A Rising Talent Finds Inspiration In A Theater Vet

Nina Arianda plays Billie Dawn, a showgirl accompanying a corrupt tycoon to Washington, D.C., in the Broadway revival of Born Yesterday. i i

hide captionNina Arianda plays Billie Dawn, a showgirl accompanying a corrupt tycoon to Washington, D.C., in the Broadway revival of Born Yesterday.

Carol Rosegg
Nina Arianda plays Billie Dawn, a showgirl accompanying a corrupt tycoon to Washington, D.C., in the Broadway revival of Born Yesterday.

Nina Arianda plays Billie Dawn, a showgirl accompanying a corrupt tycoon to Washington, D.C., in the Broadway revival of Born Yesterday.

Carol Rosegg

There are three names above the marquee at the Cort Theatre, where a revival of the '40s comedy Born Yesterday is playing. Two of them are familiar — Jim Belushi, who plays a corrupt businessman, and Robert Sean Leonard, who plays a virtuous reporter.

From 'Born Yesterday'

But audiences might be forgiven if they've never heard of the third star — Nina Arianda, who plays Garson Kanin's not-so-dumb blonde Billie Dawn — a pivotal role, and a character made famous on Broadway and in film by Judy Holliday.

It was certainly a question Robert Sean Leonard had, when his agent called, offering him the part.

"I said to my agent, 'I love this play, I love this role, but I'm going to have to go on your word here. Is this the girl? Do they have the girl?'"

Leonard remembers his agent expressing confidence in the newcomer. "He said, 'This is her. This is who we've been waiting for.' And boy was he right!"

Arianda, who's 26, is making her Broadway debut in Born Yesterday. She's been getting rave reviews, but she admits she was nervous taking on a role so identified with another actress.

"I thought, 'OK, why is it iconic? Is it because of Judy Holliday?'" says Arianda.

Ultimately, she decided there was a more important factor.

"The text is timeless, and the text is fantastic. It makes a performance iconic," says Arianda. "If I thought of it that way, it took a little pressure off, and allowed me to kind of do exactly what I could do, which was just do it my way."

From Grad Student To Tony Nominee In Just Two Years

Arianda's is one of many sparkling performances in a Broadway season that has brought in over $1 billion in box-office receipts. But it's just the latest success in a career that's been on a fast track since she finished graduate school at NYU just two years ago.

The Horse Race

Jeff Lunden's Tony-night predictions, plus a look back at the 2010-2011 season.

Last season, she made a splash in an off-Broadway show — David Ives' Venus in Fur — and has since worked on several movies, including Woody Allen's latest, Midnight in Paris. Now she's nominated for a Best Actress trophy at the 65th Annual Tony Awards. (The ceremony airs live from Broadway's Beacon Theatre on June 12.)

Arianda got the stage bug as a child in Paterson, N.J. By the time she was 16, she was studying acting in a summer program at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. She remembers going to the open-air Globe Theatre to see a production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, directed by and starring her fellow Tony nominee Mark Rylance. She watched from the pit, standing, in front of the stage. By the end of the play — it's a father-daughter story that turns on an estrangement and a redemption — she was sobbing.

"And then he blew me a kiss, offstage, and that was just — that worsened my sobs," says Arianda. "That was one of those theater moments. ... You know, when you see a performance like that, it makes you want it even more — gets you hungrier, in a way."

Two Peak Performances From An Actor At Midlife

A couple of blocks away, at the Music Box Theatre, that same Mark Rylance is starring in the British import Jerusalem. It's been quite a year for him. This fall, he appeared in a Broadway revival of La Bete, playing a vulgar 17th-century performer named Valere and delivering a 25-minute tour-de-force monologue — in rhyming couplets.

Mark Rylance won a Tony for his Broadway debut in Boeing-Boeing in 2008. He is nominated again for his leading role in Jerusalem. i i

hide captionMark Rylance won a Tony for his Broadway debut in Boeing-Boeing in 2008. He is nominated again for his leading role in Jerusalem.

Simon Annand
Mark Rylance won a Tony for his Broadway debut in Boeing-Boeing in 2008. He is nominated again for his leading role in Jerusalem.

Mark Rylance won a Tony for his Broadway debut in Boeing-Boeing in 2008. He is nominated again for his leading role in Jerusalem.

Simon Annand

"Valere was so innocent, so child-like, really," says Rylance. "I mean, a terrible, terrible character — you wouldn't want to spend much time with him at all. But to play him was very immediate, and like being a kind of insect really."

As splashy as that performance was, Rylance's Tony nomination is for his role in Jerusalem, which has been described as a kind of state-of-the-British nation play. His character, Johnny "Byron" Rooster, is a former daredevil who lives in the woods and deals drugs to teenagers. Rylance says Rooster cuts closer to the bone.

"Rooster is more to do with me being 51 and the end of my life approaching — you know, still some years off, but that whole thing of being around 50 and thinking, 'Well, you're not getting younger, and here's where we've been so far, and where do we want to go?'" says Rylance. "It throws me into much deeper waters."

