The star of Sunday’s 70th annual Tony Awards will inevitably be “Hamilton,” the hip-hop juggernaut that has worn out all snappy descriptions of mega-success. To merely call Lin-Manuel Miranda’s audacious and masterly creation a hit, or even a smash, no longer seems, you know, smashing enough for a monster phenomenon about the founding fathers that has set new highs for seat prices, ticket demand, multicultural crossovers and, now, number of Tony nominations: 16.
If you are looking for a different headline for the 2015-16 Broadway season, however, I’d like to offer this one: “In Any Other Year.”
I mean that in any other year, the quality and richness of this season’s remarkable plays and musicals would have had a chance to define more of today’s theater conversation. In any other year, more of the chatter and the pleading for tickets would be divvied up among what has turned out to be one of the best times I can remember for new and familiar musicals, plays, actors and productions.
I’ve just finished filling out my Tony ballot, and if I hadn’t realized the quality of the offerings not called “Hamilton,” I certainly do now. Picking one winner from a list of unlike experiences is almost always hard. But there is a special pang this year, knowing how many terrific nominees and even how many important winners are bound to be overshadowed — OK, run over — by the altogether deserving mass acclaim for Miranda’s triumph.
But there is still a moment to ask a few questions, to notice some trends and to appreciate artists who in any other year may well have been dashing onstage to accept their just rewards. First . . .
BACKLASH? WHAT BACKLASH? If “Hamilton” does not win in every nominated category or break the 12-Tony record set in 2001 by “The Producers,” I suggest you not buy the gossip about resentful voters turning against the show. This is nonsense. The musical faces stronger competition than Mel Brooks’ musical comedy had in 2001, especially in individual performances. One of the glories of “Hamilton” is the power of its ensemble. For example, as wonderful as Phillipa Soo is as Alexander’s wife, the lead actress in a musical category is full of women who command a larger presence in their shows. I’m voting for Cynthia Erivo in “The Color Purple,” but much can be said for another newcomer, Carmen Cusack in “Bright Star” and Broadway favorite Laura Benanti in “She Loves Me.”
There’s a different hitch with lead actor in a musical. Miranda, who plays Hamilton, is competing with Leslie Odom Jr., who portrays his nemesis and killer Aaron Burr. I suspect they may cancel one another out, which leaves space for Danny Burstein, who already has six nominations, finally to win one for his Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
In any other year, director George C. Wolfe and much of “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed” would have a lock on many of the musical categories. Don’t blame backlash if this bold, important and entertaining musical takes just a bit of thunder from “Hamilton.”
AS HAMILTON SINGS, ‘IMMIGRANTS — WE GET THE JOB DONE’ While Hollywood is lambasted for lack of diversity, Broadway has been propelled by work about ethnic and racial minorities — not just “Hamilton” and “Shuffle Along,” but the Cuban-American story in “On Your Feet!”, the tragedy of Japanese-American internment camps in “Allegiance,” the plight of African women in “Eclipsed” and the black-on-black saga of “The Color Purple.” Multiculturalism and nontraditional casting are non-issues on Broadway right now, and that’s great.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BRITS? Last year at this time, I looked at the dominance of serious new British plays over American sitcom throwbacks and asked, almost joking, “Are Brits better playwrights?” Never mind. This season had just one new English play nominated, Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III,” which I found showy but empty. Instead, we have two American contenders: Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” a bracing and smart family thriller and the Pulitzer finalist with an astonishing ensemble cast, and Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed,” about forced “wives” during the Liberian civil war. The fourth nominee is “The Father,” by French playwright Florian Zeller with a harrowing performance by Frank Langella.
ARE EUROPEANS BETTER DIRECTORS OF PLAYS? Of course not. Not when the unstoppably daring and thoughtful Joe Mantello has two nominated productions: “Humans” and a revival of “Blackbird.” Still, I am transfixed by the dazzling boundary-crashing work on Broadway by Ivo van Hove, the Belgian iconoclast whose radical and brilliant rethinking of two Arthur Miller classics, “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible,” defined the year in drama for me as much as “Hamilton” rearranged our expectations for the musical. Van Hove is competing with himself for best revival of a play, which might shift the spotlight to the wrenching but conventional revival of “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” staged by British director Jonathan Kent.
ARE CONVENTIONAL REVIVALS BETTER THAN RETHOUGHT ONES? Two of the toughest categories, play revival and musical revival, raise the question asked by those reinvented productions by van Hove. Similarly, in musical revivals, we have wonderful yet mostly conventional productions of “She Loves Me” and “Fiddler,” compared to the Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening” and John Doyle’s intimate rethinking of “The Color Purple.” I’m hoping for “Color Purple.”
COMEBACKS OR JUST HAPPY REINTRODUCTIONS? Welcome back to Jessica Lange, magnificent in “Long Day’s Journey” after unremarkable performances years ago in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie.” It’s also good to have Andrew Lloyd Webber back on top with “School of Rock” after a string of flops. And Michelle Williams is shattering in “Blackbird,” completely erasing her unfortunate Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.”
IT’S SHELDON HARNICK’S WORLD The master lyricist has two hit Broadway revivals, “Fiddler” and “She Loves Me,” and is getting a spectacularly deserving special Tony for lifetime achievement. Director Marshall W. Mason, part of the legendary director/playwright team with the late Lanford Wilson, also will be honored for his resonant career.
ONE LAST QUOTE FROM ‘HAMILTON’ As characters keep singing, “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now.” We certainly don’t hear that kind of optimism in the world these days. In the theater this year, however, it feels true.