How This Year's Tony Nominees Reflect a Bolder Broadway

ISSUE 14 2019 - DO NOT REUSE
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Gray as Persephone in Hadestown.

The most exciting performers nominated for awards at the 2019 Tonys (airing June 9 at 8 p.m. EST on CBS) are making audiences reconsider what musicals and their stars look and sound like -- and how daring they should be.

Amber Gray, 38
Hadestown

The Lowdown: One of the most singular Broadway performers in years, Gray (up for featured actress in a musical) stomps, slithers and coos onstage as a live-wire (and slightly drunk) Persephone in singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.

Words of Wisdom: “A couple of years ago, as people got more into activism, it changed what audiences want to see. There are four shows from the downtown [theater] world on Broadway now. There’s more variety, which is how it should be.”

Jeremy Pope, 26 // Ephraim Sykes, 33
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The Lowdown: Pope makes a magnetic Broadway musical debut alongside Sykes, a Hamilton alum, as The Temptations’ yin and yang: falsetto-voiced Eddie Kendricks and wailing showman David Ruffin, respectively. Both received a nom for featured actor in a musical.

Words of Wisdom: “You understand why [Ruffin] sang the way he sang: He was covering up a lot of damage,” says Sykes. “Black men, even myself sometimes, we mask our pain -- we don’t even know we’re experiencing such trauma.”

Caitlin Kinnunen, 27
The Prom

The Lowdown: As high school student Emma, the “little lesbian” at the center of the farcical musical, Kinnunen (nominated for lead actress in a musical) warmly grounds the antic show -- and made history in 2018 with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade’s first on-air LGBTQ kiss.

Words of Wisdom: “From the beginning, I knew how important the character of Emma was, that this was a story that had not been told on Broadway and needed to be. It’s so cool that we can finally step up and say, ‘These are the stories we want to tell.’”

Damon Daunno, 34
Oklahoma!

The Lowdown: As romantic lead Curly in the stripped-bare new production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, Daunno (up for lead actor in a musical) smolders and struts like a rock star -- and makes audiences rethink one of musical theater’s iconic leading men.

Words of Wisdom: “People have come to appreciate a more real, authentic voice [in musical theater]. With pop music, genre is dead -- you can do anything you can possibly think of, and it’s encouraged. That’s bleeding over into theater.”

Lilli Cooper, 29
Tootsie

The Lowdown: As a teen, Cooper starred in Spring Awakening’s original Broadway run; in 2018, she was Sandy Cheeks in SpongeBob SquarePants. Now her feminist, millennial spin on Jessica Lange’s character from the iconic 1982 film earns her a nod for best actress in a featured role in a musical.

Words of Wisdom: “We’re slowly shifting into a more diverse world in the theater. I hope it’s not just a phase. I’ve had the lucky experience of playing roles that are not racially specific, and that type of inclusivity is so important.”


Ones to Watch

In a season rife with breakout performances, these young actors made new and classic roles completely their own -- and deserve Tony Award recognition for it.

Patrick Vaill: Farmhand Jud Fry is usually portrayed as a dim-witted clod of a villain in Oklahoma! But with his haunted, delicate performance, Vaill turned the role into a heartbreaking, modern societal outcast.

Sophia Anne Caruso At 14, Caruso sang “Life on Mars” in David Bowie’s musical Lazarus. Not yet 18, she is now Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice -- a refreshingly goth anti-ingénue coming into her own.

Stephanie Hsu As Christine Canigula, the love interest at the center of the pop-fueled new musical Be More Chill, Hsu is both endearing and hilarious, with the kind of natural musical comedy chops that call to mind the likes of Sutton Foster.

This article originally appeared in the June 1 issue of Billboard.