The Tony Awards 2019

2019 Tony Award Nominations: Change Is Coming to Broadway—Slowly

The Daily Beast

April 30, 2019

The Tony nominations of ‘Choir Boy,’ ‘What The Constitution Means to Me,’ and ‘Gary’ show Broadway is changing. Then there’s the best play lockout of ‘Mockingbird’ and ‘Network.’

It was a cheering Tony Award nominations day for productions bringing something different to Broadway, when “different” means playwrights and actors of color and women securing high-profile nominations.

The presence of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy and Heidi Schreck’s What The Constitution Means To Me in the Best Play category was welcome. Choir Boy’s Jeremy Pope was a double nominee as lead actor in a play and featured actor in a musical (Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations).

Schreck’s brilliant, almost one-woman play about the Constitution is both a dramatically and culturally satisfying work. So is Jez Butterworth’s three-hour plus epic, The Ferryman, a dense, funny, and tense family and political drama set in 1980s Northern Ireland that deserves every award that can come its way.

The musical Hadestown, which received the most number of nominations (14), has music, lyrics and a book written by Anaïs Mitchell and is directed by Rachel Chavkin. André De Shields, one of its stars to be nominated for a Tony, recently spoke to The Daily Beast about the history of racism on Broadway.

The statistics in the present day tell their own stark story; the most recent Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s annual study of Ethnic Representation on New York City stages for the 2016–2017 season revealed, as Playbill reported in March, that 95 percent of all plays and musicals were both written and directed by Caucasian artists.

Playbill reported, “African-American playwrights were represented at 4.1 percent and MENA playwrights at 1.4 percent. According to the survey, the Broadway season featured no plays or musicals by Latinx, Asian-American, or American Indian/Native/First Nation playwrights, nor playwrights with disabilities.”

75.4 percent of all playwrights were male and 24.6 percent female. According to Playbill, “Eighty-nine percent of playwrights produced on Broadway were male and 11 percent female. Female directors fared only slightly better than female playwrights, representing 31.1 percent. Only 0.8 percent of directors included in the survey were non-binary.”

Two of the biggest, starriest Broadway productions of Tony season did not secure a Best Play nomination: To Kill a Mockingbird and Network were both locked out. While some surprise has been expressed about this, both are not sterling productions but both have standout performances that have been awarded with nominations (for Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jeff Daniels, and Gideon Glick in Mockingbird; and Bryan Cranston in Network).

The lockout for Glenda Jackson, who delivered a notable performance in a not-loved production of King Lear, was even starker in the Best Actress in a Play category; Ruth Wilson, doing double-duty as Cordelia and the Fool, received a featured actress nomination.

Annette Bening scored a nomination for All My Sons, as did Laurie Metcalf (for the underpowered, and un-nominated, Hillary and Clinton) but Nathan Lane (Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus), Tracy Letts (All My Sons), and John Lithgow (Hillary and Clinton) did not. Bertie Carvel, but not Jonny Lee Miller, was nominated for Ink; Stephanie J. Block and Derrick Baskin, the solid helm-bearers of The Cher Show and Ain’t Too Hot, were both nominated.

The nominations have awarded plays unusual for Broadway, like the barmy and grotesque Gary, and this is to be welcomed. Whether you love or hate it (it divided critics), the very presence of Taylor Mac’s play is to be welcomed. See the variety of musicals in the nominations—Tootsie, The Prom, Beetlejuice, Oklahoma!, Hadestown, Ain’t Too Proud, The Cher Show—and be happy alongside the traditionally brassy and bright contenders there are newer, friskier musicals.

This critic is rooting for as many awards for Oklahoma! as possible (particularly for Ali Stroker); its match-up against Kiss Me, Kate in the Best Revival of a Musical is an intriguing one as both are excellent, very different revivals. The winner will indicate if the tastes of Tony voters err towards the traditional or radical.

Poor old, critically panned King Kong lumbered home with very little but a gestural bit of love for the giant, extremely brilliant puppet itself. Shows including American Son, Pretty Woman, and The Lifespan of a Fact went completely unrewarded.

Look at all the categories, and the competition between very different kinds of shows and performers will make for an intriguing Tonys night on June 9. The ceremony, hosted by James Corden, will be held at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall.

The nominations do not signal revolution. Producers are still making shows for a particular kind of audience with a particular level of income to spend. But—led by Hadestown, What The Constitution Means To Me, Choir Boy, and Oklahoma!—there is a refreshing variety across plays and musicals in this year’s Tony nominations.

That variety will (hopefully) be fed and watered with theater-goers heading to see the nominated productions and performers, helping (hopefully) power more change and changes in perception and, ultimately, producer adventurousness.

Slowly, audiences are seeing, and rewarding, a new kind of Broadway show. The pace of this change remains the great unknown.