Richard Seff Predicts The Tony Awards: Best Play and Musical and Play and Musical Performances

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Many scribes have been offering opinions on who might win the Tony Awards this coming Sunday, June 7th, and for those of you who haven’t yet made up your minds, I offer my own thoughts on this year’s distinguished nominees in the major categories. I’ll share with you some of the rumors about who will win, and where I disagree I’ll offer my own thoughts on who I think should win, and why. Here we go.
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Best Play

For Best Play, we’re lucky to have five top-notch works ranging from the vicious satire of Hand to God (that’s the one with the very angry puppet with a foul mouth) to the very topical drama Disgraced, which begins with an amiable gathering of working colleagues and friends, and ends with a battle royal that reveals what anger lies buried beneath in this particular quartet.

Wolf Hall is two plays and each is up for the grand prize. It’s historical fiction dealing with the relationship between Henry VIII  between the meek but hardly mild Thomas Cromwell, who grows over the six hour run of the two plays from a minor character in Henry’s court, to the most influential man ever to rise in mid sixteenth century political life in England. The fifth nominee is another British import, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, a remarkably simple story, centered around an autistic teen ager, a unique and very moving character, whose story is presented in the most imaginative production within recent memory.

You must remember that those who vote for the Tonys include many who represent the “road audience” which gives new meaning to the adjective “best” for it’s assumed that all the plays that achieved nomination from a much larger committee are considered well-written and performed.

Because commercial appeal often enters the picture, this season’s crop of offerings are a tough lot, for none of them was created with any thought to their popular appeal. All five of them have found enthusiastic audiences in sufficient numbers to make them all financial successes, but none are likely to have  two or three year runs with packed houses.

I think the award should go to The Curious Incident because it’s the bravest of the bunch, demanding much blind faith from its ticket buyers (no star names, an unknown playwright, a director not known in America) yet I’ve known no one who wasn’t blown away by the size of it, by the brilliance of its young leading player (Alex Sharp, a recent graduate of Juilliard, making his Broadway debut in his early twenties), by its crystal clear direction and its dazzling physical production. But as a candidate for the road ( and it’s been announced that it will tour) it will be a tough sell. I’d be happy if any of them win, but I think Hand of God and Disgraced are so remarkably crafty, either one of them could wear the crown come June 7th. A very tight race, and clearly a number of gifted theatre folks are going to have to go home empty-handed.

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Best Musical

The Best Musical category is almost as complicated. A new generation of writers would seem to have caught on as to how to write for the musical theatre, and are right up there competing with the Gershwin brothers (An American in Paris) and veterans John Kander and Fred Ebb (The Visit).The former is fully realized, is a truly new musical merely “based on” the film which inspired it. As the Gershwins are long gone, it clearly has a score most of which we’ve heard in other contexts, but the use of this material is so fresh, so right for the story that established playwright Craig Lucas has wrought from its screenplay source, that it hits us as something very new indeed.

The Visit is a keenly observed adaptation of a Frederich Durenmatt play of the same name by Terrence McNally. The show was virtually completed in 2000 when its lyricist Fred Ebb was still alive, but it has taken 15 years to live through three regional productions before landing on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre. Through all this, Chita Rivera has remained loyal to it, and her performance is truly the most brilliant of her remarkable career. But though the press has been generally excellent, audiences are not responding in sufficient numbers and its box office has not  indicated it can sustain itself much longer.

The Gershwin piece is a great hit, with the press and with the public, so it is the stronger contender for Best Musical. But those new kids on the block that I mentioned earlier have delivered three originals that are creating a stir. Fun Home and Something Rotten! have both found favor with press and public and have high hopes of knocking the old guard on its ear.

The most outrageously funny one is Rotten!, the most surprising and moving is Home. I would give the award to An American in Paris mostly because it took a brilliant success from the screen and turned it into an original theatre piece that is every inch as brilliant, but in its very unique way. That was an almost impossible task (see Gigi, recall Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Saturday Night Fever) and they may well take the prize as a result. I won’t yell, “we wuz robbed!” if it goes to any one of these four marvelous musicals.

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Best Revival of a Play

I’d better be brief, or you’ll be asleep by the  time we finish, and I certainly don’t want that. When it comes to the Best Revival of a Play, I’d give it to You Can’t Take It With You because any 80 year-old play, which happened to win a Pulitzer Prize, that can still draw you in, make you laugh, make you wonder about a couple of very contemporary issues, (low minimum wage, income taxes, corruption in high places), and remind you there are far more important achievements than “success,” has every right to a prize or two.

With a cast that could not be improved, for me it made its four competitors, all of them worthy, running behind. I think it will win and I hope I’m right. We needed it now, and Scott Ellis’ production filled that need.

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Best Revival of a Musical

Of the musical revivals, again — three winners are competing. The King and I is the most sumptuous and it offers us the delightful Kelli O’Hara in peak form, right up there with the great Gertrude Lawrence whom I saw first play “Mrs. Anna.” She brings her own spark and spunk, not to mention her glorious voice, to the role, and the production that surrounds her is top notch in every department. Her leading man, Ken Watanabe, has great trouble with English, but then I assume so did the King of Siam, so that didn’t bother me, as he embodied the role beautifully. The Tony voters will reward this gorgeous production.

On The Town and On the Twentieth Century were both absolutely first-rate, and I recommend them equally if you can afford three musicals. They offer discounted tickets now and then, and I’d grab them if you really want to have a good time at a big splashy, entertaining, musical with a great score. And both contain performances any theatre lover should not miss, for they are special.

