Tony Predictions: A Broadway Season In Review

Denzel Washington, Viola Davis i i

hide captionDenzel Washington and Viola Davis are a troubled couple in Fences, which has 10 Tony Award nominations this year. Jeff Lunden predicts it will win Best Revival of a Play.

Joan Marcus
Denzel Washington, Viola Davis

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are a troubled couple in Fences, which has 10 Tony Award nominations this year. Jeff Lunden predicts it will win Best Revival of a Play.

Joan Marcus

The only thing you can predict about any given Broadway season is it'll be unpredictable.

As the theater world gears up for Sunday's Tony Awards, it's worth noting that this time last year, the most-anticipated musical of the 2009-10 season was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with a score by U2 rock stars Bono and The Edge, to be directed by Julie Taymor (The Lion King). Turns out, it's still anticipated, having been postponed several times for lack of money. With a Broadway-high budget of well over $40 million — part of which is being used to rebuild the Hilton Theatre, so the actors can fly around the auditorium — the producers insist it will happen. Sometime.

What was going to be this season's monster hit play? Lucy Prebble's Enron, an audacious dramatization of American corporate chicanery, complete with singing, dancing and debt-eating velociraptors. It came to town in April, after garnering raves and sold-out crowds in London. But not only did it get so-so reviews and small audiences, it was almost completely ignored by the Tony nominators. Enron lasted all of two weeks, losing its entire $3.6 million investment.

Quick Picks: Lunden's Tony Predictions

Best Play: Red

Best Musical: Memphis

Best Revival of a Play: Fences

Best Revival of a Musical: La Cage aux Folles

Do the critics really matter? The Addams Family, the new musical starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, and Promises, Promises, the revival of the Neil Simon/Burt Bacharach/Hal David musical, starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth, got almost universally panned. But they're probably the biggest hits of the season, consistently grossing more than $1 million a week. Revivals of Finian's Rainbow and Ragtime got almost universal raves from the critics. They're long gone.

Can Hollywood actors really cut it, doing eight performances a week on Broadway? This season, the answer was a resounding yes. Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig impressed in the less-than-impressive new play A Steady Rain, as did Jude Law as Hamlet. Liev Schreiber (already a Broadway vet) and Scarlett Johansson (in her Broadway debut) headlined a stunning revival of A View From the Bridge, as did Denzel Washington in an equally exciting revival of Fences. And Catherine Zeta-Jones showed she had the stuff, singing "Send in the Clowns" in the first Broadway revival of A Little Night Music.

Did the economy affect Broadway? Not too much, it turns out. It was another record-breaking year at the box office — for the first time total receipts officially broke the $1 billion mark, though audiences were down 3 percent. And there was plenty of activity. Thirty-nine shows opened: 11 new musicals, 14 new plays, six musical revivals and eight play revivals.

And Broadway survived a terrorist bomb scare on May 1, when an SUV packed with explosive material was found parked right by the entrance of The Lion King. The New York Police Department shut down portions of Times Square, the vehicle was defused without incident and the shows, while delayed, went on. The NYPD's Midtown North and South New York precincts will be honored with a special Tony Award for Excellence.

And speaking of Sunday's Tony Awards, here are my picks for some of the bigger categories this year (in bold):

Alfred Molina i i

hide captionAlfred Molina stars as abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko in Red.

Johan Persson
Alfred Molina

Alfred Molina stars as abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko in Red.

Johan Persson

Best Play

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl
Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauftts
Red by John Logan
Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies

The nominators had a lot of options in this category. In addition to the aforementioned Enron, David Mamet had a new play, Race (starring James Spader, Richard Thomas and David Alan Grier); Martin McDonough was represented with A Behanding in Spokane (starring the Tony-nominated Christopher Walken); and Tracy Letts — whose previous outing, August: Osage County, was a Pulitzer- and Tony-winning hit — had a genial, if short-lived, comedy in Superior Donuts.

Still, the four nominees are all deserving. With In the Next Room, Ruhl made an audacious Broadway debut, a comic play about love and 19th century technology, while in Time Stands Still, Margulies wrote a probing exploration (with a multifaceted central performance by Tony-nominated Laura Linney) of journalists dealing with the aftereffects of covering the Iraq war. Both plays have closed, but Time Stands Still is reopening in September. Next Fall, which looks at a gay couple and their conflicts over religious beliefs, got rapturous reviews, but has yet to find an audience.