Byron tells tall tales, mixing the mythic with the contemporary. Playwright Jez Butterworth says he shaped the role of Rooster for Rylance after meeting him several years ago and discussing a very early draft of the play.

"It was one of those meetings that ... you knew that this was gonna be one of the important collaborations of your life. You just knew, straight away," says Butterworth.

The result of that meeting — which has already won Rylance and Butterworth awards both stateside and in England — could lead to a Tony Award for one or both of them Sunday night.

Tony Predictions: Recapping A Banner Season

A scene from the Lincoln Center production of War Horse. The Handspring Puppet Company is set to win a special Tony award during Sunday's telecast. i i

hide captionA scene from the Lincoln Center production of War Horse. The Handspring Puppet Company is set to win a special Tony award during Sunday's telecast.

Paul Kolnik
A scene from the Lincoln Center production of War Horse. The Handspring Puppet Company is set to win a special Tony award during Sunday's telecast.

A scene from the Lincoln Center production of War Horse. The Handspring Puppet Company is set to win a special Tony award during Sunday's telecast.

Paul Kolnik

Last year, I wrote that the most highly anticipated musical of the 2009-2010 season was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Back then, the Julie Taymor/Bono/Edge show — which had a reported budget of $40 million — had been postponed for lack of funds. So as the season wrapped, it was still highly anticipated.

This season, of course, it became highly newsworthy. The money came, the budget bulged (to somewhere north of $70 million), actors suffered a raft of injuries. Then the announced opening date was postponed. And postponed, and postponed.

Meanwhile previews — full-price previews — went on and on, though the show didn't always. Actors sometimes got tangled up in their elaborate flying sequences, causing things to stop quite literally in mid-air. More than six months after its first preview, the musical still hasn't had an official premiere.

Quick Picks: Jeff Lunden's Tony Predictions

Best Musical: The Book of Mormon

Best Play: War Horse

Best Revival of a Musical: Anything Goes

Best Revival of a Play: The Normal Heart

The major critics came anyway, back in February, and filed some of the most scathing reviews in recent memory. The show became a punch line for late-night comics — and a cause celebre for TV talking head Glenn Beck, who loved it.

When Spider-Man opens at last on Tuesday, June 14, it'll be without director Julie Taymor at the helm. She was given the boot when the producers, who realized that with great power comes great responsibility, made the dramatic choice of hiring a new creative team to fix the show. They shut performances down for almost a month to extensively retool the production. Have they pulled it off? It's still a cliffhanger, though reviews will start trickling in soon.

It seemed for a while like Spider-Man was sucking up all the oxygen in the Broadway press, but a major flurry of activity in the spring turned the focus elsewhere. It turned out to be a banner season for the Great White Way — grosses topped $1 billion for a second season in a row, but more important, attendance was up 5.4 percent. Forty-two shows opened — 14 musicals, 25 plays and three so-called special events that don't fit tidily into either category — and most critics agreed that many of these productions were the finest in years.

Below, a few thoughts about some of the major Tony Award categories, and my best guesses (in bold) about who'll take home the trophies.


Rory O'Malley (center), who plays Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon, is favored to win a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. i i

hide captionRory O'Malley (center), who plays Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon, is favored to win a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

Joan Marcus
Rory O'Malley (center), who plays Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon, is favored to win a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

Rory O'Malley (center), who plays Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon, is favored to win a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

Joan Marcus

Best Musical

Catch Me If You Can
The Scottsboro Boys
Sister Act
The Book of Mormon

After a disappointing 2009-2010 season, during which only two original musicals opened on Broadway, the genre came roaring back. Leading the juggernaut was The Book of Mormon, which has become the first megamusical hit since Jersey Boys in 2005. (The demand for tickets is so fierce that some of them go for over $1,000 on websites like StubHub.)

The show, written by the South Park team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Avenue Q's Robert Lopez, is a profane, scabrously funny and ultimately touching story about faith and friendship. With 14 Tony nominations, a near record, it looks to take home quite a few awards — not just best musical, but best direction (Parker, along with Casey Nicholaw), best book and maybe best score.

(Still, that last might go, in part for sentiment's sake, to The Scottsboro Boys, the last score by the legendary Broadway team of Kander and Ebb.) But Rory O'Malley seems a lock as best supporting actor in a musical, for his hilarious turn as a closeted gay Mormon missionary.

Catch Me If You Can, the adaptation of Stephen Spielberg's film about con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr. — reimagined as a '60s TV spectacular — might grab a Tony for best actor, with Norbert Leo Butz stopping the show as a dancing FBI agent. But I wouldn't count Tony Sheldon out; his Bernadette, the aging transsexual performer in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, is touching and nuanced. Priscilla should win for best costumes in a musical, for its outrageous and seemingly unending display of invention.

Victoria Clark might pull in a Tony as best supporting actress in a musical, for her truthful performance as the Mother Superior in the otherwise vulgar Sister Act, but my money's on Laura Benanti, for her flashy comic turn in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.


