I've just finished filling out my ballot for Sunday night's 69th Annual Tony Awards. As usual, this was really hard.
But unlike last year, when nominators ignored a shocking amount of the best theater, the current nominations are, for the most part, solid and fair. And unlike 2013, a season so weak that there wasn't much at all to love, the season that ended May 24 with historically high attendance and grosses was also exceptionally satisfying.
So voting is a challenge this year, but for good reasons. Although it appeared for a while that Broadway had been taken over by decrepit comedies with no subtext and middlebrow remakes of movies from 50 years ago, we ended up with substantial contenders -- not to mention fine memories.
Of course, there are still plenty of painful conflicts and a more than a few mysteries. These include:
IS IT THE BEST PLAY OR BEST PRODUCTION?
Here's the quandary. Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced," which won the Pulitzer in 2013, was by far the most gripping, thought-provoking play of the season. Not incidentally, it was the first important drama by an American of Middle Eastern descent to confront the complexities of Islamic cultural-identity politics. But the Broadway production, with four of the five characters recast, was simply not as powerful as the Off-Broadway premiere in 2012. The play hung on through the winter, but closed March 1 without igniting the passionate audience the script deserved.
This leaves us with "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" -- a weaker script but in a staggeringly imaginative high-tech production. To my mind, the show, a runaway hit from London's National Theatre, is nowhere near as magical as its source material, Mark Haddon's best-selling novel, which is told in the voice of a 15-year-old autistic science genius. Alex Sharp, a recent Juilliard graduate in his Broadway debut, is spectacular here as the boy. In the play, however, his thoughts are read less effectively by his teacher. This left me filled with admiration, but I had hoped to be enraptured.
IS IT THE BEST TRADITIONAL MUSICAL OR THE BEST ONE CREATED OUTSIDE THE BOX?
It really hurts to have to choose between "An American in Paris" and "Fun Home."
Christopher Wheeldon, the ballet choreographer, has made a smashing Broadway debut as the director and choreographer of this ravishing, dance-driven remake of the classic movie. Still, for all its innovation, the show remains firmly within the musical-comedy genre, with the outlines of a pre-existing plot and can't-miss music by Gershwin.
"Fun Home," on the other hand, is a true original -- grownup, funny and disturbing. Yes, it is based on Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir, but director Sam Gold, composer Jeanine Tesori and author-lyricist Lisa Kron have created their own dazzling, daring yet intimate form to communicate the coming-out-gay story. My vote goes to this one, but I wish both musicals could win.
DO WE HAVE TO CALL THIS A DIVA SMACKDOWN?
In fact, let's not. Three extraordinary theatrical forces -- Kelli O'Hara in "The King and I," Chita Rivera in "The Visit" and Kristin Chenoweth in "On the Twentieth Century" -- are competing with one another for best actress in a musical. Such riches should be treasured, but, in our world, they are reduced to a talent contest.
ARE BRITS BETTER PLAYWRIGHTS?
Of course not -- though you couldn't prove it by the paucity of serious new plays by Americans on Broadway this season. While most of the American plays have been comedy throwbacks, London has sent stylistically edgy and/or politically inquisitive plays -- including "The Curious Incident . . .," "Constellations," "The Audience," "The River" and "Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two." So many smart American writers are toiling for small audiences and smaller royalties in the nonprofits. This is just wrong.
WHAT ABOUT THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE MISSING AUDIENCE?
Broadway just announced that attendance is up 7.3 percent from last season and 13.3 from the one before that. But several wonderful, well-reviewed shows were flops at the box office. I'm thinking, especially, of director Bill Condon's audacious, radically rethought production of "Side Show," the 1997 musical about real-life conjoined sisters. Were people really so put off by the subject matter that they ignored one of the most entertaining musicals of the year?
And I don't even want to get started here about the rejection of "The Heidi Chronicles." This vibrant revival of Wendy Wasserstein's 1989 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning serious comedy was the first major New York production of her work since she died at 55 in 2006. It seems that people, even young women, didn't want to see a play about a woman's evolution from the '60s through the '80s. This confuses me. It also breaks my heart.
