Center Theatre Group and its fellow nonprofit giants keep reminding us.
This season, off-Broadway supplied a better musical ("Here Lies Love," the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim show about Imelda Marcos at the Public Theater) and play (Annie Baker's "The Flick" at Playwrights Horizons) than any of the contenders for the top Tony prizes. But virtuosity is still part of the Broadway mix, and the nominations this year include some outstanding work that deserves a national salute.
The race for best musical is largely between the British juggernaut "Matilda," based on the Roald Dahl children's classic, and "Kinky Boots," the Harvey Fierstein-Cyndi Lauper basset hound of a show, adapted from the film about a drag queen who rescues a sputtering English shoe factory.
To them will go the spoils, with "Matilda" still the favorite to win the evening's biggest Tony and Lauper most likely picking up the trophy for score. ("Bring It On: The Musical," which had a pre-Broadway run at the Ahmanson Theatre, and "A Christmas Story, the Musical" are the also-rans.)
This contest is as economically consequential as it is artistically trivial. The glory days of the Broadway musical have long been in stark decline. Marketing extravaganzas are what turn a profit today. There are exceptions (the whispy, lyrical "Once," the farcically fearless "The Book of Mormon"), but bloated and blaring have become de rigueur.
"Hands on a Hardbody," the show that drove itself from La Jolla Playhouse to Broadway, didn't stand a chance this spring, though it picked up a nomination for score along with a couple of acting nods. With the production already closed, it's clear that it was a mistake to have programmed the Brooks Atkinson Theatre into the vehicle's GPS. Musicals can be many things, but meditative and offbeat are financial hazards.
Off-Broadway and the more adventurous regional theaters are where we should seek out signs of the art form's originality and vigor. Both "Matilda" and "Kinky Boots" have their virtues, but both are overstuffed and oversold, satisfying the demands of producers who seem to have stopped trusting their audiences. But with ticket prices this astronomical, perhaps theatergoers have come to depend on the all-out assault to stave off buyer's remorse.
Playwriting isn't faring much better on Broadway. If "The Assembled Parties" strikes me as a fairly strong Richard Greenberg play while "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is a somewhat lesser Christopher Durang comedy, the idea of Durang (the favorite) walking away with the award seems like fair remuneration for all the belly laughs he has brought to the American theater.
A reliable cause of celebration is the banquet of acting nominees, with so many possibilities for lead actress in a play that Fiona Shaw in Colm Tóibín's nominated "The Testament of Mary," Jessica Hecht in "The Assembled Parties" and Bette Midler in John Logan's "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers" were all left out.
Midler's performance may have been no great feat of acting but it provided plenty of vamping fun. Stars, however, were given no special consideration (to the chagrin, no doubt, of top executives at CBS, the network that will air the Tony Awards ceremony on June 9). In fact, they seemed to be held to higher scrutiny than usual.
Alec Baldwin was passed over for Tom Sturridge in "Orphans." Jessica Chastain was ignored while Judith Ivey, her fellow cast member in "The Heiress," received a featured role nomination. Sigourney Weaver was conspicuously left out of the raft of acting nominations that Durang's play received. And Al Pacino, Scarlett Johansson and Paul Rudd all vanished without a congratulatory trace from the season.
One notable exception is Tom Hanks' deserved nomination for his performance in the late Nora Ephron's nominated "Lucky Guy." The secret to Hanks' success, beyond his solid characterization of tabloid columnist Mike McAlary? He became one with a top-notch ensemble that included Courtney B. Vance's Tony-nominated featured role performance.
Solo work, excepting "Ann," Holland Taylor's performance as former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, wasn't enthusiastically feted, though Broadway's bottom line will almost certainly guarantee a steady string of these relatively inexpensive star-driven offerings.
Peruse the directing categories for both play and musical and you'll come away reassured of the deep bench of talent that's available. The same goes for the design contests. Broadway has an economic problem that has become an artistic problem, but this has nothing to do with the quality of the creative personnel.
If producers have devoted themselves to the conspicuous consumption of affluent audiences, theater artists will simply have to play ball wherever they can, enjoying the spotlight of Broadway when possible but saving their most daring efforts for more hospitable climes.
In any case, a season that can find room for Pam MacKinnon's astonishing revival of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" can't be that bad. Of all this year's nominations, none seems more just than the one for Tracy Letts' clarifying portrayal of George, a performance so luminous it doesn't need a statuette to live on in memory.