This year’s Tony Award nominations for acting recognize a number of stage and screen stars — among them, Annette Bening, Jeff Daniels, Bryan Cranston, Adam Driver, Laurie Metcalf, and Janet McTeer. But this year’s nods also reflect a season in which less widely recognized performers long treasured within the theater community were the focus of increased or renewed attention, and others with less experience emerged as rising stars.
The exuberant musical comedy The Prom boasts both. Director Casey Nicholaw and collaborating creators Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, and Matthew Sklar — all nominees — crafted the show specifically for old pals they had worked with on numerous occasions. Among them are Brooks Ashmanskas and Beth Leavel, contenders for performance by an actor and actress in leading roles for their turns as adorably megalomaniacal thespians who descend on a small town. Their fresh-faced, winsome-voiced costar Caitlin Kinnunen, an alumna of Spring Awakening and Bridges of Madison County, also got a leading-actress nod, playing the young high school student whose cause — opening hearts and minds so that she can take her girlfriend to a dance — they champion.
Kinnunen was not the only member of Awakening’s original graduating class to see her profile continue to soar. Gideon Glick, up for featured actor in a play, beguiled audiences as the bookish, haunted Dill in Aaron Sorkin’s nine-times-nominated adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, which also collected nods for Jeff Daniels’s boldly earthy Atticus Finch (lead actor) and Celia Keenan-Bolger’s tomboyish, captivating Scout (featured actress). And Lilli Cooper, who also made her Broadway bow in Awakening, was tapped for her charming featured performance as an actress drawn to a man playing a woman in the hit musical adaptation of Tootsie.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Tootsie also earned a Tony nod for its leading man, Santino Fontana, who may well have found a star-making role in Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels after years of bringing effortless virtuosity to plays and musicals alike. Four of Tootsie’s 11 nominations went to performers: Andy Grotelueschen (featured actor) and Sarah Stiles (featured actress), like Fontana and Cooper, play considerably reimagined versions of characters made famous by screen stars back in 1982.
Lead actor in a musical contender Alex Brightman was also acknowledged for a new, brashly comedic spin on a role introduced in an iconic ’80s performance, that of the title character in Beetlejuice. Cranston, who won a Tony several years back playing President Lyndon B. Johnson, grabbed another nomination for his role as Howard Beale, the fictional broadcaster who captured a nation’s angry soul in Network, playwright Lee Hall and director Ivo van Hove’s immersive, U.K.–launched stage adaptation of the ’70s film classic that earned Peter Finch a posthumous Oscar.
Other candidates played stars of pop and soul music for Broadway audiences. Derrick Baskin collected one of the 12 nominations for Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, for his alternately sly and earnest take on Otis Williams, founding member (and sole survivor) of the legendary R&B group’s Classic Five lineup. Ephraim Sykes got another flaunting his dazzling song-and-dance skills as the flashier David Ruffin. And a third went to Jeremy Pope for his role as Eddie Kendricks. Pope is among just a few artists nominated in two categories, and the only one in the acting fields: He is also up for leading actor in a play for his charismatic turn as a gifted, taunted prep-school student in Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play with music Choir Boy.
Three-time nominee and longstanding musical theater favorite Stephanie J. Block’s witty, vocally blazing portrait of Cher in her “Star” incarnation in The Cher Show has generated Tony buzz since previews, but she’ll face stiff competition in the leading actress category: Seven-time nominee and 2015 winner Kelli O’Hara is tapped this season for her similarly acclaimed take on the diva Lilli Vanessi in Scott Ellis’s revival of Kiss Me Kate. Eva Noblezada, up for Miss Saigon two years ago, rounds out the field for her piquant, haunted take on the tragic mythological heroine Eurydice in the season’s most nominated musical (with 14 in all), Hadestown.
Hadestown also brought the welcome return of dashing-as-ever André De Shields, back on Broadway after a decade long sabbatical, as messenger/emcee Hermes; De Shields and fellow vet Patrick Page, cast as a glowering Hades, are both in contention for the featured actor prize, with costar Amber Gray a featured actress nominee for her sinuous Persephone.
Broadway and comedy legend Elaine May also graced us this season, receiving a featured actress nomination after fearlessly evoking the indignities of age in the Broadway premiere of Kenneth Lonergan’s play The Waverly Gallery. May’s fellow nominees for leading actress in a play include a number of distinguished veterans: Bening returned to Broadway after a sabbatical of more than 30 years (during which she performed on other stages) to play the tortured matriarch Kate Keller in a revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons; Janet McTeer embodied seminal actress Sarah Bernhardt in Bernhardt/Hamlet; and 2017 and 2018 Tony winner Laurie Metcalf earned votes as a certain former secretary of state and presidential candidate in Hillary and Clinton.
Performer and writer Heidi Schreck saw her star ascend after getting political, and personal, in What the Constitution Means to Me; Schreck’s insightful and unsparing look at the founding document landed her nominations for both best play and leading actress. Northern Irish actress Laura Donnelly helps McTeer represent the U.K. with her inclusion in the latter field, for her starkly sensual performance as a young widow in the lavishly praised London import The Ferryman.
Ferryman’s nine nominations also acknowledge Paddy Considine (lead actor) and Fionnula Flanagan (featured actress), constituting a solid chunk of performers from across the pond lauded this year. There’s also London native Bertie Carvel, a Tony nominee for his villainous Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical, contending for featured actor for playing the controversial media mogul Rupert Murdoch in Ink; and English The Affair and Mrs. Wilson star Ruth Wilson is up for featured actress for her graceful, playful double duty as Cordelia and the (traditionally male) Fool in Sam Gold’s King Lear.
Daniel Fish’s celebrated reimagining of a homegrown gem, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, earned nominations for theater vet Mary Testa (featured actress, for her wry Aunt Eller), up-and-comer Ali Stroker (also featured actress, for her twangy-voiced Ado Annie), and actor/musician Damon Daunno (lead actor, for his guitar-strumming Curly). A more modern American classic, the Lanford Wilson play Burn This, yielded nominations for film star Driver (lead actor) and Broadway favorite Brandon Uranowitz (featured actor), while the long overdue Broadway premiere of The Boys in the Band landed a nod for Robin De Jesús, previously noted for his work in musicals from In the Heights to La Cage Aux Folles.
Other nominees in the featured acting categories include names familiar to most theatergoers: Benjamin Walker, noted for his performance as the Kellers’ yearning son Chris in All My Sons; and Kristine Nielsen and Julie White, who costarred with Nathan Lane in Taylor Mac’s groundbreaking Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, the Pulitzer Prize finalist by the first-time Broadway playwright that evidenced the abundance of fresh, forward-thinking talent now available to audiences both on stage and behind the scenes.
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).
Illustrations by John Paul Snead.