ARE WE ALL JUST LIVING IN BOB CROWLEY'S WORLD?
If so, I'm fine with that. The British designer has always been remarkable, but he has outdone even his masterly self this season. He has been nominated for both the costumes and the boundary-breaking sets for "American in Paris," for Helen Mirren's era-defining costumes for "The Audience" and for the sets in "Skylight."
AND WHILE WE'RE ASKING, IS APRIL THE CRUELEST MONTH -- OR JUST THE NUTTIEST?
Every April, producers pile on their openings to attract the most attention from the Tonys. This year, 13 of the season's 37 productions -- more than a third -- opened between April 2 and April 23, the official cutoff for eligibility. And, since much of the rest of the season's theater has been ignored by the nominators, such calculated manipulations obviously work. But even the Tony nominators are complaining about the ridiculous imbalance this year. Look for a groundswell of resistance to Broadway's spring madness, which isn't to say that anything will change.
WHEN | WHERE 8-11 June 7 on CBS, also simulcast on the screen at Duffy Square and the Broadway Plaza, 46th to 48th streets, beginning with more free stuff at 4 p.m.
INFO Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming host at Radio City Music Hall. Presenters include Bradley Cooper, Neil Patrick Harris, Bryan Cranston, Larry David, David Hyde Pierce, Taye Diggs, Taylor Schilling, Jim Parsons, Amanda Seyfried, Sutton Foster, Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Sting and Tommy Tune.
CRITIC'S TONY PREDICTIONS
SHOULD WIN "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"
WILL WIN "The Curious Incident . . . "
SHOULD WIN "Fun Home"
WILL WIN "An American in Paris"
SHOULD WIN "The Elephant Man"
WILL WIN "Skylight"
SHOULD WIN "The King and I"
WILL WIN "The King and I"
SHOULD WIN Alex Sharp, "The Curious Incident . . . "
WILL WIN Bill Nighy, "Skylight"
SHOULD WIN Helen Mirren, "The Audience"
WILL WIN Helen Mirren
SHOULD WIN Robert Fairchild, "An American in Paris"
WILL WIN Robert Fairchild
SHOULD WIN Kelli O'Hara
WILL WIN Kristin Chenoweth
FEATURED ACTOR, PLAY
SHOULD WIN Micah Stock, "It's Only a Play"
WILL WIN Micah Stock
FEATURED ACTRESS, PLAY
SHOULD WIN Julie White, "Airline Highway"
WILL WIN Patricia Clarkson, "The Elephant Man"
FEATURED ACTOR, MUSICAL
SHOULD WIN Max von Essen, "An American in Paris"
WILL WIN Christian Borle, "Something Rotten!"
FEATURED ACTRESS, MUSICAL
SHOULD WIN Judy Kuhn, "Fun Home"
WILL WIN Judy Kuhn
SHOULD WIN Marianne Elliott, "The Curious Incident . . . "
WILL WIN Marianne Elliott
SHOULD WIN Sam Gold, "Fun Home"
WILL WIN Christopher Wheeldon, "An American in Paris"
SHOULD WIN Christopher Wheeldon, "An American in Paris"
WILL WIN Christopher Wheeldon
SHOULD WIN Jeanine Tesori, "Fun Home"
WILL WIN Jeanine Tesori
SHOULD WIN Lisa Kron, "Fun Home"
WILL WIN Lisa Kron
SHOULD WIN Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, "The Curious Incident . . . "
WILL WIN Bunny Christie and Finn Ross
SHOULD WIN Bob Crowley and 59 Productions, "An American in Paris"
WILL WIN Bob Crowley and 59 Productions
SHOULD WIN Bob Crowley, "The Audience"
WILL WIN Bob Crowley
SHOULD WIN Bob Crowley, "An American in Paris"
WILL WIN Bob Crowley