For 2015 Tony Awards, ups, downs and 2 very different musicals

At first glance, it's hard to imagine two more different musicals than "Fun Home" and "An American in Paris," the shows that have the best chance of winning the coveted Tony Award for best new musical at the 2015 edition of the Broadway awards show slated for Radio City Musical Hall on Sunday night. The ceremonies, hosted by Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, will be televised live on CBS at 8 p.m.

"Fun Home" is based on a graphic-novel memoir by Alison Bechdel, telling the story of a lesbian cartoonist trying to make sense of the suicide of her father, a man of seemingly infinite complexity and sadness. "An American in Paris" is a new stage musical based on a 1951 film, the story of young American World War II veteran with artistic leanings and an addiction to a beautiful Parisian who seems to embody the City of Light. "Fun Home" has a rich contemporary score by Jeanine Tesori that deals with sexual awakening, the implosion of one's father, the anguish of being married to a man who cheats. "An American in Paris" features classic George Gershwin songs like "I Got Rhythm" and "S' Wonderful."


It's possible, I suppose, that "Something Rotten!" the jaunty musical-comedy set in a cheerfully anachronistic — heck, Pythonesque — version of the English Renaissance may steal a jolly old win, but I doubt it. The show is great fun but does not sustain itself. And there will be some votes cast for "The Visit," as there should be, given the combination of formidably macabre yet haunting artistry and the presence of the incomparable Chita Rivera. But that last musical penned by John Kander and Fred Ebb, with a rich book by Terrence McNally, has the air of a show conceived to be just slightly off to the side, which I intend as a compliment.

No, the smart money is on either "Fun Home" or "An American in Paris."

I favor and anticipate the former as the winner. It is by far the best musical of the year and a profound exploration of the pervasiveness of parental flaws and influence, even as their children self-actualize in a brave new world.

It is tempting to see this contest as a battle between an arty, alternative show and a mainstream attraction with great touring potential. But what's alt anymore? It is also worth noting that both of these musicals are innovators, formatively and in terms of their subjects.

Few musicals have featured lesbian protagonists or settings in funeral homes — hardly fun. And whatever the flaws in its storytelling or acting, "An American in Paris" has introduced a new language of dance to Broadway, breaking down barriers between two quite distinct forms and offering up a classically trained ensemble that can do things perhaps no other ensemble ever has been able to do. Moving beautifully is a crucial part of what Broadway sells, and "An American in Paris," directed and choreographed by the ballet world's Christopher Wheeldon, offers a feast.

The Tony Award for best new play likely will (and should) go to "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," an adaptation by the British late-bloomer Simon Stephens of the novel by Mark Haddon that deals with the adventures of a young, autistic, deep-feeling man named Christopher. Such a kid — played by Alex Sharp, a likely winner for the best actor in a play — is also a very different protagonist for a Broadway play. But then so is the protagonist of Robert Askins' "Hand to God," the chief rival in the category and a new American play that focuses on repressed and troubled Texans, one of whom needs a hand puppet to truly express his feelings. That kid, Jason, played by Steven Boyer, might take the Tony away from Sharp, which Christopher would not like at all. In fact, both of these actors and both of these plays are worthy Tony winners. So, for that matter, is Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced," another groundbreaking play, this time with a Pakistani-American protagonist.

In both of the major categories honoring new material on Broadway, risky works dominate. A cause for admiration.

Is the Lincoln Center revival of "The King and I," which has produced the favorite for the best actress in a musical Tony in the person of Kelli O'Hara, risky? Perhaps not. How about "On the Twentieth Century," a revival from director Scott Ellis of a difficult period piece, replete with a Tony-worthy star turn from Chenoweth? I'll say this. Ellis' production was the best possible production of this material you could imagine for today. That's reason alone to give him the Tony for best director, although he is not actually nominated! Best direction of a musical feels like a contest between Wheeldon and Sam Gold, again of "An American in Paris" and "Fun Home."

In the other categories, excellence abounds, some of which will likely be recognized and much of which will go home disappointed. I won't quickly forget the restlessness of Bill Nighy's performance in the exquisite Stephen Daldry revival of David Hare's "Skylight," about a schoolteacher who receives a visit from an older former lover, nor Carey Mulligan's volleys back over the net, landing right where that aging, caged animal lives.

Geneva Carr in "Hand to God" captured the perils of motherhood by one who scarcely knows herself yet never condescended to her character. It was an exquisite piece of acting, but then so was Helen Mirren as the Queen in "The Audience," a breathtaking work of veracity and complexity. Actually, ma'am, that entire category of actress in a play is filled with excellence: Mirren, Mulligan, Elisabeth Moss, who was a great Heidi in the "Chronicles" thereof, and Ruth Wilson, exquisite in "Constellations."

Lisa Kron's book for "Fun Home" is a masterpiece of honesty and concision and restraint. And, although he is unlikely to win, Sting probably wrote the best score of the year when he penned the song suite to "The Last Ship," an eclectic and exquisite piece of work that also honored the musical traditions of the North of England.

No male musical performance I saw came even close the work that Michael Cerveris offered up, at some cost surely to himself, as the aforementioned dad of "Fun Home." His was a stunning piece of acting that reminded us all that people hiding something often do so not deep inside their chests but in plain sight. Acted out before us all.

Perhaps Leanne Cope of "An American in Paris" will beat out the divas (I doubt it) for actress in a musical. I'd give that tough category to Rivera, an unbowed octogenarian legend whose presence in "The Visit" took my breath away. When Rivera dies — decades away, one hopes — that talent exits for good.

So, to life, risks that paid off and a few laughs at the Tonys!


Jones is a Tribune Newspapers critic.


Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib