If you have a theater fan in your life who has been extra hyped these days, it’s likely because the 2017 Tony Awards are nearly here.
The Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Theatre (as the Tonys are officially known) recognize the highest honor in U.S. theater — the equivalent of television’s Emmys or the film industry’s Oscars.
With no Hamilton-sized hit this year, the race in the top categories has been pretty wide open and hard to predict — with only Bette Midler’s turn in the revival of Hello, Dolly! a lock for the best actress in a musical prize.
Aside from the acting and composing categories — where the most-likely EGOT winners tend to pop up — the biggest category of the year is best musical. Let’s run down each of the four nominees.
COME FROM AWAY
The first nominee, Come From Away, tells the inspiring story of some of the 6,759 passengers and airline crew members across 38 planes who were deterred on September 11, 2001, to the a small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, where they formed a bond and worked together to process the greatest American tragedy in modern history.
Conceived and written by the husband and wife composing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical — filled with a score of folk, bluegrass and rock tunes — plays like a celebration of life and community than it does a tale of sorrow and woe. It’s part of the reason it’s earned the nickname “a September 12th musical.” This is the story for all of us who lived through that time, no matter where you were that day.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN
While Come From Away has earned itself a strong buzz moving into Sunday’s awards, its biggest competition is by far Dear Evan Hansen — the teen-driven tearjerker causing audiences to flock to the Music Box Theatre.
Written by the composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — Oscar winners this year for their lyrics to La La Land‘s “City of Stars” — with a book from Steven Levenson, the sold-out smash musical stars Pitch Perfect alum Ben Platt as anxiety-driven teen Evan Hansen, a high school loner who remains on the social outskirts until a lie brings him a wave of popularity (and sudden social media stardom).
Exploring the struggle to stay truthful to oneself among the pressures of peers and the loneliness of adolescence is just one of the reasons Dear Evan Hansen has resonated so much with young people (its catchy, pop-rock score — one of the freshest since Rent — hasn’t hurt). But the show also speaks to parents too, fleshing out the communication battles often at play on each side and creating a poignant jumping off point for dialogue and discourse.
If Dear Even Hansen and Come From Away are filling best musical slots with more serious topics, then Groundhog Day has the lock on the musical comedy vote.
Adapted from the popular 1993 Bill Murray comedy of the same name, Groundhog Day tells the story of a cranky TV weatherman Phil Connors (Andy Karl) who gets stuck in a time warp while covering the Groundhog Day ceremonies in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
It’s a comedy with built-in bits that are very familiar to fans of original film — though Matilda composer Tim Minchin and book writer Danny Rubin (who also co-wrote the screenplay to the original film) gives Groundhog Day lots of new territory to explore, specifically Connors’ own mortality as he learns how to embrace the people around him (even that damn groundhog).
NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812
And then there’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. The musical, inspired by a 70-page section of War and Peace and starring Grammy winner Josh Groban in his Broadway debut, led the 2017 Tony nominations with 12 in total — including best musical and acting honors for Groban and UnReal alum Denée Benton.
The show itself is an immersive, explosive foray into Russian culture, complete with pierogies passed out to hungry audience members seated at tables throughout the theater. It’s by far the most inventive and unexpected musical pick among them all, with a unique, avant-garde score and bright, funny book from Dave Malloy. Keep an eye out for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Just as it surprises audiences every night on Broadway, it might pull a big surprise or two out of its hat on Tony night.
WHAT ABOUT THE PLAYS?
Good question. Next to best musical, the Tonys’ most prestigious category is best play. This year, the four plays up for best play all have the distinction of all being written by American authors.
Lucas Hnath’s A Dolls House, Part 2 imagines what would happen if Nora Helmer — the lead character in Ibsen’s 1879 groundbreaking feminist play – returns to the same house she fled 15 years ago, to see what’s left of her husband and children she left behind. The tense play, with Laurie Metcalf as Nora, has received eight Tony nominations, including nods for the entire four-person cast.
Indecent, by 65-year-old playwright Paula Vogel in her Broadway playwriting debut, is a visually stunning and emotionally heartbreaking play about how art and culture intertwine. It charts the history of Polish-Jewish playwright Sholem Asch’s revolutionary 1907 drama God of Vengeance — a Yiddish-language piece that became a a seminal work of Jewish culture but was pulled after six weeks on Broadway in 1923 when its entire cast, producer and owners of the theater were indicted and convicted on charges of obscenity stemming from the production.
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Oslo also turns to history for its subject matter — this time, the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords that so famously ended with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the White House Rose Garden. While history has proven that handshake to be nothing more than a diplomatic photo-op, the intense political drama plays like a live documentary of sorts, revealing the details behind the secret peace negotiations that took place in back-channel meetings between Israeli and Palestinian players for years before Rabin and Arafat ever put pen to paper.
Finally, there’s Lynn Nottage’s Sweat — which explores the most recent historical battles between factory workers in and off the picket lines in the coal factories of the American midwest. The raw and eye-opening piece is given extra wow-factor in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. And it’s the only play going into the awards having already won a big one: the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
SO WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE TONYS?
While the outcome of the Tony Awards will surely decide how long the eight shows nominated in the two top categories stay on Broadway, expect all — especially the four musicals — to tour the country in productions within the next two years. Like Hamilton — which opened on Broadway in 2015 and now has an added production in Chicago, a U.S. national tour in San Francisco, a second national tour planned for 2018 and a London production coming later this year — the big hits don’t tend to just stay in New York.
Dear Evan Hansen, for example, has already announced plans to head out on a national tour beginning at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in October 2018. Come From Away is going Hamilton‘s route of doing both a North American Tour (beginning October 2018 at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre) and a standalone production (at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, beginning February 2018).
WILL I BE ABLE TO GET TICKETS TO THE TONY-WINNING SHOWS IF I COME TO NEW YORK CITY?
Probably, but it’ll cost you if you want the big winner. The demand for Broadway tickets goes up in the summertime and with the “Best Musical” title attached to a title, that only seems to make the relatively small number of seats available (usually between 1,000-1,200) tough to get.
That doesn’t mean you’ll be out in the cold when it comes to seeing a show. Broadway is filled with long-running hits like Wicked, The Lion King, Chicago the Musical, Aladdin and The Phantom of the Opera. Tickets are available nearly seven days a week — online, at the box office, even the day-of, at the famed TKTS discount booths around the city.
There are also newer, family-friendly hits that didn’t score nominations in the highly-competitive top categories that are worth seeing. One example: Anastasia — which takes the 1997 beloved animated movie (and its Oscar-nominated song “Journey to the Past”) form the screen to the stage, turning it into a sweeping, epic stage adventure and romance that is sure to make you swoon.
Another option: the stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which features a blend of songs from the popular 1971 Gene Wilder-led film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, (like “The Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination”) with new tunes from Hairspray scribes Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
No matter what, don’t give up hope! With new shows constantly opening on Broadway, there’s always something to see.