NEW YORK — Especially in this weirdest of Broadway seasons, this year's Tony Awards (June 8 at Radio City Music Hall) really are two separate contests. There is the public contest, where presenters hand out the trophies, packs of producers race for the microphone and creative types make teary speeches. And then there is the hidden one, perhaps more important, which involves jockeying for position in regards to which show comes out best on the televised broadcast on CBS (at 7 p.m. CST).
When it comes to future box-office returns, which are a life-and-death matter for several of the wobbly new shows on the Rialto this season, the second contest arguably matters much more.
For an example of how prominent TV exposure can overcome nattering critics and a lack of box-office momentum, one need only look across the Atlantic to the experience of the truly wretched Queen musical, "We Will Rock You," which is closing Sunday in London after a whopping 12 years, 4,600 performances and a cumulative audience of close to 7 million people in London alone.
Few shows in the modern era have gotten worse reviews: "pathetic" and "stupid" were among the kinder descriptors from the London press. But former Queen member Brian May somehow scored a gig on a 2002 TV broadcast celebrating the Queen's Golden Jubilee, playing guitar atop Buckingham Palace, and, as the Daily Mail reported in London this week, "We Will Rock You" was saved and launched. For a decade.
"Rocky," a populist title with a few Tony nominations — but not one for the all-important best musical — could really use a Brian May moment on the Tonys if it's to topple its many critics and improve weekly takings that barely cover its colossal costs. Perchance Sylvester Stallone himself should weigh in for a bout with the show's genial star (and Tony nominee) Andy Karl. "Rocky" certainly will have some competition for attention.
"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" has Jessie Mueller, the favorite to win a Tony for best actress in a musical over Kelli O'Hara, from the now-closed "The Bridges of Madison County" (likely to win best score for Jason Robert Brown). But "Beautiful" also has King herself in its back pocket. Although she bided her time, the famously reclusive singer has embraced the show and its young star from the Chicago theater, and she's expected to make an appearance on the Tony broadcast, maybe singing alongside Mueller. Aside from the bump King would bring to its already healthy box-office returns, "Beautiful" could well win for best musical, which would be a remarkable achievement for a show that is, in essence and structure, a familiar behind-the-music story, executed uncommonly well.
Many Tony speculators argue that the powerful presenters from across America, many of whom are Tony voters, will cast their ballots for "Beautiful," the show (along with Disney's run-of-the-mill "Aladdin") with the most obvious touring potential.
"After Midnight" is another unusual contender for the top musical prize, given that it is basically a revue. It has crafted relationships with a plethora of top-line stars, including Fantasia, k.d. lang and Gladys Knight, some or all of whom you can expect to watch singing their faces off on your television sets next Sunday night. "After Midnight," about jazz at The Cotton Club in Harlem, has employed a guest-star strategy, which not only has allowed it to attract big names who don't want to commit for a year or more but also likely will pay real dividends on the Tony broadcast by allowing it to make it seem like every great singer in America is in the show (or soon will be). This could well be a model that others replicate.
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder" is a traditional, somewhat picaresque musical comedy and does not have that kind of multibarreled star power. But it's hardly out of the running for the best musical Tony, with the block of voters from the Dramatist's Guild tending to like this show, a favorite of writers and composers who admire its masterful construction and deft execution. "Gentleman's Guide" could well win. But it will be a tough sell on the touring circuit, and history shows that fact alone can derail a worthy show at the Tony Awards.
"If/Then" does not have a nomination for best musical, but it does have a bona fide (and Tony-nominated) star in Idina Menzel, who can do her show plenty of good at the Tonys, even if she is unlikely to win a prize herself. The show's score should translate well to television, given that most of the lyrics deal with relationships, regrets and urban life as it is lived. Menzel, of course, dominated Twitter traffic after the Oscars, but that cannot be replicated, unless John Travolta could be persuaded to repeat his garbled introduction. (If I were producing either the show or the broadcast, I think I'd be trying to talk the wacky Travolta into doing precisely that.) Like "Rocky," "If/Then" will need to take its case to the people. And Menzel is its ambassador.
Neil Patrick Harris, the strong favorite for the best actor in a musical category for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," made his case to America long ago, mostly by refusing to be anything other than himself. He'll be showing up on the telecast in full glamour mode as Hedwig, she of the botched sex change and the angst-ridden career, but he'll be pressed into further duties alongside the host of record, Hugh Jackman.
Jackman has to follow Harris' superb hosting job at the 2013 Tony Awards, an especially successful broadcast that did not make the mistake (as did the Oscars this year) of spending too much airtime trying to get up close and personal with the kind of gritted-teeth celebrities who don't do credible public intimacy at all well. The Tony Awards do a better job, generally, of avoiding such fakery, understanding that the ceremony works best when it is also a celebration of the art of theater and the real workers therein. The 2013 production numbers were the best on record, but with both Jackman and Harris on hand, the 2014 possibilities are myriad. Surely, Jackman will not resort to the selfie.
"The Glass Menagerie," now closed, is the favorite to win best revival of a play (perhaps the strongest of all the categories this season). "Hedwig" is likely to take the musical revival honors (although "Violet" has a shot).
And what of the new plays? Certainly, Tony time is harder to exploit for nonmusicals, although Bryan Cranston, star of the heavily favored drama "All the Way," has the acting chops that cut through a lot of glitter and noise, assuming the Tonys can find a way to make his performance as Lyndon B. Johnson work for TV.
It will be interesting to see if the Tonys can contextualize Terrence McNally's struggling but important play "Mothers and Sons" (about the lingering pain of lives lost from AIDS), especially in the wake of the successful HBO broadcast of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart."
James Lapine's "Act One" will be a tougher sell to voters and viewers, as will "Outside Mullingar" (Debra Messing notwithstanding) and Harvey Fierstein's "Casa Valentina," a nonetheless likable drama about a 1950s community of heterosexual (mostly) men who like to meet on a weekend and dress up as women.
None of these dramas is a clear winner, but, despite the dark politico suits rather than the technicolor dresses, "All the Way" will probably go all the way.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun