Presented in Radio City Music Hall in the heart of New York City, the Tony Awards show is a celebration of Broadway. But for those of us in the flyover states, watching the Tonys each June can seem like glimpsing a faraway theater world, filled with plays and musicals we haven’t seen and won’t be able to experience until they tour Midwest markets in a year or two.
But the Tonys are also exciting because they offer a preview of things to come, complete with ratings from 850 voters from across the country who are affiliated with the Broadway League, the American Theatre Wing, Actors’ Equity, and other industry groups. And lest you think our interests are not represented, Overture Center’s own Vice President of Programming & Community Engagement, Tim Sauers, is among this esteemed group.
Just like the Oscars affect a movie’s box office and the caché of its stars, when host Kevin Spacey announces this year’s Tony winners (at 7pm, June 11 on CBS), it will affect which shows stay on Broadway, which ones go on the road, how much tickets sell for, what gets produced on the Great White Way in the future, and how regional theaters will program their seasons for years to come.
Of course last year was all about Lin Manuel Miranda’s mind-blowing masterwork Hamilton. But this year the four musicals dominating multiple categories are a jumble of genres and themes: Groundhog Day The Musical is based on the Bill Murray film of the never-ending day in the life of an unhappy newscaster (7 nominations); Come from Away is inspired by the true story of a town in Newfoundland that was inundated with grounded airline passengers from all over the world on September 11th (7 nominations); Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (12 nominations) is a riotous, interactive musical taken from a few pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace; and Dear Evan Hansen is the story of an anxious teen who longs to fit in with his peers and finally finds acceptance —even fame—based on a well-intentioned lie that gets out of control (9 nominations).
I’ve seen the top two contenders, so here’s my take on the drama that will be played out on awards night.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is completely unique experience, in the best ways. As if it was designed to answer the question, “Why should people come to the theater when they can watch movies 24-hours a day on their iphones?” it is an immersive, over-the-top production with audience members seated at tables onstage, and actors occupying mini-stages in the balcony. Chorus members and musicians regularly walk through the aisles explaining who the characters are in this sprawling Russian tale of love, lust and betrayal, handing out pierogies, and distributing branded egg shakers so the audience can also participate in the musical’s percussion section. There is a rave scene, lots of dastardly characters with lascivious plans, a beautiful young thing whose reputation is ruined, a suicide attempt, and relentless singing, dancing, and acrobatics that begin in a frenetic whirl and continue to pick up speed as the night goes on. Josh Groban does a fantastic job anchoring the production as the drunken philosopher, full of regrets and searching for hope. And as Natasha, Denee Benton is positively luminous. The “in your face” style of the show is overwhelming at times and the music is aggressively eclectic. Equal parts spectacle and Russian melodrama, it is exciting and dizzying. I’ve very glad I saw it. I don’t ever want to see it again.
In many ways Dear Evan Hansen is the polar opposite of The Great Comet. Focusing on one teen’s anxiety-ridden struggle to make it through each day of high school, it begins as a small story of an awkward guy, his struggling but well-meaning mom, the girl he worships from afar, and the peers who don’t accept, understand, or even notice him. When Evan is accidentally identified as a close friend of a troubled classmate who killed himself, he enters a strange new world of belonging and inadvertently becomes an advocate for prevention of teen suicide. Even as he overcomes his insecurities and glimpses a life where he feels like he really matters, Evan knows his happiness is founded on a lie that will come out. Starring the extraordinary Ben Platt (who formerly played Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon), the musical is incredibly current — utilizing Facebook posts and Twitter feeds in the creative scenic design, and exploring the relationship gaps between maladjusted kids and their too-busy parents in a way that is complex and real. The story is heart-wrenching — at one point in the performance I saw, the entire audience was sniffling in unison. It is also hopeful without being saccharine. Composed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the pair behind the award winning soundtrack to “La La Land”) the music that drives the story forward is simply breathtaking. Hummable, accessible, and beautifully rendered, it offers the characters of Evan and his mother (played exquisitely by Tony nominated Rachel Bay Jones) some killer solos, interspersed with more up-tempo, pop-influenced ensemble numbers.
So where will I be on the night of June 11th? Along with the rest of the musical theater-loving audience, I’ll be sitting on the edge of my couch, holding my breath to see how the awards will be split between these shows, or if they’ll be upset in some categories by the other worthy nominees. A bowl of popcorn in one hand, my Dear Evan Hansen Broadway cast album in the other, I’ll be wearing my Dear Evan Hansen t-shirt for luck and humming one of its signature songs,“You will be Found.”