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Extry! Extry! Tony Poll Does Splits as "Once" Fights "Newsies" and "Clybourne" Battles "Cities"

Posted by Rob Weinert-Kendt at 06/05/12

by Rob Weinert-Kendt
StageGrade.com Editor

A competitive Tony broadcast? That's something worth looking forward to -- and a sure sign that there's a strong season to look back on. Sure, critics may have grumbled about the overall quality of new musicals, particularly relative to a robust roster of new plays on Broadway, and a few big-ticket revivals divided them just as they will likely divide voters.

But the quality of the performances this season on the Main Stem was high enough to make nearly all the acting races a toss-up (except, of course, for the one involving Audra McDonald, whose turn as half the title duo in the controversial new Porgy and Bess is a virtual Tony certainty). Veteran Linda Lavin (The Lyons) or newcomer Tracie Bennett (End of the Rainbow)? Critical favorites Danny Burstein (Follies) and Steve Kazee (Once) or crowd favorite Jeremy Jordan (Newsies)? Critics polled by StageGrade couldn't decide among them, and Tony voters are unlikely to be much more resolved.

While the both the play and musical revival categories are dominated by clear favorites (Death of a Salesman and Follies, respectively), the new play and new musical categories boast a pair of strong rivalries: In the play corner, Jon Robin Baitz's intergenerational family study Other Desert Cities vies with Bruce Norris' Pulitzer-winning comic laceration of racial wounds, Clybourne Park, while in the tuner column the exuberant Disney toetapper Newsies squares off with the pub-folk rom-com Once.

Gamblers looking for sure things will have to settle for Philip Seymour Hoffman's lead turn in Death of a Salesman (though the critics we polled, if they had their druthers, wouldn't give it to him), Alan Menken and Jack Feldman's score for Newsies (the songs from Once weren't ruled eligible, as they were lifted from the 2006 movie); and John Tiffany's direction of Once. For a surprinsingly large number of the other categories, all bets are off -- we'll actually have to tune into the Tony-cast to see who takes the prize (and not just the only real prize that matters: Most Box-Office-Boosting Musical Number).

Without further ado, here's how the critics of StageGrade think the Tonys will play out, and how they should play out, as well as plenty of the why and the wherefore. This year's participating critics include David Barbour (Lighting & Sound America), Melissa Rose Bernardo (Entertainment Weekly), Aaron Botwick (Scribicide), Michael Dale (Broadwayworld), Joe Dziemianowicz (NY Daily News), David Finkle (TheaterMania), David Gordon (Nytheatre.com), Erik Haagensen (Backstage), Chris Kompanek (TheaterMania), Brian Scott Lipton (TheaterMania), David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter), Howard Shapiro (Philadelphia Inquirer), David Sheward (Backstage), and Elisabeth Vincentelli (New York Post).

BEST PLAY
Nominees:
Clybourne Park (Bruce Norris), Other Desert Cities (Jon Robin Baitz), Peter and the Starcatcher (Rick Elice), Venus in Fur (David Ives)
Will win: Clybourne Park
Should win: Clybourne Park

Don't let the "will win" result here fool you -- though Clybourne Park's lead in the "should win" category is secure with critics, they put the play's chances of actually beating Baitz's drama as very narrow indeed (we're talking a one-vote difference). The Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli comments that "even though it's been playing longer, and voters tend to favor more recent shows…Other Desert Cities has the edge here," though she personally prefers Clybourne. David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter feels just the reverse -- he thinks Clybourne will take the trophy but finds Cities more deserving -- but concedes, "I'm torn between these two, but just the fact that there are two such strong American plays in contention is gratifying."

BEST MUSICAL
Nominees:
Leap of Faith, Newsies, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Once
Will win: Newsies or Once
Should win: Once

The conventional wisdom that Tony voters tend to give the Best Musical nod to shows that will tour well makes the crowd-pleasing "gateway" tuner Newsies a very strong contender -- strong enough to tie with the overwhelming critical favorite Once. "Something tells me that those out-of-town road house voters are going to want a big, old-fashioned book musical for the next season's schedules," opines David Barbour of Lighting & Sound America. Melissa Rose Bernardo makes a related case for why Once should get the nod: "Newsies can keep going strong (and tour) without the Best Musical Tony. Once needs that extra endorsement."

