The holy grail of brand recognition has taken over Broadway, which couldn't be more evident as we approach Sunday's 72nd annual Tony Awards honoring a season dominated by highly recognizable pop-culture labels.
"Mean Girls," Tina Fey's adaptation of the hit 2004 movie, and "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical," inspired by the popular Nickelodeon series, lead the nominations with 12 each; "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," the likely best-play winner, got 10. Then there's the Disney extravaganza "Frozen," for the most part overlooked by the Tony nominators with only three, but going great guns at the box office. (That's along with two entries for best revival — the London import "Angels in America" and Tom Stoppard's "Travesties.")
Interesting, then, that the outlier in the musical category, "The Band's Visit" — a small, quiet show based on the 2007 indie movie of the same name that opened early in the season — seems to be the odds-on favorite to win. It's a poignant story about an Egyptian military band that gets stranded for a night in a barely-on-the-map Israeli town. Still as the voting deadline approached, the surprising and fun-loving "SpongeBob" was gaining momentum, as was "Mean Girls," which looks to win a best-book Tony for everyone's comedic darling Fey.
After last season, when all of the best-play nominees were written by Americans, the category this year has been encroached on by the Brits. Along with "Cursed Child" (Jack Thorne is credited as writer, though director John Tiffany and J.K. Rowling certainly had a hand in it), there's "Farinelli and the King" by Claire van Kampen (whose husband Mark Rylance is nominated for best actor in the play about the mad monarch King Philippe V of Spain) and the Royal Court transfer of Lucy Kirkwood's "The Children," an ecological horror story with roots in the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Completing the category are two plays by Americans with multicultural roots: Pakistani-American Ayad Akhtar's financial mystery "Junk" and Colombia-born John Leguizamo's uproarious "Latin History for Morons." But the magical, two-part, huge-budget Potter saga seems a lock — surely they hope so at the Lyric Theatre, where extensive renovations suggest plans for a loooong run.
The best-revival category — both play and musical — seems more competitive, with the potential for an upset in any number of directions. With 11 nominations, the two-part "Angels in America" became the most nominated play in Tony history, but Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" has a lot of fans and could pull it out. If there's a sure thing anywhere, it's an almost certain best-actress win for Glenda Jackson, whose return to the stage after two decades in Parliament got serious raves. What's most up for grabs is the musical revival prize. The lavish Lincoln Center's "My Fair Lady," has a bit of an edge, but "Carousel" is doing good business despite its rough story line, and many are charmed by "Once on This Island."
In the acting categories, Rockville Centre-raised Amy Schumer got a surprise best-actress nod for Steve Martin's "Meteor Shower," but she doesn't stand a chance against Jackson. Denzel Washington, star of "The Iceman Cometh," is in a tight best-actor race with Andrew Garfield in "Angels." Lauren Ambrose of "My Fair Lady" heads up the best actress in a musical competition, only because with today's short attention spans, people may have forgotten Katrina Lenk's mesmerizing performance in "The Band's Visit." The real tossup is for best actor in a musical, where four great performances duke it out: Harry Hadden-Paton ("My Fair Lady"), Joshua Henry ("Carousel"), Ethan Slater ("SpongeBob SquarePants") and Tony Shalhoub ("The Band's Visit").
And quickly let's look at who won't win — the people snubbed by the nominators, causing plenty of unhappy reactions from fans. While thrilled with their show's best-musical nod, "Frozen" stars Caissie Levy and Patti Murin were ignored (Murin tweeted her commiserations to Chris Evans, playing in "Lobby Hero" right next door, who also was overlooked). Many were disappointed about the lack of recognition for Laura Benanti in "Meteor Shower" and James McArdle in "Angels." Worse in my book is the lack of love for Alex Newell, the "Glee" star who stopped "Once on This Island" with his emotional "Mama Will Provide." And imagine if Actors' Equity, the union representing Broadway performers, had succeeded in efforts to get the Tony powers to approve awards for best ensemble and best chorus. That would be a real dogfight, one to anticipate next year if the union prevails.
Meanwhile, we'll look forward to Sunday's telecast (8 p.m. on CBS), hosted by Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, and featuring appearances by a bunch of A-listers including Long Islanders Billy Joel and Patti LuPone, numbers from the nominated musicals, plus a rare television performance by Bruce Springsteen. The music legend was voted a special Tony for his one-man bio-concert that, while not eligible in the competitive categories, is doing wonders for Broadway's bottom line. Come to think of it, when you talk about brand recognition, it's hard to mess with The Boss.
WHAT The 72nd annual Tony Awards
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS/2
INFO Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles host at Radio City Music Hall.