Greek mythology, Shakespeare, the Constitution, Rupert Murdoch, old-school R&B, and a pair of beloved films from the 1980s were among the diverse sources of inspiration for 2019’s Tony Award–nominated plays and musicals, whose creative teams, cast members, and producers now await this year’s big night.
Not atypically, several shows in contention arrived after runs Off-Broadway or in London. In the case of Hadestown — a musical conceived by folk-pop singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, who’s up for best book and original score — the production earned 14 nods in all, more than any other this year. Its Broadway premiere followed more than a decade of development, with stops at New York Theatre Workshop, the U.K.’s National Theatre, and in Edmonton, Alberta, along the way. Director Rachel Chavkin, also a nominee, signed on to help flesh out the musical after hearing Mitchell’s 2010 recording; Chavkin’s lyrical, immersive approach to the bittersweet love stories of Eurydice and Orpheus and Hades and Persephone has earned raves similar to those she received for her last Broadway effort, the critical favorite Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
The Off-Broadway transfer What the Constitution Means to Me is the brainchild of another multifaceted female artist, the playwright and actress Heidi Schreck, a nominee in both categories. Her work had an even longer gestational period, dating back to when Schreck was a precocious teenager obsessed with the document laying out our country’s founding principles. At once deeply personal and pointedly political, the play explores how women and other groups have been excluded from the rights and privileges laid out by the U.S. Constitution, while also celebrating its enduring promise.
Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, which originated Off-Broadway as well, studies oppression and exclusion from another angle, within an all-male, predominantly black prep school. Rising star Jeremy Pope — a double nominee, acknowledged for this play and for Best Musical contender Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations — played the school choir’s charismatic lead tenor, who grapples with homophobia and his elders’ expectations. The play is McCraney’s Broadway debut, though he’s already an accomplished playwright and an Oscar winner for Moonlight’s screenplay.
Nominees for best play also include Pulitzer Prize finalist Taylor Mac’s long-awaited Broadway bow, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, in which the boundary-breaking writer and performer (who doesn’t appear in the play) used Shakespeare’s tragedy as a starting point for a raucously funny, gory, poignant look at our enduring capacity for destruction — and for hope as well. Starring Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and Julie White, the play earned featured-actress nods for the two, and another nomination for director George C. Wolfe, with seven in total.
Mac, McCraney, and Shreck will compete with two British exports, The Ferryman and Ink. The latter play, by James Graham, recounts the rise of controversial media mogul Rupert Murdoch; director Rupert Goold, also among the play’s six nominees, applied a characteristically flamboyant approach to the Fleet Street tabloid wars that established the Australian Murdoch as a major force in Britain and paved the way for his international prominence.
Ferryman, the latest effort from acclaimed playwright Jez Butterworth, is set in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s during The Troubles that roiled that region for decades. With its rich storytelling, infused with mystery and family and cultural lore, and a sprawling cast that includes young children and various animals — guided by director Sam Mendes, also a nominee — the production collected nine nominations, tying with To Kill a Mockingbird for most given to a play this year.
The remaining Best Musical candidates also focus on serious matters, albeit with levity and buoyant production numbers. The Prom, inspired by real-life events, features a female student whose wish to take another young woman to her high-school dance prompts its cancellation. Director Casey Nicholaw, composer Matthew Sklar, and writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, longtime friends and colleagues, added a comedic twist in which narcissistic, down-on-their-luck New York actors — characters expressly designed for other musical-theater veterans — invade the students’ small town, seeking positive publicity but getting something more meaningful. Nicholaw and his collaborating creators and several performers are among the recipients of the show’s seven nominations.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations garnered 12 Tony nods, an astonishing number for a show that doesn’t feature an original score, drawing instead from the timeless hits of the titular group and other Motown icons. Director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, among the contenders, enlisted gifted singers and dancers to add contemporary punch to the Temps’ famously smooth moves and soulful vocals, while fellow nominee Dominique Morisseau, the playwright who crafted Ain’t Too Proud’s libretto, examined the group’s ups and downs in context of the social upheaval and racial strife prevalent in the ’60s and ’70s.
For their musical adaptation of the beloved 1982 film comedy Tootsie, up for 11 awards, book writer Robert Horn and composer/lyricist David Yazbek, both nominees, updated the tale of a male actor who disguises himself as a woman so it would reflect the values and challenges of our post-#MeToo era, while retaining the movie’s charm and humor. The humor is even more outrageous in this incarnation, which stars Santino Fontana, one of four nominated performers in the cast, in a role that many feel marks a new career height — and not just because of the heels designed for him by legendary costumer William Ivey Long, another two-time nominee this year.
Long’s other nomination is for another new spin on a thirtysomething-year-old film classic and candidate for best musical: Beetlejuice. Long collaborated with a dream team that included Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen scenic designer David Korins, also a nominee, to bring Tim Burton’s wonderfully weird and witty visual aesthetic to Broadway. Recipients of the show’s eight nominations also include leading man Alex Brightman — who is, like Fontana, making an established, iconic role very much his own — as well as composer/lyricist Eddie Perfect and librettists Scott Brown and Anthony King, who have brought new heart to the story of a ghoul and a goth girl while expanding on the original’s outré comedy.
The Tony Awards will air live from Radio City Music Hall on CBS, with James Corden hosting, on June 9, at 8 p.m. (ET/PT time delay).