BEST BOOK OF A MUSICAL
Nominees:
Lysistrata Jones (Douglas Carter Beane), Newsies (Harvey Fierstein), Nice Work If You Can Get It (Joe DiPietro), Once (Enda Walsh)
Will win: Once or Newsies
Should win: Once

The Once/Newsies rivalry spills into this category, with Michael Dale of Broadwayworld speculating that Once may get this Tony as "an apology for not [getting] Best Musical." Joe Dziemianowicz of NY Daily News quips that "for Once, er, once, the musical outdid the original."

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE (MUSIC AND/OR LYRICS)
Nominees:
Bonnie & Clyde (Frank Wildhorn & Don Black), Newsies (Alan Menken & Jack Feldman), One Man, Two Guvnors (Grant Olding), Peter and the Starcatcher (Wayne Barker & Rick Elice)
Will Win: Newsies
Should win: Newsies

Apart from one lonely vote for Bonnie & Clyde, and a few abstentions in the "should win" column, apparently in protest of a weak year for new scores, there is startling unanimity here, almost resignation: Menken will take home another Tony. Michael Dale of Broadwayworld suggests other nominees he would have preferred, all Off-Broadway (Queen of the Mist, The Shaggs, Death Takes a Holiday), while the Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli feels that the scores for Lysistrata Jones and Spider-Man should have been nominated.

BEST REVIVAL (PLAY)
Nominees:
Death of a Salesman, The Best Man, Master Class, Wit
Will Win: Death of a Salesman
Should Win: Death of a Salesman

The unanimity here is all in the "will win" category, with a few dissenters casting their "should win" vote for Gore Vidal's The Best Man. David Barbour of Lighting & Sound America explains the logic: "I recently heard someone make the point that it's harder to make something special out of an entertaining potboiler like The Best Man than it is out of a classic like Death of a Salesman." And Michael Dale of Broadwayworld goes so far as to gush, "This revival of The Best Man is so good it made me seriously question if it's a better play than Streetcar and Salesman."

BEST REVIVAL (MUSICAL)
Nominees:
Evita, Follies, Porgy and Bess, Jesus Christ Superstar
Will Win: Follies
Should Win: Follies

It's Sondheim vs. the Porgy he hates -- and the Bard of Anomie wins hands down. As David Barbour of Lighting & Sound America quips, "If [Follies] doesn't get the Tony 41 years after losing to Two Gentlemen of Verona, there is no God." A few critics pipe up for Porgy, while the Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli cries for Evita, tartly observing, "We live in a city and era in which an uneven Sondheim revival is valued more than an excellent Lloyd Webber revival."

BEST PERFORMANCE, LEADING ACTOR, PLAY
Nominees:
James Corden, One Man, Two Guvnors; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Death of a Salesman; James Earl Jones, The Best Man; Frank Langella, Man and Boy; John Lithgow, The Columnist
Will Win: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Should Win: James Corden

You know the old adage that dying is easy but comedy is hard? Critics seem to believe it, because while all of them think Philip Seymour Hoffman will be the winner for portraying epic loser Willy Loman, a slight majority think that James Corden's work in the farcical import One Man, Two Guvnors is more deserving. And it's not just the comedy that Corden is pulling off so well, David Gordon of Nytheatre.com points out, it's the improv: "Corden makes the most meticulously scripted bits look as though they were completely off the cuff…And that's the hardest." Still, Hoffman has his fans: Backstage's David Sheward finds him "heartbreakingly real and convincing." One oddity: As the Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli points out, "I'm stunned that James Earl Jones was nominated for what is essentially a juicy supporting part, when Alan Rickman was ignored for doing some heavy lifting in Seminar (a play that was entirely shut-out)."