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Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

All five nominees are in top form. Bill Nighy manages to make a demanding lover into a compelling character in Skylight. He makes one understand how a lovely lady like Carey Mulligan could have once been in love with him. Bradley Cooper left his movie star image behind and created a complex and loving human being out of The Elephant Man, Ben Miles was as interesting as Mark Rylance in the role of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, Stephen Boyer gave a brilliant double edged performance in Hand of God.

There can be no “best” among these giants, but young Alex Sharp, fresh from Juilliard, making his Broadway debut, will win because so rarely does a young actor arrive on the scene equipped not only with promise, technique, craft, stage presence, audience appeal, and of course, an abundance of talent. He drives The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time with all of the above, plus that indefinable something called star quality.

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Tough again– what a wonderful season we’ve had. Helen Mirren in The Audience is the favorite, but my vote goes to Elizabeth Moss who gave new life to Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles,  a play that shows its age, but also its wit, wisdom and craft.

 The Audience is running, Heidi has left us, and that will give Queen Elizabeth the edge. Carey Mulligan could edge both of them out, for she is startlingly good in Skylight. I think that she is on her way to becoming a brilliant stage actress.

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Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

Again a tough choice. Of the five candidates, it’s Tony Yazbeck as Gabey (the Gene Kelly role) in On the Town, and Robert Fairchild (again, in the Gene Kelly role!) who leap ahead of Brian D’Arcy-James, Ken Watanabe, and Michael Cerveris (from Something Rotten!, The King and I and Fun Home) though all of them are doing wonderful work.

I loved D’arcy-James particularly because I’d not seen him play farce so adroitly, and relished watching himself enjoying himself (as much as we did).

But ‘d give the award to Robert Fairchild because he not only is the dancer of the season, but he can sing and act and he takes the stage which great assurance, remarkable for an actor in his first Broadway show.

Yazbeck is equally surprising. I think it will be one or the other, but I think it will go to Mr. Fairchild.

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 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Of the leading ladies in musicals, I’d give the award to Chita Rivera, not because she’s a legend, and this will probably be her last major role on stage (I mean at 82, one cannot go on bouncing about forever). What brought me to tears was what an actress she has become! Such stillness, such strength, such ability to have all eye on her when she is seeming to do nothing but listen. I’d rather hear her sing than half the divas on stage now.

Which brings me to the brilliant Kristin Chenoweth who will probably win for her very funny performance (with a voice that can break glasses) in On the 20th Century.  

The other ladies, particularly Kelli O’Hara, offer strong competition, but Ms. O’Hara for some reason, a six-time nominee, has yet to win. Either that will work for, or against her this time out. If Ms. Rivera is cheated of this last opportunity to end a great career on the highest note possible, I’d like to see O’Hara walk home with Tony.

Kristin has won one already, Chita has two, and it’s time for Kelli O’Hara to know she’s appreciated. So – I think Kristin will  win, but I’d do for a tie between Rivera and O’Hara.

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Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

I’d give it to Micah Stock, the only “non star” in It’s Only A Play. It’s his first play, he opens it all by himself, he more than holds his own in an early scene with the great Nathan Lane, and it would be a great start to what I hope will be a long and rewarding career.

It’s difficult to know who will win, but it might be Matthew Beard, who plays a very supporting role in Skylight, but again he more than holds his own against the two powerful star turns of Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan.

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Best Actress in a featured role in a play should go to Annaleigh Ashford for her spectacular turn as Essie in You Can’t Take It With You.

As Madame Rose sings in Gypsy, “You’ve either got it, or you’ve had it. And boys, she’s got it!”. Her competition is keen, and Patricia Clark (The Elephant Man) and Julie White (Airline Highway) are critics and audience favorites, but Ms. Ashford has that extra oomph that should win her a Tony.

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Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

The featured actor in a musical category has at least three very funny men nominated, two of them in the same show. Brad Oscar and Christian Borle have been putting their mark on everything they’ve touched, but Oscar is the lovable clown who has understudied, played bit parts, popped up in an ensemble now and then, yet did a fine job carrying when Nathan Lane left it in London, and again in New York.

Borle has the larger role in Something Rotten!, but Andy Karl might just take home the prize. He’s priceless as a crazed matinee idol in On The Twentieth Century.

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

As a featured actress in a musical, Ruthie Ann Miles stops the show nightly with just one song (“Something Wonderful”) in but Victoria Clark has been a favorite ever since The Light in the Piazza, so she could well knock Ms. Miles out of the box with her charming work in Gigi. Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, and Emily Skeggs, all of them in Fun House, might cancel each other out. Backstage might get a little frosty if one of them brings Tony to her dressing table.

My choice would be Ms. Miles, only because she makes the most of a small role, and helps the somewhat despotic King seem more appealing, for she does love him with the aid of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who have given her a musical moment, and with it she makes that crystal clear.

Now let’s see how I come out. Probably no better than any of you. We bring so much of ourselves to the theatre as audience, we can only be subjective in responding to those wonderful creatures called actors. Sorry I took so long to put it all down, but it’s been a particularly rich season with lots and lots of good work, and best is a relative term. Every nominee, and probably many who got left behind, gave us much pleasure and I say thank you for all that excellent work.  a-Tony-Awards

Here are the 69th Annual Tony Award nominations.

Tony awards poster 2015

The 69th Annual Tony Awards will be broadcast this Sunday, June 7, 2015 at 8 on CBS. Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming are this year’s hosts.

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.

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