We're sensing a trend with our StageGrade Tony Poll: Critical dissatisfaction with shows themselves, coupled with huge love for the performers and directors of the self-same shows. In the new-play category this year, for example, while we sensed affection for the odds-on winner, Chris Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, critics largely term it a weak season for plays—even as they declare most of the performance and direction categories of the very same plays "unusually strong."
As with last year, this means that most of the real competitive action is in the performance categories, while the big-ticket production awards are all but faits accomplis. One big exception to this rough rule (as with last year, actually) might be in the hotly contested new-musical category: Where last year critics were dead even on whether Once or Newsies would get the nod (Once pulled it out), this year there's a comparable if smaller Kinky Boots insurgency to counter the seeming inevitability of the puckish import Matilda. And while last year's musical revival category was surprisingly competitive—most critics predicted and wished for a win for Follies, but the award instead went to Diane Paulus' Porgy and Bess—this year all bow before the march of Paulus' newest revival, the almighty Pippin.
The categories to watch, based on previous experience, are Lead Actor in a Play, with Lucky Guy's Tom Hanks all but assured the former (but critics said the same thing last year about Philip Seymour Hoffman's sad-sack Salesman, and One Man, Two Guvnors' James Corden waltzed away with the statue); the Lead Actress in a Play category, in which Cicely Tyson's beatific The Trip to Bountiful is similarly overwhelmingly favored (but critics last year were similarly sure that The Lyons's Linda Lavin or End of the Rainbow's Tracie Bennett would win, and Venus in Fur's Nina Arianda pulled an upset). Likewise, the Play Direction category, with a lot of strong contenders, looks like it's up for grabs; Lucky Guy's George C. Wolfe is only very narrowly favored to pick up the award over Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s Pam MacKinnon, but there are plenty of votes for Vanya and Sonia's Nicholas Martin, as well.
In short, the Tonys this year won't be without their drama, and that's what we all tune in for, isn't it? Without further ado, here's how our critics think the Tonys will play out on Sunday, June 9—and how they wish they would play out. This year's participating critics, our biggest group yet, include David Barbour (Lighting & Sound America), Aaron Botwick (Scribicide), Ben Brantley (The New York Times), David Cote (Time Out New York), Michael Dale> (Broadwayworld.com), Suzy Evans (Backstage), Adam Feldman (Time Out New York), David Finkle (Huffington Post), David Gordon (TheaterMania), Jesse Green (New York), Erik Haagensen (Backstage), Charles Isherwood (The New York Times), Jonathan Mandell (New York Theater), Peter Marks (The Washington Post), David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times), Frank Scheck (New York Post), David Sheward (ArtsinNY.com, Theaterlife.com), Raven Snook (Time Out New York), Michael Sommers (New Jersey Newsroom), Marilyn Stasio (Variety), Doug Strassler (New York Press), and Linda Winer (Newsday).
Nominees: The Assembled Parties (Richard Greenberg), Lucky Guy (Nora Ephron), The Testament of Mary (Colm Toibin), Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Christopher Durang)
Will Win: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Should Win: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Chris Durang should make room on his shelf for his first Tony, most critics agree—and most think deservedly so. There are a few votes in the "should win" column for Greenberg's genteel Assembled Parties, but most agree with David Rooney, who writes that while "it's a toss-up for me between Vanya and Assembled Parties," he finds "the elegance with which Durang applies his trademark absurdist humor to issues that plague many of us in reflective middle age" gives his play the advantage. A number of critics who are less sold on the play think Durang will win because of the weakness of the rest of the field.