David Pegram (left) and Seth Numrich in a scene from Nick Stafford's War Horse. i i

hide captionDavid Pegram (left) and Seth Numrich in a scene from Nick Stafford's War Horse.

Paul Kolnik
David Pegram (left) and Seth Numrich in a scene from Nick Stafford's War Horse.

David Pegram (left) and Seth Numrich in a scene from Nick Stafford's War Horse.

Paul Kolnik

Best Play

Good People
Jerusalem
The Motherf—ker with the Hat
War Horse

It says a lot about this category that there were other plays that could've also been in the four slots — Rajiv Joseph's tragicomedy Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year) or Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters among them — but all the nominees are worthy. Nick Stafford's War Horse, which is getting a special Tony for its astonishing puppetry, places lifelike, full-sized equines on the stage of Lincoln Center's Beaumont Theatre, and it appears to be the favorite, if more for the unique quality of the physical production and storytelling than for the play's text itself.

I wouldn't be surprised, however, if David Lindsay-Abaire takes the prize with Good People, a play about class divisions set in Boston. It just closed, but Frances McDormand's performance as a struggling working-class mother might take best actress. Meanwhile Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth's state-of-the-British nation play, will undoubtedly take home a Tony for Mark Rylance's indelible turn as the drug-dealing Johnny "Rooster" Byron — though it was Bobby Cannavale, in Stephen Adly Gurgis' addiction-and-recovery comedy The Motherf—ker with the Hat, who picked up the Drama Desk award for that category. (His co-star, Chris Rock, was one of several Hollywood stars overlooked by the Tony nominators.)


Sutton Foster (center) stars as Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer, in this season's revival of Anything Goes. i i

hide captionSutton Foster (center) stars as Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer, in this season's revival of Anything Goes.

Joan Marcus
Sutton Foster (center) stars as Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer, in this season's revival of Anything Goes.

Sutton Foster (center) stars as Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer, in this season's revival of Anything Goes.

Joan Marcus

Best Revival of a Musical

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Anything Goes

Only two musicals were eligible this year in the revival category, and both are doing bang-up business. How to Succeed stars a charming Daniel Radcliffe, who wasn't nominated for a Tony. It hardly matters at the box office: His Harry Potter fame is bringing in adoring teens, tweens and their moms and dads to this clever Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960s musical, which had been given a Mad Men touch by director-choreographer Rob Ashford.

But Cole Porter's Anything Goes, starring the appealing and hard-working Sutton Foster (a shoo-in for the best actress Tony), will take the prize. And Kathleen Marshall, who's provided a couple of show-stopping dance routines, should pick up the award for best choreography.


Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks and John Benjamin Hickey as Felix Turner in the revival of The Normal Heart. Both are nominated for their performances. i i

hide captionJoe Mantello as Ned Weeks and John Benjamin Hickey as Felix Turner in the revival of The Normal Heart. Both are nominated for their performances.

Joan Marcus
Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks and John Benjamin Hickey as Felix Turner in the revival of The Normal Heart. Both are nominated for their performances.

Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks and John Benjamin Hickey as Felix Turner in the revival of The Normal Heart. Both are nominated for their performances.

Joan Marcus

Best Revival of a Play

Arcadia
The Importance of Being Earnest
The Merchant of Venice
The Normal Heart

This was a banner year for play revivals. Last fall, Daniel Sullivan's clear and thoughtful reading of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino and Lily Rabe, moved from Central Park into the Broadhurst Theatre, where it only gained in power. (In any other season, I think Pacino, Rabe, Sullivan and the production would be locks for Tonys.)

Brian Bedford did double duty on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, with his deft direction and delicious star turn as Lady Bracknell. (In any other season, he'd win best actor; he's not up for best director.) Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, though somewhat unevenly cast, nonetheless made a strong case for the play as one of the 20th century's finest dramas, and it offered those with long memories the delight of seeing Billy Crudup — who made his Broadway debut as 19th-century tutor Septimus in the original New York production — return as the caustic contemporary academic Bernard in the revival.

But it was a very late entry this season — Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, a thinly veiled autobiographical drama about the beginnings of the AIDS crisis — that galvanized Broadway observers with its urgency and strength. Co-directors George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey could take home Tonys, as could John Benjamin Hickey and Ellen Barkin in supporting roles. Joe Mantello, as the Larry Kramer stand-in Ned Weeks, somehow made his abrasive character loveable — and might challenge Mark Rylance in the best actor category.

Another celebrated revival, Born Yesterday, features 26-year-old Nina Arianda, making an impressive Broadway debut as Billie Dawn, the not-so-dumb blonde played by Judy Holliday onstage and in the film. She could give Frances McDormand a run for the money as best actress. And Edie Falco, heart-breaking in the revival of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, has a shot at best featured actress in a play — if it doesn't go to Barkin.

The Tony Awards, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, will be presented on CBS from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday, June 12.

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