Who Says You Can't Give Tony Awards in an Abbreviated Season?

(Critic's Notebook)

Who Says You Can't Give Tony Awards in an Abbreviated Season?

When coronavirus closed the theaters March 12, there were still 16 shows left to open in the Broadway season. Audiences will get to see some of them later, others probably not — but what of the more than 20 plays, musicals and miscellaneous offerings that had already faced the press? It seemed unfair not to celebrate them, so just after it was announced that the Tony Awards will not go on as usual this year, Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, the chief theater critics of The New York Times, sat down (in cyberspace) to devise a Tonys of their own.

BEN BRANTLEY: Well, Jesse, even in a season that’s 16 plays short, there’s still a fat if imbalanced roster of intriguing shows. Have we ever before had such a preponderance of jukebox musicals that might qualify for Best Musical? The good news is that some enterprising minds managed to inventively retool the genre you once described as the “cockroach” of Broadway.

JESSE GREEN: The cockroach has evolved! “Jagged Little Pill,” “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” “Girl From the North Country,” “Moulin Rouge!” and — since we’re playing by our own rules here — even “American Utopia,” the David Byrne show that was deemed ineligible for the real Tonys, are all jukeboxes, all worthy and all eligible for ours. Maybe not quite all worthy.

BRANTLEY: Perhaps it’s appropriate then that the last show to open on Broadway was the most unorthodox of the “jukebox” shows. I use quotation marks here because that label seems too confining for “Girl From the North Country,” Irish playwright and director Conor McPherson’s work that uses the songs of Bob Dylan to imagine life during the Great Depression in Duluth, Minnesota. The more I think about “Girl,” the more innovative and haunting it seems to me.

GREEN: For me it took some time, and the show’s move from the Public Theater to Broadway, to appreciate how McPherson was deploying the music in this musical. The songs do not function the way songs normally do; they never address the situation at hand, and sometimes even contradict it. Yet in that gap, poetry grew.

BRANTLEY: For me, “Girl” deals with the ineffable and unsayable through song in a way that makes it the most religious, or at least spiritual, show on Broadway. I have found this aspect of the show stays with me, as an oddly comforting reminder of the hunger for communion in this time of isolation. But moving on to matters closer to profane than sacred, what about another mold-breaker in a very different sense: “Moulin Rouge!,” based on the Baz Luhrmann movie about la vie bohème in gaslight-era Paris.

GREEN: Here was a case where the gap between the story, such as it is, and the musical materials — found pop from Offenbach to Rihanna — did not produce poetry. For me it produced a headache.

BRANTLEY: Ah, I had a swell time at “Moulin Rouge,” and I thought the far-reaching songbook became a kind of commentary on how such songs form the wallpaper of our minds. And then there was “Tina,” which was more business-as-usual bio-musical fare, although illuminated by a radiant, cliché-transcending performance by Adrienne Warren as Turner.

GREEN: The creators of musicals really offered a sampler of ways to respond to the jukebox problem. “Jagged Little Pill,” built on the Alanis Morissette catalog, made the smart choice of abjuring biography and instead attaching her songs to a new plot (by Diablo Cody) that grew out of the same concerns and vocabulary. Or perhaps I should say “new plots,” because it is not shy with them. There are at least eight story lines.

BRANTLEY: To be honest, this was the show that gave me a headache, because it was so insistently earnest in its topicality and, even when it was trying to be funny, humorless. So, of the new musicals (and we haven’t touched on “The Lightning Thief,” your personal favorite) what would you give the premature Tony to?

GREEN: The one that wouldn’t be eligible: “American Utopia.” Joy and sadness bound to each other through David Byrne’s music and Annie-B Parson’s movement: What else do you want from a musical, even if it’s just a concert?

BRANTLEY: I loved “American Utopia.” I think, though, I’d have to go with “Girl From the North Country,” but I wouldn’t have predicted that after seeing it in London two years ago. I find more in it every time I revisit it.

GREEN: Despite all the Best Musical possibilities this truncated season, only one, “The Lightning Thief,” had a new score. Yet most of the offerings sounded new anyway, the result of terrific arrangements and orchestrations. I’m thinking especially of Justin Levine’s magpie-on-Ecstasy song collages for “Moulin Rouge!,” Tom Kitt’s theatricalization of post-grunge pop for “Jagged Little Pill” and Simon Hale’s excavation of the deeply layered Americana in Dylan’s catalog for “Girl.”

BRANTLEY: Here, I’d have to say it’s a tie between “Girl” and “Moulin Rouge!,” each a remarkable accomplishment in a very different way. As for best revival, the undisputed winner is Ivo van Hove’s divisive revival of “West Side Story,” but that’s because it is, remarkably, the only musical revival so far.