Nominees: Bring It On, A Christmas Story, Kinky Boots, Matilda
Will Win: Matilda
Should Win: Matilda
The Kinky Boots/Matilda showdown may be overblown: Critics think the RSC's Dahl adaptation both will and should win by a margin of 2-to-1. Still, that doesn't stop them from dishing about the shows' respective prospects. Says David Finkle: "If Matilda doesn't win, the loss can be attributed to the inexplicable backlash. Apparently, some detractors think it's too cruel and/or too English." Maybe, but summing up the critical backlash, Doug Strassler says, "Plenty of hype has shrouded the fact that Matilda is a loud, unfocused mess of a show." Less harsh is Raven Snook, who gives Boots the edge because "it shouldn't be as good as it is...It's done with genuine feeling, humor, nuance and really catchy songs." A few critics, including Jonathan Mandell and David Barbour, even offer that they'd prefer to see A Christmas Story win. Pish-posh, say many of their colleagues, with Peter Marks pithily calling Matilda "the winner by a country mile, the country being Britain," and David Rooney opining, ""In terms of Matilda's inventive stagecraft there's no contest." Marilyn Stasio goes so far as to label the "campaign against Matilda" a "disgrace to the industry," adding, "Why the hell wasn't Hands on a Hardbody nominated?"
BEST BOOK OF A MUSICAL
Nominees: A Christmas Story (Joseph Robinette), Kinky Boots (Harvey Fierstein), Matilda (Dennis Kelly), Cinderella (Douglas Carter Beane)
Will Win: Matilda
Should Win: Matilda
There's a flicker of critical love for Robinette's holiday adaptation, but this is considered a lock for Matilda's Dennis Kelly. Says Erik Haagensen: "Neophyte book writer Kelly's inventive, tonally adept adaptation of Roald Dahl's story is the best thing about Matilda, while none of the competition comes close." Giving the likely win a political spin, David Barbour says, "This may be the voters' place to honor Matilda without going all the way to a Best Musical nod." Jonathan Mandell, summing up a general feeling that this is a weak category, snarks, "Each year, the Tony nominating committee seems to select for this category at least a couple of musicals in which the worst thing about them is their book. This year is no exception."
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE (MUSIC AND/OR LYRICS)
Nominees: A Christmas Story (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), Hands on a Hardbody (Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green), Kinky Boots (Cyndi Lauper), Matilda (Tim Minchin)
Will Win: Kinky Boots
Should Win: Kinky Boots
Critics may have deplored this year's musical books, but they largely liked the scores—which is reflected in the fact that while nearly all think that "hometown girl" Lauper, as David Barbour calls her, will take home the trophy, Boots' lead in the "should win" column is a lot weaker. Minchin's "genuinely subversive talent" (David Rooney) gets some love, as does Pasek & Paul's score, which Suzy Evans hails as "the most original, while remaining the most story-driven." But the lion's share of plaudits go to pop princess Lauper for writing a "surprisingly good" score (Peter Marks), one in which "the musical styles were varied and the lyrics illuminated the characters' inner lives" (Raven Snook). Raves Doug Strassler, "I found myself sad every time a number ended in Kinky Boots, which I haven't been able to say in my last few years of musical attendance." Marilyn Stasio, meanwhile, wishes Hardbody had been given a better shake, while Erik Haagensen thinks Pasek & Paul's score for the Off-Broadway Dogfight trumps all the nominees here.
BEST REVIVAL (PLAY):
Nominees: Golden Boy, Orphans, The Trip to Bountiful, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Will Win: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Should Win: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Golden Boy
Most critics think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has this sewn up, and most are fine with that, but David Rooney sums up the critical ambivalence when he says, "The [Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?] revival was a revelation above all for Tracy Letts' ferocious take on George. But Bartlett Sher's masterful touch with dated material made the Odets revival a greater challenge." That led Mandell to offer "an almost-philosophical" quandary: "Does a production deserve more credit for making the most of an outdated or otherwise inferior script or are we duty-bound to honor the best script? The production of the creaky Golden Boy was wonderful; there is much as well to recommend The Trip to Bountiful with its 'non-traditional' high-quality cast. But the 50-year-old Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? holds up wonderfully." Still, counters Peter Marks, "How many times can Salesman and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? win?"
BEST REVIVAL (MUSICAL):
Nominees: Annie, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Pippin, Cinderella
Will Win: Pippin
Should Win: Pippin
Take this one to the bank, say critics: Diane Paulus' circus-y take on this Stephen Schwartz quasi-classic was, as Doug Strassler puts it, "the musical event of the season." Even those who find the musical subpar agree with Erik Haagensen that Paulus' production "has found its heart, spectacularly demonstrating why it has been such a popular show for more than 40 years." There is scattered love for the shuttered Drood, and Aaron Botwick makes a quixotic case that the much-ridiculed Jekyll & Hyde belonged on this list ("Audiences are oddly unwilling to enjoy camp on Broadway," he muses), but as Peter Marks succinctly puts it: Shows that aren't Pippin "have a better chance of winning the next Mega Millions."
