Last year around this time, I asked director George C. Wolfe to comment on the remarkable racial and ethnic diversity of the past season. His answer — “Each season has its own magical arbitrariness” — deserves to hang on the wall of any fool straining to make eternal generalizations about Broadway on the basis of the shows that made it to Tony time.
So here we are approaching Sunday’s 71st annual Tony Awards. And, despite all such cautions, we’re looking at an extremely competitive season of extraordinary variety and trying not to declare that, finally, Broadway is a place where provocative American artists — even a few women playwrights and directors — are not just employed but embraced. As recently as the 2014-15 season, all four best play nominees were British. And last year, the best director of a play category (and the entire year) was dominated by boundary-stretching European men and one outstanding New Yorker, Joe Mantello.
Of course, last year was also the time when a little multicultural American show called “Hamilton” made also-rans out of all other musicals. The only sure thing now is a juggernaut named Bette Midler and, most likely, the vehicle, “Hello, Dolly!” she happily rides in on.
At the risk of seeming obnoxiously nationalistic, I can’t help but celebrate the year of the made-in-America playwright. All four nominated plays — Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo” and Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” — are written by Americans in their Broadway debuts. I favor “Indecent,” the haunting play about a censored Yiddish play, and “A Doll’s House,” the dazzling modern-yet-historical spin on Ibsen’s Nora. “Oslo,” an ambitious big-picture play about the making of the failed peace accords, strikes me as more wide than deep, and “Sweat,” the Pulitzer-winner about blue-collar tragedy, is a powerful yet fairly conventional modern depression-era drama.
But I’ll be delighted with any outcome. All deserve awards.
Remember when, not so long ago, it seemed that musicals, an art form America created, had been taken over by massive English spectacles? Of the four nominated shows this year, one (“Come From Away”) is an extremely nice but bland Canadian show about an American catastrophe, and one (“Groundhog Day”) has a terrific English creative team adapting a beloved American movie into a smart, enjoyable show and a major star turn by Andy Karl.
The other two are wildly different creations by young Americans. “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” is a sensational immersive adventure but, to my mind, not really about anything beyond the experience. Despite my misgivings that “Dear Evan Hansen” trivializes serious emotional problems into a quirk that can be cured by a home-cooked family meal and a kiss, the musical is wonderfully conceived, directed and performed, with a genuine breakout performance by Ben Platt.
Oh, I forgot. There is no Tony category for the remarkable productions based on the exquisite consistency of an entire cast. If there were such a fine and reasonable thing, this would be the year for it. I’d nominate the ensembles of “Indecent,” directed by Rebecca Taichman; “Falsettos,” directed by James Lapine; and “Jitney,” directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
If you can think of others, I suggest you urge the Tony Awards administration to open up the competition to an award that doesn’t make actors in the same play compete with one another.
MORE ABOUT DIRECTORS
What a year it has been on Broadway for directors long nurtured in the nonprofit theaters. I’m thinking about the Broadway debuts of two women, Taichman, who is nominated for “Indecent,” and Kate Whoriskey, criminally omitted for her irreplaceable staging of “Sweat.” And look at the work done this year by Sam Gold and Michael Greif. Neither is exactly a Broadway newcomer. Gold won his Tony for “Fun Home,” Greif has four nominations, including one for “Rent.”
This year, however, Gold brought brilliantly radical sensibilities to “Doll’s House, Part 2” and, for those of us who are thrilled by raw new insights into classics, “The Glass Menagerie.” And these don’t even include Gold’s shattering “Othello” with Daniel Craig Off-Broadway.
Meanwhile, it is impossible to imagine the success of “Evan Hansen” without Greif’s firm and risk-taking hand. I feel much the same about his deeply sensitive yet splashy production of “War Paint,” which, aside from deserved nominations for Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, has not received nearly enough love from the nominators.
FINALLY, HOW ABOUT A MORATORIUM ON THE IDEA OF DIVA SMACKDOWNS?
I feel sad about criticism that “War Paint” isn’t campy fun, as if the story of two complicated, successful woman — Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein — has to be a cat fight to be compelling and entertaining. As far as I know, nobody ever fantasizes about nominated actors smacking one another down.
Midler is going to win anyway, and she deserves it. And isn’t it thrilling, really, that practically everything else is up for grabs?
WHAT The 71st annual Tony Awards
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Sunday, June 11, on CBS
INFO Kevin Spacey hosts at Radio City Music Hall.