Which leaves John Logan's Red, a two-character play about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne (both Tony-nominated) play mentor and student, in a play that not only looks at artistic aesthetics, but the craft of painting. While Rothko delivers what in other circumstances might seem lectures, the pair goes about their business: mixing paints, stretching canvases and, in one exhilaratingly choreographed sequence, painting an enormous canvas red. Critics and audiences have made it a hot ticket. Look for Red to win the Tony, along with director Michael Grandage and, maybe, Molina.


Montego Glover i i

hide captionMontego Glover is the female lead in Memphis, a musical about a white DJ who falls in love with a black R&B singer during the 1950s.

Joan Marcus
Montego Glover

Montego Glover is the female lead in Memphis, a musical about a white DJ who falls in love with a black R&B singer during the 1950s.

Joan Marcus

Best Musical

American Idiot
Fela!
Memphis
Million Dollar Quartet

For those who love musicals, this was a head-scratching season. Only two musicals opened on Broadway with original scores — The Addams Family and Memphis. The rest are so-called "jukebox musicals" — shows with scores from other sources. Indeed, to fill out the best original score category, the songs/dance music from Enron and the scene change music from Fences, by jazz musician Branford Marsalis, made the cut.

The Addams Family didn't get a lot of love from the critics or the Tony nominators — neither of its two nominations were for the big prize. Those that did get nods include Million Dollar Quartet, a fictionalized account of a real life 1956 recording session in Memphis that featured Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis; American Idiot, which stages Green Day's 2004 hit album as a kind of live-action music video; and Fela!, a biographical show that kinetically recreates the late Nigerian Afrobeat star's night club.

In another year, Fela!, a critics' darling, might have won the Tony Award, but the Broadway League and American Theatre Wing, which administer the awards, decided to boot about 100 theater journalists from voting. So, it looks like Memphis — the only truly "original" musical in the category — is poised to take the trophy, by default. (It's already won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.)

Memphis is set in the 1950s and tells the story of a white DJ who falls in love with a black R&B singer. The synthetic score is by Bon Jovi's David Bryan and the by-the-numbers book is by Joe DiPietro, though the two leads, Montego Glover and Chad Kimball, give riveting, committed performances. The show has only done middling business at the box office, so a Tony win could give it a significant boost.


Best Revival of a Play

Fences
Lend Me a Tenor
The Royal Family
A View From the Bridge

The Royal Family and Lend Me a Tenor, two comedies, had their charms and one enormously talented, scenery-chewing actress between them. Jan Maxwell is up for a Best Actress Tony for The Royal Family and a Best Featured Actress Tony for Lend Me a Tenor. She'll probably go home empty-handed, though — the competition in both categories is fierce.

The real race here is between Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and August Wilson's Fences, two superb and superbly received revivals. The edge goes to Fences — with 10 nominations — since it's currently running and a sold-out hit. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis give heartbreaking performances as the troubled couple at the play's center and will probably take home trophies, as may some other nominees from the production. But don't count Bridge out — the central trio, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Hecht — hit audiences in the solar-plexus during the show's short run.


Kelsey Grammer, Douglas Hodge i i

hide captionKelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge star in this season's revival of La Cage aux Folles.

Joan Marcus
Kelsey Grammer, Douglas Hodge

Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge star in this season's revival of La Cage aux Folles.

Joan Marcus

Best Revival of a Musical

Finian's Rainbow
La Cage aux Folles
A Little Night Music
Ragtime

This is the only true slam-dunk category. La Cage aux Folles, starring Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge, surprised Broadway this season, taking a kind of old-fashioned musical (albeit with a gay couple at its center) and re-energizing it in an intimate setting with high acting values. Look for it to win Best Revival and look for Hodge's nuanced performance as the drag artist Albin to take a Tony as well.

The other nominated revivals all had their positives — Finian's Rainbow, with its loopy story, charming score and winning performances; Ragtime, which gained power in a pared-down production; and A Little Night Music, with some scene-stealing work from octogenarian Sondheim specialist Angela Lansbury. (But look for Katie Finneran, who steals a couple of scenes in the un-nominated revival of Promises, Promises to beat out Lansbury for the Best Featured Actress in a Musical award.)

The Tony Awards, hosted by Sean Hayes, will be presented on CBS from 8 to 11 p.m. Sunday.

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