BEST PERFORMANCE, LEADING ACTOR, PLAY
Nominees: Tom Hanks, Lucky Guy; Nathan Lane, The Nance; Tracy Letts, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; David Hyde Pierce, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Tom Sturridge, Orphans
Will Win: Tom Hanks
Should Win: Tracy Letts
The critical near-unanimity here is striking: Almost all the critics think the statue will go to "Hollywood royalty" Hanks, not least because he's "charmed the entire Broadway community" (Frank Scheck), and also because, as David Sheward puts it, "The majority of Tony voters (producers) want to see more big-name movie stars on Broadway, and a Tony for Hanks will encourage that trend." But almost all of the critics wish the Tony would go to Letts, in his Main Stem debut as a "bizarrely playful and bitter George" (Jonathan Mandell). There are a few votes for Lane's versatile turn in The Nance; as Raven Snook writes, he "got to flex all of his talented muscles—high and low-brow, drama and comedy, even singing and hoofing." Doug Strassler wishes that Douglas Hodge (Cyrano de Bergerac) and Seth Numrich (Golden Boy) were on this list. But the award for counterintuiveness must go to David Barbour, who offers, "You heard it here first; Tom Hanks will go away empty-handed. Not his fault really, but the part isn't that interesting. This is going to come down to a horse race between Pierce and Lane." That sounds a little nutso to us, but still, this race may be more of a toss-up than the near-unanimity suggests: When critics find all the actors deserving, as they do here, so might Tony voters.
BEST PERFORMANCE, LEADING ACTRESS, PLAY
Nominees: Laurie Metcalf, The Other Place; Amy Morton, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Holland Taylor, Ann; Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful
Will Win: Cicely Tyson
Should Win: Laurie Metcalf
This one is even more competitive than Lead Actor, at least in critics' "should win" category. Many echo David Barbour, who says, "This is the toughest category, because all of the ladies are deserving." Indeed, many think there were other performances that should have been nominated, as well: Ben Brantley, for one, thinks Assembled Parties's Jessica Hecht, I'll Eat You Last's Bette Midler, and Testament of Mary's Fiona Shaw also belong on the list. Still, all but one of our voting critics think the statue will go to 88-year-old Tyson for her "luminous, richly idiosyncratic take on Carrie Watts" in Bountiful (Erik Haagensen), though a few grumble that it's a "maudlin vote" (Marilyn Stasio) given for sentimental reasons to a "lively old dame" (Barbour again). Many hail Metcalf's challenging turn as a brain scientist with a brian tumor: As Raven Snook put it, "I could use the cliché that it was a master class in acting except you never felt like she was acting." Agreed Doug Strasser: "Metcalf dug deeper than anyone in a show that sadly ran too short." But getting almost as much love, in addition to Tyson, is Neilsen for her "brilliant comic turn" (Barbour) in Vanya and Sonia.
BEST PERFORMANCE, LEADING ACTOR, MUSICAL
Nominees: Bertie Carvel, Matilda; Santino Fontana, Cinderella; Rob McClure, Chaplin; Billy Porter, Kinky Boots; Stark Stands, Kinky Boots
Will Win: Bertie Carvel
Should Win: Bertie Carvel
Many see this as another Matilda/Kinky Boots proxy battle. Though the huge majority say they favor Bertie Carvel's menacing drag turn as Miss Trunchbull, most gripe that he's in the wrong category—that Trunchbull is a supporting role. Still, many agree with David Rooney, who calls Carvel's turn "one of the most astonishingly full-bodied theatrical creations in recent memory." And while Porter's turn as Boots' drag queen gets a fair amount of critical love—Raven Snook calls his Lola "a beautiful and original creation," while Jonathan Mandell says he "does a wonderful job with a hackneyed character"—several critics take this opportunity to recall McClure's resourceful take on Chaplin. Doug Strassler raves that McClure "carried Chaplin in an astonishing amalgam of physical, musical, and emotional specificity that bore new insight into an icon." Agrees David Barbour: "McClure's uncanny replication of Chaplin's technique might have won if the show was still running."