GREEN: I liked “West Side Story” better than you did, Ben, perhaps because I wasn’t reviewing it. I lapped up the new things it wanted to show me (while also hunting for the old things it wanted to hide from me) and didn’t worry about the elements that laid an egg. (“Gee, Officer Krupke.”) Its evocation of innocence and hopelessness felt more like real life now than I’ve experienced in previous revivals.

BRANTLEY: I concede the point intellectually. But the acid test for me with theater — and musicals in particular — is how much it makes you feel. And to borrow a lyric from “A Chorus Line,” for the most part “I felt nothing.”

GREEN: I admit it was odd that there were no obvious breakout performances in “West Side Story” — which brings us to our first lightning round. Who wins our Tonys for leading actor and actress in a musical?

BRANTLEY: Best Actress: Adrienne Warren, for “Tina” (though Karen Olivo in “Moulin Rouge!” is pretty fab, too). Best Actor: Jay O. Sanders in, perversely, a non-singing role in “Girl From the North Country.” You?

GREEN: Same. I think we are having a socially distanced mindmeld. Will that also be the case with the nine new plays and four revivals that opened before March 12? With one exception, the revivals were not as thrilling as the full slate promised to be.

BRANTLEY: For me, the winner is Jamie Lloyd’s spartan, merciless revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” which brought harsh clarity to the work’s emotional ambiguity.

GREEN: And ambiguity to the play’s harsh formality — its semi-backward construction. It was certainly the best “Betrayal” I’ve seen, yet I hold out some love for the revival of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” which in retrospect turned out to be a farewell to Terrence McNally, its author, who died last week. I felt that Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald did it, and him, justice.

BRANTLEY: It was certainly a reminder of his shrewdness and compassion. I was perhaps a little too conscious of the Acting, with a capital A. But it was a welcome addition to the season. For Best Play, we have a far more varied field, no? I suspect we’ll agree on the winner here, the season’s great iconoclast.

GREEN: Yes, “Slave Play,” by Jeremy O. Harris, wins on sheer disruptive energy, even before considering its intelligence as playwriting, its knockout production (directed by Robert O’Hara) and its fearsome challenge to renegotiate race in America.

BRANTLEY: But for all its shock value, what made it a wonderful play — as opposed to just a bracing exploration of dangerous ground — was its heart. By the end, you felt so completely the pain of its characters, all trying to navigate the perhaps insuperable hurdles of interracial relationships.

GREEN: I think “The Inheritance” wanted to be that kind of play, too: a story of intimate relationships yet also a gay manifesto with the multipart heft of “Angels in America.” It got the heft, anyway; “Slave Play” ran 120 minutes; “The Inheritance,” 385.

BRANTLEY: “The Inheritance” certainly gets points for ambition — and for the fluidity of Stephen Daldry’s production. And might I put in a word for the prickly comic abrasiveness of Tracy Letts’ “Linda Vista,” a lacerating anatomy of toxic masculinity disguised as brooding charm?

GREEN: I liked what “Linda Vista” wanted to do but found it flabby. Perhaps straitened times demand slender plays. Certainly, the other new drama I greatly admired was whippetlike: Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside,” an existential mystery wrapped in a literary one, or vice versa. Among other things, it allowed Mary-Louise Parker, as a Yale writing instructor, to deliver a Tony-worthy performance. And now that “How I Learned to Drive,” the other play in which she was set to star this season, has been postponed, she doesn’t have to compete against herself. Is she our winner?

BRANTLEY: I am going to declare a tie between her and Laura Linney, who gave a very subtle, and emotionally transparent, performance as the title character of “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” adapted by Rona Munro from Elizabeth Strout’s novel.

GREEN: I buy that. But let’s not forget Joaquina Kalukango in “Slave Play,” Eileen Atkins in “The Height of the Storm,” Zawe Ashton in “Betrayal” and Jane Alexander in “Grand Horizons.” It was a very strong semi-season for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

BRANTLEY: And for Best Actor?

GREEN: The real Tonys decreed that Paul Alexander Nolan was eligible for his “supporting” role in “Slave Play,” but in my Tonys he’s a strong candidate for “leading.” Still, I’ll go with Tom Hiddleston, in “Betrayal.” Or at least he wins in my newly invented category of Best Use of the Lack of a Tissue. His facial leakage was Vesuvian.

BRANTLEY: He was superb — and a reminder of the cathartic value of the tears of others in theater. Of course, there’s so much to cry about now in terms of opportunities lost this season. But I’m not writing an elegy for, or even a definitive summary of, this season yet. It will be fascinating to see how it reincarnates itself, won’t it?

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .

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