For all their glamour and big apple sophistication and an annual TV special that is usually the slickest of the major awards shows, the Tonys always seem to teeter on the edge of irrelevance. For years the typically low-rated telecast (airing this year on June 7) has fended off rumors of imminent cancellation by CBS, only to survive by downplaying actual awards in favor of staged highlights from as many productions as possible. It’s an unabashed commercial for Broadway, aimed more at tourists than at the theater insiders who actually care who wins and loses.
This year, however, both the insiders and the tourists should be happy. The Tony nominators had such a bounty to choose from that several perfectly good shows were ignored altogether. Honeymoon in Vegas, a sprightly musical remake of the 1992 movie, drew good reviews and seemed like a surefire hit, but it faltered at the box office, closed early and wound up without a single nomination. Finding Neverland, the Harvey Weinstein–produced musical about J.M. Barrie and the creation of Peter Pan, also got shut out–a judgment, it seems, more on the abrasive Weinstein than on his lively, well-staged and thoroughly enjoyable show. The season’s most anticipated new musical, Sting’s The Last Ship, also got a cold shoulder–just two nominations, for Sting’s excellent score and the orchestrations.
So what’s left? Much of the love (12 nominations, including one for Best Musical) went to Fun Home, the earnest, critically praised (a bit overpraised, I would say) coming-of-age musical based on graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s memoir of her dysfunctional family life and coming out as a lesbian. The small-scale show, which debuted off-Broadway last season, grabbed five acting nominations as well as nods for Best Score (Jeanine Tesori), Book (Lisa Kron) and Direction (Sam Gold). It could even steal the top award if the voters are in a generous, politically correct mood.
For more-traditional Broadway splash, the logical choice for Best Musical would be Something Rotten!, a high-energy spoof centering on two aspiring songwriters in Shakespeare’s day. Packed with in-joke references to practically every musical in Broadway history and sharply directed by The Book of Mormon’s Casey Nicholaw, it’s a big crowd pleaser and could pull an upset. The dark (very dark) horse in the race is The Visit, a boldly misanthropic work in which the world’s richest woman returns to her impoverished hometown and makes the residents an offer they can’t refuse. Though enlivened by a tuneful Kander and Ebb score and a star turn by Chita Rivera, the show hasn’t sold well and likely won’t make a mark on Tony night.
With so many good and diverse new musicals this season, it’s deflating to realize that the front runner for the top award is a pedestrian retread: the new stage version of An American in Paris. The show (which tied Fun Home with 12 nominations) boasts an opulent production and sleek ballet choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. But the songs are all Gershwin oldies, and Craig Lucas’ rewritten book, about a struggling American artist in Paris, has been larded with all sorts of echoes of World War II and the Nazi occupation. S’not wonderful.
Straight plays are never as prominent as musicals at the Tonys, but this year’s crop is also a bumper, thanks mainly to the Brits. The front runner for Best Play is a London transfer, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, playwright Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott’s extraordinary voyage into an autistic kid’s mind. Its most serious competition is Wolf Hall, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s compelling, if conventional, adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s best sellers about intrigue in the court of Henry VIII.
The two American nominees don’t figure to compete: Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s overwrought, Pulitzer Prize–winning drama about a Muslim-American lawyer, and the ungainly, sporadically funny puppet comedy Hand to God. They pushed out the far more worthy Constellations, Nick Payne’s time-tripping relationship drama, which probably suffered from being yet another British import. So too did The Audience, Peter Morgan’s chronicle of Queen Elizabeth II’s relationship with her Prime Ministers–a mediocre play, but the sort of serious historical drama that usually gets a dutiful nomination. Both shows got Best Actress nods in compensation–though Ruth Wilson of Constellations will have to sit politely as Helen Mirren picks up her first Tony for a tour de force re-creation of 60 years of royal hairdos and fashion.
On the musical side, the race for Best Actor will likely be a reflection of how winds are blowing for the top award. If Robert Fairchild, the New York City Ballet star making his Broadway debut, wins for An American in Paris, it probably means that show will sweep. If Michael Cerveris, who plays the conflicted, closeted father in Fun Home, pulls out a win, an upset may be in the making. And if Broadway vet Brian d’Arcy James is recognized for his turn in Something Rotten!, it may be a sign that the handicappers have underestimated that show’s appeal.
The most intriguing race is for Best Actress in a Musical, pitting three well-loved divas from three generations against one another. Rivera, whose credits date back to West Side Story, is the sentimental favorite for her comeback in The Visit. But she has strong competition from another popular trouper, Kristin Chenoweth, who co-stars in a well-received revival of On the Twentieth Century.
Both, however, will have to contend with Kelli O’Hara, probably the finest singing actress of her generation, who stars in the lovely new revival of The King and I. Though she has been nominated five times before, O’Hara has never taken home a Tony. Her spirited performance as Anna, in an acclaimed revival (nine nominations) that makes a good case for The King and I as the greatest of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, could end that puzzlement.
This appears in the June 08, 2015 issue of TIME.