The main Tony nominations are far from the only reason to look forward to theater’s biggest night this year: There’s the smart, charming new hosting duo of Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban; special Tonys being handed out to John Leguizamo and Bruce Springsteen; lifetime achievement honors for true legends Andrew Lloyd Webber and Chita Rivera; the chance that Katharine McPhee will present an award to someone from SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical (OK, maybe after this morning’s nomination announcement pronunciation snafu, that’s less likely). But as always, the annual nominations reveal brought with it a mixture of squeals, sighs and “huh?” moments.
Here are five takeaways to mull over in advance of the awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall on June 10.
It’s a David vs. Goliath(s) Year: As original new musicals go, it’s a 3 to 1 battle between glitzy mega-shows and one little off-Broadway transfer that could just topple them all. Mean Girls (with co-producers including Lorne Michaels and Paramount Pictures), Frozen (from Disney Theatrical Productions) and SpongeBob SquarePants (with co-producers including Nickelodeon and Sony Music Masterworks) all made the leap from screen to stage in expertly realized productions that garnered respectably solid reviews. Each had its standout selling points: For Mean Girls, Tina Fey’s witty-as-ever script and perfectly cast Plastics; for Frozen, Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s winning, expanded score and lovable leads; for SpongeBob, an uncannily sponge-like human (Ethan Slater) in the title role, acid-trip set and poppy score. It’s easy to imagine any of these tour de forces taking home best original score or the big prize, best new musical — but it’s equally likely, and perhaps more so, that The Band’s Visit will steal both prizes. Easily the best reviewed new musical of the season (coming off a heralded off-Broadway run), with an understated score infused with Middle Eastern influences by Broadway vet David Yazbek, it’s a masterpiece of small but powerful moments and often short but memorable performances by members of the ensemble cast — and though, like its compatriots, it’s also based on prior material (an Israeli film), it comes closest to embodying the “new” feeling in best new musical.
A revival revival!: Best revival of a musical isn’t often the Tonys’ most exciting category — typically, it’s smaller than the others, with one, maybe two standout nominees. This year, the three nominees are three of the best musicals, period, on Broadway. Carousel and My Fair Lady are classics immaculately realized for modern audiences, while the much-beloved Once on This Island got a vibrant re-envisioning thanks to imaginative young director Michael Arden. All boast some of the most-talked-about star performances of the season; all would be deserving winners, making this one of the tightest races to watch.
It’s ladies night: The leading and featured actor categories are stacked with a mix of reliable Broadway stars (Joshua Henry, Norbert Leo Butz) and newcomers (Harry Hadden-Paton, Ethan Slater), but it’s the actress categories that have the most “anything could happen” feeling this year. Among the actress in a leading role nominees it’s Lauren Ambrose, making her long-awaited musical debut as a refreshingly empowered Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady; Katrina Lenk, the slyly alluring breakout star of The Band’s Visit; and Once on This Island‘s radiant young Hailey Kilgore who seem most likely to vie for the prize. Actress in a featured role feels even harder to predict, divided as the nominees are between awe-inspiring divas (Carousel‘s Renée Fleming; My Fair Lady‘s Diana Rigg) and Broadway up-and-comers who got their moment in the spotlight this year (Mean Girls‘ Ashley Park, Carousel’s Lindsay Mendez, and Summer‘s Ariana DeBose).
Rock stars: Tony winners?: SpongeBob SquarePants — which, with 12 nominations, ties Mean Girls for the most this year — roped in a motley crew of pop and rock artists to craft its zippy score. Should it take home best original score, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Panic! at the Disco, Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, and Lady Antebellum, among many others (including Tony winner Cyndi Lauper and nominee Sara Bareilles) will all take home a Tony. In the face of the already Oscar-winning Frozen and the roundly acclaimed The Band’s Visit, it’ll be tough to pull off — but it’s fun to imagine this group crowding the podium, and the SpongeBob team deserves props for proving this crazy concept can work.
Paper Boi takes the Tonys: Atlanta fans may not know that Brian Tyree Henry was a theater kid long before his days indelibly playing the show’s central, put-upon rapper — but Henry is a Yale School of Drama grad who had a starring role in the original cast of The Book of Mormon. This year — though it’s not for a musical — he’s nominated for his much-praised performance in the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s play Lobby Hero.