BEST PERFORMANCE, LEADING ACTRESS, MUSICAL
Nominees: Stephanie J. Block, The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Carolee Carmello, Scandalous; Valisia LeKae, Motown, the Musical; Patina Miller, Pippin; Laura Osnes, Cinderella
Will Win: Patina Miller
Should Win: Laura Osnes
Many agree with Jonathan Mandell's assessment that "this is a difficult category, not just because the talent is so plentiful, but because the shows are so beneath them." There are a lot of passionate defenses of Carmello's turn in Kathie Lee Gifford's misbegotten religious bio-musical, and a few who feel Valisia LaKae's roof-raising performance in Motown should get some Tony love, but most feel that Osnes deserves the nod for, as Raven Snook puts it, "[creating] a Cinderella little girls can look up to without their moms rolling their eyes." Still, most critics agree that Patina Miller will take home the trophy for her slick Leading Player in the popular Pippin, and some think this is as it should be: as Frank Scheck says, "Anyone who can erase memories of Ben Vereen's indelible original turn deserves the award."
BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTOR, PLAY
Nominees: Danny Burstein, Golden Boy; Richard Kind, The Big Knife; Billy Magnussen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy; Courtney B. Vance, Lucky Guy
Will Win: Richard Kind
Should Win: Richard Kind
Another over-qualified field, with the edge going to Kind, best known for his comic roles, who surprised critics with what Aaron Botwick calls "a terrifying performance" in Odets' Hollywood morality tale. Another Odets revival, Golden Boy, split critical votes, with some favoring Tony Shalhoub, as a reticent immigrant patriarch ("heart-rending," says David Sheward), and some Danny Burstein, as a taciturn trainer. And a number of critics would give their vote to Vance, as a cantankerous editor; says Raven Snook, "Vance was hands-down the best thing in Lucky Guy (sorry, Tom)." A few, like Barbour, wish that Magnussen's "original and bizarrely funny" performance might take the win, and both Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood wish that Madison Dirks' virile turn as Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was on this list. Most are happy with Kind, though; as Jonathan Mandell observes, "Those who've been able to catch the 1955 movie of The Big Knife, with Rod Steiger's absurdly over-the-top portrayal of the thug-like movie studio head, can even more appreciate Kind's performance, which is modulated and credible before it becomes explosive; he seems to inhabit the role." Next he may inhabit the role of Tony winner.
BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTRESS, PLAY
Nominees: Carrie Coon, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Shalita Grant, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Judith Ivey, The Heiress; Judith Light, The Assembled Parties; Condola Rashad, The Trip to Bountiful
Will Win: Judith Light
Should Win: Judith Light
Though Light took home the same award last year for Other Desert Cities, as David Finkle says, "Here's a recent winner who's just too good in this meaty part not to prevail." Most critics agree; writes David Rooney, "Light's spiky yet infinitely compassionate performance...was the perfect complement to Jessica Hecht's luminous work." (Observes Raven Snook: "So funny that the ultimate sitcom WASP in the '80s is now the go-to Jewish character actress.") But don't mistake this lovefest for a lock: Critics' "should win" votes are more divided than they look, with a fair number plumping for "up-and-coming star" Rashad (Peter Marks), still others for Coon's flailing Honey in Woolf, and others for Ivey's interfering Heiress aunt. It was, in short, a good year for acting in plays, if all these split votes are to be believed.
BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTOR, MUSICAL
Nominees: Charl Brown, Motown, the Musical; Keith Carradine, Hands on a Hardbody; Will Chase, The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Gabriel Ebert, Matilda; Terrence Mann, Pippin
Will Win: Terrence Mann
Should Win: Gabriel Ebert
Critics think Terrence Mann's Charlemagne will take home the crown because, as David Sheward explains, he's a Broadway veteran (Cats, the original Les Miz, Beauty and the Beast) without a Tony on his shelf—a dangerous competitor in any year. Besides, says Raven Snook: "I was impressed that Mann learned how to unicycle." There a few "should win" votes for Chase's turn in Drood and Brown's in Motown, but most critics are swept away by Ebert's crass, lanky dad in Matilda, not least because of its contrast with a previous role: "Never in a million years," writes David Rooney, "would I have recognized the plaid-suited anti-intellectual crook in Matilda as the troubled twentysomething from 4000 Miles."
BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTRESS, MUSICAL
Nominees: Annaleigh Ashford, Kinky Boots; Victoria Clark, Cinderella; Andrea Martin, Pippin; Keala Settle, Hands on a Hardbody; Lauren Ward, Matilda
Will Win: Andrea Martin
Should Win: Andrea Martin
"This is what they call a lock, folks," says Raven Snook. Indeed, though there's a smattering of support for Kinky Boots's charming Ashford, Martin is hailed for a showstopping number that David Rooney calls "probably the most delightful five minutes of stage time of any production currently on Broadway." Quips David Sheward: "Lesson #1: If you're over 60, learn a trapeze act and the Tony is yours." Adds Erik Haagensen: "It's not just the acrobatics; it's also Martin's rich humanity that puts her over the top." Bottom line, says Barbour: "The other ladies may as well stay at home."
BEST DIRECTION OF A PLAY
Nominees: Pam MacKinnon, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Nicholas Martin, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Bartlett Sher, Golden Boy; George C. Wolfe, Lucky Guy
Will Win: George C. Wolfe
Should Win: Pam MacKinnon
It's Wolfe vs. Woolf in this category: Lucky Guy's helmer gets the will-win nod—in a very close vote—for, as David Rooney puts it, "giving dynamic life to an unfinished play with way more tell than show." But MacKinnon gets the should-win vote for taking "a great play we've all seen multiple times and [making] it feel fresh," says Raven Snook. But both Sher and Martin have their partisans, too, with Barbour noting of Martin that he is "undervalued because he is such an assured director of comedy." Few would dispute Jesse Green's verdict that, like the above play-performance races, this is "another unusually strong category."
BEST DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL
Nominees: Scott Ellis, The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots; Diane Paulus, Pippin; Matthew Warchus, Matilda
Will Win: Diane Paulus
Should Win: Diane Paulus
Critics give their due to Paulus' achievement here, even if many seem to chafe at it. Giving the most full-throated defense of Paulus' vision is Raven Snook, who writes, "The circus conceit could have felt forced or flat if done wrong. But Paulus did it right. She integrated the tricks beautifully so that the actors were part of the action, even when they were kind of faking it. And yet she still managed to coax vibrant performances from them." Sure, but many critics say they prefer Warchus' work on Matilda; as Peter Marks snappily puts it, "Matilda is an achievement, Pippin a mere spectacle." And Jesse Green quips, "Perhaps the category should be 'Best Distraction from a Musical.' " David Barbour tries to put Paulus' work in perspective: "Let's face it–Pippin was not a likely or easy prospect for revival. (A London staging last year got some of the worst reviews I've ever seen.) It's not a great musical, but Paulus found a way to make it work for audiences in 2013; that's not a small achievement." That, plus Paulus not taking the directing trophy for her otherwise Tony-bedecked productions of Hair and Porgy and Bess, make her the favorite.
Nominees Andy Blankenbuehler, Bring It On; Peter Darling, Matilda; Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots; Chet Walker, Pippin
Will Win: Chet Walker
Should Win: Peter Darling
Critics agree that Walker, a dancer from the original Bob Fosse company of Pippin who partly recreated some of Fosse's work for the revival, will take home the win, but most fault the nominating committee for not including Gypsy Snider, the show's acrobatics/circus choreographer, alongside him. Many favor Darling's Matilda dances, and think they may even pull an upset; David Finkle calls Darling's work "awe-inspiring," and Frank Scheck points out that "it isn't easy to make kids look like great dancers." Some critics would cast their vote for Mitchell's Boots work, while still others credit Blankenbuehler for "the most original dance sequences all year." Hmm, that sounds like a more competitive race than it may appear. Which, if we're lucky, just might sum up the 2013 Tonys.