From new stories incorporating familiar characters to fresh takes on historical and current events, this year’s Tony Award-nominated plays and musicals spoke to contemporary audiences in ways that often defied generational and cultural boundaries. Fans could enjoy the adventures of Harry Potter, SpongeBob, and spirited ingenues made famous by Disney and Tina Fey, or journey to the Middle East or back to 18th century Spain and find laughs, thrills, and sometimes sobering insights.
The nominees for best musical combine two adaptations of hugely popular films, Mean Girls and Frozen; with another show centered on a pop-culture phenomenon, SpongeBob SquarePants; and an intimate piece based on another film, The Band’s Visit. The last musical, initially presented Off-Broadway by the Atlantic Theater Company, follows an Egyptian police orchestra that travels to Israel but arrives at the wrong destination, a remote village where its members find fellowship with the locals.
Ari’el Stachel, a Broadway newcomer nominated for best performance by an actor in a featured role for his portrayal of one of the musicians, notes that The Band’s Visit “shows these vignettes of people at various stages of their lives,” which take on a larger resonance because of their setting. “In the Middle East, we’re often stigmatized in a negative way,” says the actor, whose father is a Yemen native who immigrated to this country from Israel. “Ninety-five percent of the world are just peaceful people, getting up and living their lives … looking for love and searching for things,” notes Stachel, who feels the play “is connecting people to that essence of love and humanity.”
SpongeBob musical supervisor Tom Kitt, a nominee for best orchestrations, sees another positive message in the eternally optimistic sea creature’s quest, in that musical, to thwart an apocalyptic scheme. “One of the things I have taken from this show, working on it and sharing it with children,” Kitt says, “is this idea that in the face of seemingly insurmountable and devastating circumstances, we can speak to one another; we can pull one another up and enjoy the moments we have.”
Mean Girls lyricist Nell Benjamin notes that she and the show’s other creators — nominated librettist Fey and composer Jeff Richmond, Fey’s husband, who shares the nod for best original score with Benjamin — have young daughters, and considered what the musical’s accounts of high school social dynamics could offer girls and young women beyond broad satire. “It’s not just larger-than-life characters being delightfully bitchy,” says Benjamin, who referred to Queen Bees and Wanna-Bes, the book that inspired the original Mean Girls, in contemplating “how girls and women express themselves, and how we should be listening to them.”
Jennifer Lee, who adapted her own screenplay for the blockbuster film for Frozen, notes that the musical — which also garnered separate nominations for her and composer/lyricists Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez — “arrived on Broadway at a time where its themes are especially relevant, as it is a story about two sisters who, through each other, find their strengths and prove that love is stronger than fear. It’s been so heartwarming to hear how audiences find Anna and Elsa’s journey empowering.”
Play nominees include a two-part epic following one of modern fiction’s most famous heroes as we see him in the future. Jamie Parker, nominated for his leading performance as the grown-up wizard in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, notes that the play emphasizes “that you have to listen to the next generation.” Though Harry’s relationship with his younger son is the core, powerful women are also central: Playwright Jack Thorne, who conceived the story with director John Tiffany and the author who gave us Potter, J.K. Rowling, says the decision to make Harry’s female friend Hermione Granger the highest-ranking figure in the Ministry of Magic “was all Jo [Rowling],” and notes that Harry’s wife, Ginny, has also become more prominent since Cursed Child’s world premiere in London nearly two years ago. “She’s really a partner to Harry,” Thorne notes.
Two other U.K. imports crafted by women are up for best play: Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children and Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King. The latter production cast van Kampen’s husband, Mark Rylance, as Spain’s King Philippe V, who three centuries ago was thought to be on the brink of madness, but found his nerves soothed by the singing of a celebrated castrato. “The use of music therapy to alleviate — and attempt to cure — mental illness is centuries old,” says van Kampen, who feels that Broadway audiences may have been drawn to Farinelli “not only to witness the life-changing effect” the singer had on the manic-depressive monarch, “but perhaps because they were seeking something beyond words that could both fill them with emotion and move them toward hope.”
The Children, Kirkwood’s Broadway debut, follows three physicists who, in their later years, face the consequences of environmental damage and their own roles in it. “The play deals with reparation and redemption, but mainly it deals with responsibility,” says Lynne Meadow, artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club, which produced Children in New York. “There’s a line in the play that says, ‘Should we be complaining that our internet’s down when half the civilized world doesn’t have electricity?’” The actress who spoke the words, Francesca Annis, “felt a sense of honor to be onstage” addressing a timely matter, Meadow says, “and hopefully eliciting a conversation.”
Another contender, Ayad Akhtar’s JUNK, brings us back a few decades, but its story, inspired by disgraced financier Michael Milliken, feels disturbingly topical. “I feel increasingly like the story of our time is money,” says Akhtar, a Tony nominee and Pulitzer Prize winner for his last Broadway play, Disgraced. “But not in the ways that we are accustomed to. The story of money making money, of the rise in the centrality of fees, in the use of debt, in shifting notions of values — all these have paved the way for the current confounding and treacherous politics. … JUNK is ostensibly set in the ’80s, but it isn’t a play about the ’80s. It’s a play about our national life now.”
So, clearly, is the fifth nominee for play, John Leguizamo’s one-man show Latin History for Morons, which he performed as well. History “talks about all the issues facing youth and people of color and the dark times we are living in,” Leguizamo says, “in a crazy-hijinks, laugh-out-loud manner. It smuggles in content about the exclusion of Latin people’s contributions to the making of America since the American Revolution. One big fact from the play that astounds everyone is that Latin people are the only ethnic group to have fought in every single war this country has ever had, and are the most decorated minority in each and every war.”