Varied Field Vies for Tony Awards

There will be winners and losers on Broadway Sunday, when the annual Tony Awards are presented. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has a preview chat about this year's Tony Award nominees with The New Yorker's senior drama critic, John Lahr.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

This is the weekend where television meets theater for the broadcast of the 59th annual Tony Awards. Tonight's ceremony highlights the best shows staged in the 40 Manhattan theaters that make up Broadway. To help us sort through prospective winners, we called on John Lahr, the senior drama critic for The New Yorker magazine. We spoke with him at his London office before the ceremony, and I asked him if one play is likely to sweep the awards.

Mr. JOHN LAHR (Senior Drama Critic, The New Yorker): I suspect not. I hope not. Very often what happens in the Tonys is that the people who judge them are very--it's a hodgepodge of producers, critics, out-of-town bookers. The idea very often is to promote shows that are going to have some sort of commercial life beyond Broadway. As you probably know, Broadway is a billion-dollar-a-year business, half of which is made on the road.

LUDDEN: You're saying there's a commercial motive here.

Mr. LAHR: What wins and what is best are not always the same. And in this case, it'll be a shootout between "Spamalot," which is the popular antic favorite, I would imagine, and...

LUDDEN: Based on "Monty Python"?

Mr. LAHR: Yeah.

LUDDEN: And the other one?

Mr. LAHR: "Spelling Bee," directed by James Lapine, which has got a lot of fans.

LUDDEN: So you're saying these have a good chance, but they may not be your favorites.

Mr. LAHR: That's right. I really enjoyed especially "Spamalot," but I would be remiss if I didn't say that the work of "Light in the Piazza" is altogether, in my opinion, the superior.

LUDDEN: And tell us--"Light in the Piazza" is about?

Mr. LAHR: Oh, it's about a mother and her daughter who, we discover somewhere in the middle of the musical when she's fallen in love with an Italian man, has brain damage. And the mother's decision is whether to allow this child-woman to follow her own emotional destiny or to treat her as a disabled person. And it's a terrific story, but I think probably, for the market, too serious.

LUDDEN: What are some others likely to make a good showing?

Mr. LAHR: The best play, which is a serious category--the play that I think will win undoubtedly is "Doubt," no pun intended. It's popular, it's well-written and it communicates readily and easily with two fine actors.

LUDDEN: And the plot there basically?

Mr. LAHR: The plot is about--a very righteous and strict nun accuses a priest of sexual abuse. Is it true, or isn't it? And we have to guess.

LUDDEN: What about another drama? There's August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean."

Mr. LAHR: That is the most interesting of the plays. It's about the African-Americans' first experience of freedom in the generation after they are freed from slavery. So it's trying to sort of dramatize the dilemmas that the African-Americans have in just coming to terms with their freedom and their history. It was just incredibly ambitious, the play, and I think achieved a great deal. But it is, A, not on and, B, demanded, I think, more of an audience than some of these other plays, like "Doubt," which is a very well-wrought melodrama, for lack of a better word.

LUDDEN: You said "Gem of the Ocean" by August Wilson--It's not being staged anymore?

Mr. LAHR: No, it's not on Broadway. In fact, the theater that it was at is now where "Doubt" is playing.

LUDDEN: Do plays like that need an African-American audience then?

Mr. LAHR: (Laughs) Well, they shouldn't need an African-American audience because they are--the African-American story is part of our story. But the issue of freedom is something that is--and how people experience it is something that--white Americans perhaps take it for granted and aren't as interested or drawn into the historical and emotional and psychological context of the issues of the play.

LUDDEN: So how do you rate this past season? Was it a good season?

Mr. LAHR: Well, I don't. I don't think about it. I don't like to rate it. It's not been a particularly outstanding season. I mean, there's an awful lot of timidity in the producing community, and I think that the culture as a whole is still traumatized from 9/11. And the effect of terror is to stop thought, and you see that across the board in American culture and certainly in the theater, where on the whole most of the plays that are on are sort of like being tickled to death.

LUDDEN: John Lahr is the senior drama critic for The New Yorker magazine. His collection of profiles called "Honky Tonk Parade" is due out later this year.

Thank you.

Mr. LAHR: A pleasure, Jennifer.

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