With Broadway's spring season barely begun, is it too soon to start worrying about the Tony races?
Well, yes. But that hasn't stopped legiters from forecasting an awards-season cagematch that could pit a half-dozen of the Street's most prominent leading ladies against each other.
gushy reviews from even the critics who were mixed at best about tuner "The Bridges of Madison County." In another corner there's Idina Menzel, the Tony winner ("Wicked") fresh off the Hollywood success of "Frozen" and soon to begin Broadway previews in "If/Then," the original musical that earned raves for her perf in its out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C. In a third corner we've got Sutton Foster, a two-time winner ("Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Anything Goes") about to star in the Roundabout's Broadway staging of "Violet," for which she earned major accolades in a one-night-only concert engagement last year. Over in corner four is Jessie Mueller, the much-lauded topliner of Carole King musical "Beautiful," which opened last month and looks to be gaining steam at the box office.
Factor in Audra McDonald, Michelle Williams and, who knows, one or both of the lesser-known female leads of "Rocky" and "Aladdin" -- who could turn out to be superstars-in-training -- and Broadway's gonna need more corners.
McDonald, who's won a whopping five Tonys, isn't officially part of the 2013-14 season yet, but with the shuttering of "Bronx Bombers" at Circle in the Square, the industry expects her to swoop into that venue in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill." She'll belt out several of Billie Holiday's tunes in the the 1986 bio of the legendary singer (which is a separate show from "Lady Day," the musical that played Off Broadway earlier this year), and would become a major contender for kudo consideration just by confirming the gig.
One caveat: Although the two-actor "Lady Day" won a 1987 Outer Critics Circle award for book of a musical for scribe Lanie Robertson, the show might feasibly be considered a play with music, which would put McDonald into contention for a nomination in a different category from the musical headliners.
Williams, who'll play Sally Bowles in the Roundabout's revival of "Cabaret," is also a wild card in the musical actress category. She's never appeared on Broadway, but in Hollywood she's no stranger to awards-season love. Her stints in Off Broadway plays have earned her good notices, and in "Cabaret" she'll take on the part that won the Tony for Natasha Richardson.
Meanwhile, O'Hara, Menzel and Foster are longtime Broadway faves, each of whom has a major award-season track record. Mueller is newer to the scene, but she made a splash in her 2011 Rialto debut in "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," managing to score a Tony nom from the short-lived revival. Even legiters who are lukewarm on "Beautiful" give a big thumbs-up to her performance as King.
Also on the boards this season is Marin Mazzie, the three-time nominee who's co-starring in "Bullets Over Broadway." Eligibility decisions haven't been made for "Bullets" (or any of Broadway's yet-to-open tuners), but it seems a strong possibility that Mazzie will be considered a featured player, as Dianne Wiest was in her Oscar-winning turn in the movie version. Up-and-comer Helene York, in the Jennifer Tilly role, also seems poised to compete for a nomination in that category.
With a couple of months still to go in the 2013-14 season -- and at least eight musicals still to open -- a lot can change between now and the April 24 eligibility cutoff. But right now, the theater industry is placing odds that this year, the heavyweight competition for leading actress in a musical will make that category the one that everybody's talking about come May.