The Tonys Beg the Question: What's Next for American Theater?

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A conversation I find myself having over and over: What is the future of the Broadway musical? As each theater season, plays and musicals included, becomes more and more varied, I wonder if what drew me to Broadway is the same thing that will keep me there.

Groundhog Day: The Musical, nominated for seven statues at Sunday night’s Tony Awards, was the closest to a traditional Broadway show included in the category of Best Musical. If this sounds like a knock, it shouldn’t; Groundhog Day is fun as hell. Is there room to create shows like War Paint, which was shut out of the Best Musical category while its leads, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, were both nominated in the acting category? War Paint, Bandstand and Groundhog Day are traditionally staged, in that there’s a large chorus, dance breaks, even classic swing-for-the-fence show tunes.


But their traditionalism poses a question: what should this era of Broadway storytelling look like? Is it the multi-genre music of Great Comet and Hamilton, which include all of those facets but explore almost every genre? Is it the more subdued sets of Come From Away? The comically strange Amélie and American Psycho didn’t sell, but Next to Normal and Spring Awakening, both strange and dark examinations of our minds and motivations, were critical darlings. In an era when theater can’t decide how exactly to respond to the politics of the day, what do playwrights and composers think American plays and musicals should be in the 21st century? Within five years, will we see a revival of American Idiot and the staging of a Trump-era show? Or is that already the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat, even though it’s set during the second Bush era? Is there a desire for classically conceived shows, or must a show innovate in every way beyond writing captivating new music?

I don’t have a good answer, and anyone who does is a liar. However, as someone who loves a good Michael Bennett-era musical, I would be incredibly sad if traditional chorus lines and sounds disappeared from Broadway.

While I watched last night’s Tony Award broadcast, I continued wrestling with these questions and more. What unites this art form and how can we preserve it? Complicating these questions about theaters forked road: as the Tonys were handing out accolades, two major corporations pulled their financial sponsorship of The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park staging of Julius Caesar.

Because of a Donald Trump Jr. tweet and a Fox & Friends segment, this year’s production of Julius Caesar is under fire from right wingers who chose to direct their outrage at a Shakespearean Classic that’s going to be closing in six days. Delta pulled its sponsorship as the official airline of Free Shakespeare in the Park, and Bank of America withdrew its support of the production. The bank told The New York Times that it wouldn’t end its financial relationship with the theater, so it will be interesting to see how much money the bank will be refunded for six (or seven, if you count Sunday) days of production. I never thought it would require saying, but here it goes: William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not pro-assassination. And yet, we spent most of Sunday debating as to how far artistic expression should be encouraged, protected and nurtured. Public art should not be contingent on our individual tastes.


There were smaller disappointments that night, too. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 went into Sunday’s ceremony nominated for a whopping 12 awards. Though the production’s nominations were not as high as those of last-season darling Hamilton (a record-setting 16 nominations), it was a perfectly acceptable amount for an ambitious retelling of one of the books of War and Peace, and could have conceivably tied The Producers’ record for most wins. Instead, it walked away with just two awards: scenic and lighting design. The scenic design award, in particular, is so well deserved; Mimi Lien turned a massive Broadway theater into an intimate Russian speakeasy.

Josh Groban & Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at the Tonys.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 was outshone mainly because of two shows. First, Hello, Dolly! The revival, starring Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce, won four trophies out of 10 nominations, and when Midler won for Lead Actress in a Musical, she powered through the orchestra as they played her off stage. The second reason Great Comet was edged out was Dear Evan Hansen, the story of a teenage boy (played by Pitch Perfect’s Ben Platt) who writes a letter no one was supposed to see, tells a series of lies that get bigger, and finally has a chance to fit in. It’s a show that requires remembering the hardest times of being a teenager, set to a lovely new score, and took home six trophies out of nine nominations, including Lead Actor in a Musical. (I wanted Andy Karl of Groundhog Day to win, but Platt’s excellent storytelling will do.)

The Tony Awards are about advertising your show, even if the ceremony doesn’t like to present itself that way. A great performance at the Tony Awards can give a struggling musical a boost toward solvency, or make an already-successful one an even hotter commodity. Which is all to say that David Hyde Pierce’s lackluster rendition of “Penny In My Pocket,” from Hello, Dolly!, was likely selected because it could be performed without the stage at the Shubert, which the producers preferred. After all, you don’t need to advertise the hottest ticket on Broadway—yet if Bette had performed, it could have been her entire night.


It wasn’t just Hello, Dolly!, though; all the performances seemed a bit lackluster. That feeling began with Kevin Spacey’s opening monologue about why he shouldn’t actually be hosting the Tony Awards. (He even sort of joked that he was the 15th choice.) Neither Barrett Doss nor Andy Karl of Groundhog Day: The Musical were as well-showcased in the show’s Tonys performance as they are during the musical itself. So much of Groundhog Day’s staging requires a turntable; basically, concentric circles rotate on stage to move performers and set pieces. Maybe that’s why they chose to do a rather subdued “Seeing You” for the aerobic musical—or they were trying to save Karl’s ACL from unnecessary stress. Either way, it’s worth seeing, and surprising in that it’s not just a retelling, it never—ironically—feels repetitive.

The most intriguing part of Sunday night’s Tonys came during a segment that invited the playwrights on stage to explain their work. There’s no easy way to perform a single scene from a play, as so many of the best come as the result of dramatic buildup. The ceremony has always wrestled as to how to present the Best Play nominees, but I hope this new format continues. While not everyone was great at presenting their play—playwrights are not necessarily performers, after all—it was novel to see Pulitzer Prize winners Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel describe what drove them to write their work. (The production also noted that each nominee was an American.) Nominees making the case to the audience as to why their play matters is an important part of the conversation about what American theater’s future is. Explaining why art matters is crucial.


Here are the full awards.

Stray Thoughts:

-Despite Andy Blankenbuehler’s win in Best Choreography for Bandstand, I’m not at all intrigued by the show, which he also directed. His choreography for the revival of Cats was fun, though! I say this as someone who doesn’t really like Cats as a concept so maybe you can interpret this as more sincere.


-It’s dumb that Glenn Close can’t win a Tony Award for the same role. (She won Best Actress in a Musical in 1995 for Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.) It is also dumb that Michael Xavier and Siobhan Dillon were overlooked in the nomination process.

-This isn’t a commentary on who won the costume design awards, so much as general warning when approaching this category: Do not confuse naturally flattering silhouettes of particular eras of history with skilled costume design. Also, Catherine Zuber and Paloma Young were robbed.


-Michael Aronov won for featured actor role in a play for his part in the complicated and tension-filled Oslo, but all of the cast should have been honored. This play was really a case for an ensemble award category. Also, musicals should have ensemble awards.

-Kevin Spacey basically disappeared as a host after the opening number, and the House of Cards bit was corny, so this is the official start of my campaign for Rachel Bloom as host of The American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards for 2018 and beyond.


Caitlin Cruz is a freelance reporter and writer in Brooklyn and Texas. She frequently tweets about Bad Men @CaitlinRCruz.

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