Production photos from The Great Comet, Come From Away, Groundhog Day, and Dear Evan Hansen
Production photos from The Great Comet, Come From Away, Groundhog Day, and Dear Evan Hansen

Tony Countdown: The Musicals

With the Tony Awards quickly approaching, let’s take a look at the musicals nominated this year.

The big story of New York’s 2015–2016 theater season was how an Off-Broadway transfer pushed the American musical back to the center of pop culture. Hamilton revitalized the form by reminding us of the elements that have defined musical theater since Show Boat and the Golden Age — compelling characters and plots driven by words, music, and dance — while drawing on another tradition rich in storytelling, hip-hop. In the process, it won a slew of Tony Awards, 11 in all. This year’s Tony Award nominees, announced May 2, brought new musicals that carried their own sparks of ingenuity, including those that arrived after successful Off-Broadway runs.
With Dear Evan Hansen, rising composers/lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and playwright Steven Levenson managed to parlay teenage angst into a piercing account of our universal need for connection and its complexities in the digital age. Pasek and Paul’s soaring, emo-inflected score finds theatricality and empathy in an offshoot of modern rock sometimes (duly) associated with navel-gazing. The production received nine nominations, including best musical; only two shows earned more, one being the ebullient Hello Dolly! that brought Bette Midler back to Broadway, with 10 nods.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which marked pop baritenor Josh Groban’s Broadway debut, tops the list with 12 nominations. Dave Malloy, who wrote the music and libretto (and introduced the role of Pierre downtown), adapted the bittersweet love story from a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, though he and director Rachel Chavkin made the journey back to 19th century Russia a distinctly contemporary one: A runway curls through the orchestra section, allowing performers to re-create the immersive experience provided in Ars Nova’s more intimate original staging.

Contenders for best musical also include a pair of productions that each grabbed seven nominations: Come From Away, which uses a day that shook the city to its core, 9/11, as a basis for celebrating the kindness of strangers; and Groundhog Day the Musical, an adaptation of the now-classic screen comedy with a score by Matilda the Musical’s Tim Minchin. War Paint, inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s book about pioneering female tycoons and pronounced rivals Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, received four, two of them for its formidable leading ladies (and previous two-time Tony winners), Christine Ebersole (who plays Arden) and Patti LuPone (Rubinstein).

Bandstand, a new musical honoring World War II vets with a swinging score, has exuberant choreography by Hamilton alum Andy Blankenbuehler, one of the production’s two nominees. Blankenbuehler’s competitors include Denis Jones, representing Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical, which married timeless songs to a snappy new libretto. Anastasia earned nominations for veteran stage and screen actress Mary Beth Peil, and for Linda Cho’s sumptuous costume design, which captures the decadence of the pre-revolutionary Russian aristocracy.

Recognized revivals include, in addition to Dolly!, Miss Saigon and Falsettos. The latter collected five nominations, one of them for Christian Borle, who’s currently making magic and mischief as Willy Wonka in a musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But it’s fair to say that in the performance categories, for plays as well as musicals, women provided more sheer star power this past season. We’ll take a closer look at some of those indelible performances next time.