Commentary: What the 2022 Tony nominations say about Broadway

The 75th Tony nominations were announced Monday, nearly a week behind schedule, in a Broadway year still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, things are markedly better. But for a season that began with a Delta wave and finished with an Omicron onslaught, timetables have had to be fudged.

Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker (headlining a new revival of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite”) and Daniel Craig (starring in a new production of “Macbeth”) were among some of the biggest names who tested positive for the virus. Openings were postponed and performances canceled, but still the shows mostly managed to miraculously go on.

The picture has certainly improved since the last round of Tony nominations in October 2020. Back then our political fate had yet to be decided, vaccines were still in the offing and we were still singing “Happy Birthday to You” twice while washing our hands.

The hubbub over entertainment awards seemingly offensive trivial at the time. It’s a sign of returning order that the presentation of these Tony nominations, vivaciously hosted by Broadway performers Adrienne Warren and Joshua Henry, seemed more or less routine.

Among the musicals, “A Strange Loop” racked up the most nominations with 11, followed by strong showings for “Paradise Square” and “MJ” (the Michael Jackson musical) with 10. In the play category, “The Lehman Trilogy,” which ended its run in January and opened at the Ahmanson Theater in March, led the field with eight nominations.

So we’re back to normal, right? Not exactly. Broadway remains an economic conundrum and a contested cultural question. It has been heartening to see the more diverse programming that has resulted from the racial and broader social reckonings of the last few years. But the COVID-rankled marketplace — uncertain in the best of times — has only widened the gulf between hits and flops.

A revival of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” announced that it would be closing early despite glowing reviews. (The production received an impressive seven nominations, one more than the Hugh Jackman-led revival of “The Music Man.”) A grass-roots campaign on Twitter to provide tickets to women of color has energized sales and publicity. But a crowded spring, in which 15 new productions opened in April alone, has intensified competition for an audience that hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.

In his recent book, “Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch,” David Mamet mourns the death of “the knowledgeable Broadway audience,” which he associates with the heyday of Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams , and laments the growing reliance on tourists, who “come to Broadway exactly as they come to Disneyland.” Whatever you make of Mamet’s regressive attitudes, the Broadway business model has undeniably depended on brand familiarity, spectacle and celebrity to draw in the vacationing masses.

This year, NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing organization, is anticipating that visitors to New York will be down about 15% from 2019. The recovery is happening, though probably not soon enough to help the myriad shows rumored to be struggling.

There’s opportunity, however, in the shortfall. New audiences are being identified and reached. The communal vitality at the Lyceum Theatre, where “A Strange Loop” is working its transformative magic, was at a level I have rarely experienced in American life, never mind at a Broadway theater.

Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about a plus-size black, queer musical theater writer struggling to find a place for himself artistically and personally is not the kind of show that likely would have made it to Broadway in years past. That’s what makes its trove of Tony nominations so satisfying. Broadway is wise enough to recognize where its future lies.

Because of the pandemic, I was unable to sample the full array of the season, and I was perfectly fine with that. Life now seems too short to waste on theme-park musicals and shows that are being revived for the sake of audience nostalgia or artist vanity.

My one great regret is not having seen the revival of “Caroline, or Change.” I had tickets in December, but Omicron numbers scuttled my holiday travel plans and so I missed Sharon D Clarke’s Tony-nominated performance, which was as heralded in New York as it was in London in a revitalized staging of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical .

How I wish the performance could have been live-streamed like “Clyde’s,” Lynn Nottage’s Tony-nominated play, which received nods for three of its cast members: Ron Cephas Jones, Uzo Aduba and Kara Young. For limited runs of exceptional quality, it’s a crime not to make the work more accessible.

Adam Godley, from left, Simon Russell Beale and Adrian Lester in the Broadway production of “The Lehman Trilogy.”

(Julieta Cervantes)

Los Angeles audiences didn’t have to leave town to see “The Lehman Trilogy,” which is likely to claim the 2022 Tony for best play. This award is as much an acknowledgment of the production as it is of the script (as past winners “War Horse,” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” all attest) .

All three of the main actors in “The Lehman Trilogy,” Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester, were nominated for their protean performances in this Homeric tale about the New York banking family by Stefano Massini and Ben Power. (Lester was replaced in LA by the excellent Howard W. Overshown.) The production, which is among the finest I’ve ever seen at the Ahmanson, was justly appreciated in the design categories and is likely to earn Sam Mendes his second Tony Award for directing.

I still haven’t gotten over the uncanny brilliance of Deirdre O’Connell’s lip-sync performance in Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.,” which had its world premiere in 2019 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. And so I was thrilled to see O’Connell’s name among the other nominees for lead actress in a play.

Les Waters, a veteran auteur who has long championed experimental work, was nominated for his staging of “Dana H.” The play didn’t last long on Broadway, but the mere fact that it got there at all represents a significant shift in producing possibility.

Geffen Playhouse subscribers may recall “Skeleton Crew,” Dominique Morisseau’s powerful drama about autoworkers in Detroit trying to hold on as the Great Recession pulls the rug out from under them. The play is nominated in a Manhattan Theater Club production that also received a nod for Philicia Rashad’s featured performance. Its director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, received a nomination for his performance in his play “Lackawanna Blues,” which came to the Mark Taper Forum in 2019.

Who needs to hop on a plane to see the best work?

In his screed against Broadway, Mamet writes off off-Broadway and says regional theaters have killed any natural affection for the art form with their relentless focus on “outreach” and “social consciousness.” It’s true that Broadway has sucked the oxygen out of the media ecosystem for theater. But it’s frightening to imagine what Broadway would be like without off-Broadway and the regional theaters that have been incubating its best work.

“A Strange Loop” was first produced (in association with Page 73 Productions) at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. Playwrights like Nottage, Morisseau, Hnath and Tracy Letts (whose play “The Minutes” is in contention for best play) owe their careers to the nonprofit theater system.

Hugh Jackman in

ON BROADWAY: Hugh Jackman in “The Music Man,” left, and Patti LuPone in “Company.” Credits: Julieta Cervantes | Matthew Murphy | DKC/O&M

(Julieta Cervantes | Matthew Murphy)

Broadway is still the most coveted platform for old-school virtuosity of the kind practiced by Hugh Jackman and Patti LuPone, both of whom were nominated for their performances in musical revivals (Jackman in a sunny version of “The Music Man” and LuPone in an adventurous rethinking of “Company”).

Beanie Feldstein hasn’t yet joined this illustrious club. The revival of “Funny Girl” received only one nomination — for featured actor Jared Grimes, whose tap-dancing showmanship elevated the production. But Broadway is still the dream of stage-struck thespians.

Billy Crystal, the nominated star and co-author of the musical “Mr. Saturday Night,” will always be at home on the Great White Way. And it will forever be the place for jukebox musicals, such as “MJ,” which deploys the music of Michael Jackson to a maximum audience-pleasing effect while laundering his reputation in a show with a very selective memory. (Nottage’s book received a nomination, but the musical’s effectiveness is distilled in the singing and dancing of its nominated star, Myles Frost.)

But true creativity is cultivated elsewhere. Broadway just happens to be where it’s enshrined. Change is underway. Women are rising (hello, “Six”!) along with artists of color. But let’s not ignore the reversion to the mean.

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