BEST PERFORMANCE, LEADING ACTRESS, PLAY
Nominees:
Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur; Tracie Bennett, End of the Rainbow; Stockard Channing, Other Desert Cities; Linda Lavin, The Lyons; Cynthia Nixon, Wit
Will Win: Tracie Bennett or Linda Lavin
Should Win: Nina Arianda

Fight! Fight! Critics are all over the map with this category, not only producing a tie in the "will win" but favoring their own dark horse, statuesque newcomer Nina Arianda. In fact, every one of these contenders except poor Cynthia Nixon gets a vote in either the "will" or "should" column, with critics making passionate cases every which way. And one especially divisive performance even gets more than one "anyone but her" diss: Says The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney, "Nominating Tracie Bennett's chewy performance in that travesty of a bioplay is a blight on an otherwise very strong category in which any of the other four actresses would be a creditable winner. That fifth slot should have gone to Tyne Daly." Quips Michael Dale of Broadwayworld on Bennett's chances: "Somewhere out there you know there's at least one Tony voter dumb enough to think he can get Liza to do the tour." Melissa Rose Bernardo offers an excellent reason not to rule out Stockard Channing: "[She] made me root for a Republican. If that isn't Tony-worthy, I don't know what is."

BEST PERFORMANCE, LEADING ACTOR, MUSICAL
Nominees:
Danny Burstein, Follies; Jeremy Jordan, Newsies; Steve Kazee, Once; Norm Lewis, Porgy and Bess; Ron Raines, Follies
Will Win: Danny Burstein or Jeremy Jordan or Steve Kazee
Should Win: Danny Burstein

In a category even more competitive than the previous one, critics largely favor Follies' Danny Burstein but can't be sure Tony voters will agree, splitting their "will win" vote among three contenders (with a contingent also predicting Porgy's Norm Lewis). Broadwayworld's Michael Dale sums up the pro-Burstein case thus: "[He] makes you feel sorry for a guy who's cheating on Bernadette Peters. Now that's great acting." Nytheatre's David Gordon speaks for the majority: "I wouldn't complain if any of these guys (even Raines) won. This season really has been an embarrassment of riches when it came to acting in musicals."

BEST PERFORMANCE, LEADING ACTRESS, MUSICAL
Nominees:
Jan Maxwell, Follies; Audra McDonald, Porgy and Bess; Cristin Milioti, Once; Kelli O'Hara, Nice Work If You Can Get It; Laura Osnes, Bonnie & Clyde
Will Win: Audra McDonald
Should Win: Audra McDonald

You can take this one to the bank; as Backstage's David Sheward says, "McDonald once again proves why she is one of the leading Broadway divas of the day." And though most critics also think she happens to deserve this inevitable triumph, as with Philip Seymour Hoffman there's a contingent that would prefer another winner: in this case Follies's Jan Maxwell. As Backstage's Erik Haagensen puts it, "Maxwell improved on a shaky out-of-town performance to stunning effect"; and Entertainment Weekly's Melissa Rose Bernardo, though a McDonald partisan, writes, "I wouldn't be surprised if Jan Maxwell got an 'It's about damn time' Tony Award." And Broadwayworld's Michael Dale offers this aside: "She won't win this time, but Broadway is entering the era of Laura Osnes." Good to know!

BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTOR, PLAY
Nominees:
Christian Borle, Peter and the Starcatcher; Michael Cumpsty, End of the Rainbow; Tom Edden, One Man, Two Guvnors; Andrew Garfield, Death of a Salesman; Jeremy Shamos, Clybourne Park
Will Win: Andrew Garfield
Should Win: Jeremy Shamos
or Andrew Garfield
The votes behind these "will win" and "should win" are even more divided than they look, with a strong contingent of critics predicting a win for Peter and the Starcatcher's scene-stealing Christian Borle (and a similarly strong faction feeling he should win). Summing up the pro-Garfield case, Lighting & Sound America's David Barbour says "it's generally realized that Garfield's performance is the freshest thing about the Salesman revival; the extraordinary intensity he brings to the climactic scenes is what really puts the production over." Meanwhile, the Backstage boys each have some intriguing shoulda-been-nominees: Erik Haagensen hails Jim Dale's "extraordinary" work in The Road to Mecca, and David Sheward wishes the "especially buffoonish" Oliver Chris of One Man, Two Guvnors had gotten a nod.

BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTRESS, PLAY
Nominees:
Linda Emond, Death of a Salesman; Spencer Kayden, Don't Dress for Dinner; Celia Keenan-Bolger, Peter and the Starcatcher; Judith Light, Other Desert Cities; Condola Rashad, Stick Fly
Will Win: Linda Emond
Should Win: Judith Light

Another nest of divisions roils under the consensus picks here. As with her Salesman co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman, critics are more sure that Linda Emond will get the Tony for her turn as Linda Loman than that she deserves it. A good number who prefer Judith Light's performance as a frail, acerbic alcoholic in Other Desert Cities also think she may manage an upset, and Condola Rashad's sensitive turn in Stick Fly also has its share of advocates in the "should win" column. Entertainment Weekly's Melissa Rose Bernardo suggests another upset: "An award for Celia would be one way to reward Peter and the Starcatcher."

BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTOR, MUSICAL
Nominees:
Phillip Boykin, Porgy and Bess; Michael Cerveris, Evita; David Alan Grier, Porgy and Bess; Michael McGrath, Nice Work If You Can Get It; Josh Young, Jesus Christ Superstar
Will Win: Michael Cerveris
Should Win: Josh Young

How is support for the above gentlemen like butter? It's soft and it's spread around. To wit, though a consensus has gravitated toward Michael Cerveris' sturdy turn in Evita (Lighting & Sound America's David Barbour: "Cerveris takes a role cut from the thinnest cardboard and fleshes it out"), there's a healthy cheering section for Nice Work's Michael McGrath, and there's at least one "should win" vote for every performer here. Meanwhile, Backstage's peanut gallery, Erik Haagensen and David Sheward, both wish Patrick Page had gotten a nod for his "wildly funny" work in Spider-Man.

BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTRESS, MUSICAL
Nominees:
Elizabeth A. Davis, Once; Jayne Houdyshell, Follies; Judy Kaye, Nice Work If You Can Get It; Jessie Mueller, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Ghost: The Musical
Will Win: Judy Kaye
Should Win: Judy Kaye

As TheaterMania's David Finkle puts it succinctly of Judy Kaye's bravura turn in Nice Work, "Swinging from a chandelier always gets noticed." In the "will win" column, Ghost's Da'Vine Joy Randolph gets a strong shout-out, as well, with Backstage's David Sheward explaining that she "gives this trite show the bite that it so desperately needs, with a tart, no-nonsense take on a fake medium shocked by a genuine encounter with the supernatural."

BEST DIRECTION OF A PLAY
Nominees:
Nicholas Hytner, One Man, Two Guvnors; Pam MacKinnon, Clybourne Park; Mike Nichols, Death of a Salesman; Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, Peter and the Starcatcher
Will Win: Mike Nichols
Should Win: Mike Nichols
or Nicholas Hytner
The helmers of Salesman and One Man emerge here as the main contenders, and the split vote largely reflects, as TheaterMania's David Finkle puts it, the "apples-and-oranges" comparison between an American tragedy and a British comedy. The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney admits that Nicholas Hytner's work is "inspired" but thinks "Nichols earns this...I felt as if I were seeing the play for the first time here." A few "should wins" go to first-time nominee Pam MacKinnon for her work on Clybourne, with Melissa Rose Bernardo of Entertainment Weekly praising the group as a whole, "Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen a more deserving group of directors. You couldn't argue with any of them winning." Well, then.

BEST DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL:
Nominees:
Jeff Calhoun, Newsies; Kathleen Marshall, Nice Work If You Can Get It; Diane Paulus, Porgy and Bess; John Tiffany, Once
Will Win: John Tiffany
Should Win: John Tiffany

This one may be another sure thing, and a handy consolation prize if Once doesn't nab Best Musical. And there's nothing obligatory or resigned about support for John Tiffany's work here; summing up the enthusiasm of critics, Lighting & Sound America's David Barbour writes, "Once wouldn't exist without John Tiffany's vision."

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY:
Nominees:
Rob Ashford, Evita; Christopher Gattelli, Newsies; Steven Hoggett, Once; Kathleen Marshall, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Will Win: Christopher Gattelli
Should Win: Christopher Gattelli

This also looks like a sure thing, with Lighting & Sound America's David Barbour saying unequivocally, "This is no contest. Newsies is filled with inventive dancing. The others don't come close." That strong vote of confidence aside, support in the "should win" category is a little less solid, with a handful of partisans for Rob Ashford's strong work in Evita. Though an Ashford fan, Michael Dale of Broadwayworld expresses the common skepticism of his chances when he writes, "You know you're in trouble when the best part of your Evita is the dancing."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all she wrote. Tune in to the 2012 Tony Awards this coming Sunday, June 10, at 8 pm on CBS, to check our critics' prognostications (and wish lists) against the results. Till next year!