Let's get this out of the way: The most anticipated show of the past two Broadway seasons — Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark -- finally opened, after multiple delays, cast injuries, the firing of its writer-director Julie Taymor and the longest preview period in Broadway history, on June 14th, 2011, a few days after last year's Tony Awards.
And how did it fare? The critics found little to like, but it's become something of a solid audience favorite, regularly landing in the top five highest-grossing musicals on Broadway each week and bringing in a whopping $2,941,794 between Christmas and New Year's. That's the most for any show in Broadway history — which still doesn't guarantee the show will ever make back its jaw-dropping $75 million investment.
Despite the critical brickbats, this observer found the retooled musical — which closed for three weeks to lay in major writing and staging changes with a new creative team — achieved something almost miraculous: a confused and confusing show was turned into a coherent, plot-driven, tourist-friendly extravaganza. Not to say that it was, oh, I dunno, Fiddler on the Roof, but, frankly, it was a lot more entertaining than some of the other musicals that opened this year. (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever? Ghost?)
Still, it turns out that $75 million can't buy you the big Tony nominations: With the exception of nods for set design and costume design, Spider-Man was completely shut out. But I can't promise I won't write about this Broadway juggernaut in next year's round up; director Julie Taymor and the producers have filed nasty dueling lawsuits over unpaid royalties, so the saga continues.
Otherwise, it turned out to be another record-breaking year on Broadway. Forty shows opened (14 musicals, 23 plays and 3 special events) to a total gross of $1.14 billion and an audience of 12.33 million. Actual attendance was down by 200,000 people, but then last season was kind of a leap season: there were 53 playing weeks.
Despite that dip in the behinds-in-seats tally, total box-office receipts leapt by about $600,000 this season, perhaps reflecting the almost universal use of "premium tickets" — a sort of legalized scalping. More than a decade ago, the hit musical The Producers began offering these tickets, in prime orchestra locations, at a couple of hundred dollars over face-value. They argued — and who can blame them? — that a show's producers and creative staff deserved to make the additional money, rather than the ticket brokers who purchase the best seats in the house and pocket the mark-up themselves.
This is what allows a mega-hit, like The Book of Mormon, to have a "top ticket price" of between $155 and $175, and an "average paid admission" closer to $184 every week — and more during the holidays, when the demand for tickets is even higher.
Last year, prior to the Tonys, The Book of Mormon was the juggernaut: A sold-out smash, it had 14 nominations and walked away with nine awards, including the all-important best musical.
This year, there's not a lot of consensus — with a few exceptions — of what and who will take the top prizes. Here are my thoughts and predictions about some of the major categories. (My picks for the winners are in bold).
Leap of Faith
Nice Work If You Can Get It
The critical consensus is that this was an off year for musicals, and with a few exceptions, most ended up on the scrap heap. With 11 nominations, Once, the adaptation of a well-loved indie film, would seem to be the one to beat. But watch out for Newsies, the adaptation of the unloved Disney film; it has its adherents, mainly for some acrobatic choreography and a youthful, energetic cast. (In particular, lead actor Jeremy Jordan, who impressed in the otherwise dismal Frank Wildhorn musical Bonnie and Clyde, and who might grab a Tony this evening.)
Newsies will undoubtedly pick up best score, pretty much by default; because of Tony rules, the delicate contemporary folk score of Once is ineligible, as is the cavalcade of Gershwin tunes in the jukebox musical Nice Work If You Can Get It. In fact, to fill out the category, two plays with music were nominated: One Man, Two Guvnors and Peter and the Starcatcher. The fourth show in the best musical category, Leap of Faith, was a quick flop.
As an artistic endeavor, Once towered over the field: The simple story of an Irish street busker and a Czech pianist and their almost love affair was a singular theatrical experience, using music and choreography in unexpected and unconventional ways. The film is as much about the way music brings people together as it is about its love story, and that was true for the stage adaptation, as well. All the actors were superb musicians, onstage for the whole evening on the show's pub set — the audience can purchase beer and wine before the show and during intermission — listening to and accompanying the story.
The show has already garnered several major awards, and a lot of theater folk love it. If there was an award for best ensemble, I don't doubt Once would win it. Cristin Milioti, as the female lead, is nuanced and heart-breaking; she deserves a Tony, but I believe it's going to Audra McDonald in Porgy and Bess. (More about that later.) About a third of the Tony voters represent the road, where touring musicals are the big-ticket item, and a few weeks ago, Once announced it was going to present a National tour, which might be enough to tip the balance and get the show its well-deserved best-musical Tony.
Other Desert Cities
Peter and the Starcatcher
Venus in Fur
The critical consensus is that this was an excellent year for plays; indeed, I can think of several other plays which could easily have been nominated, in particular One Man, Two Guvnors, a hilarious adaptation of Goldoni's 1743 comedy The Servant of Two Masters, from the UK's National Theatre and featuring the brilliant James Corden.
What do all of the nominated plays have in common? They were all seen in recent off-Broadway productions and transferred almost entirely intact. Clybourne Park appears on Broadway after earning a Pulitzer Prize, an Olivier Award and productions across the country, and I think it'll pick up a Tony, too. Playwright Bruce Norris has created a scabrously funny and entirely relevant look at race and real estate in America, setting it in the offstage house the African-American Younger family purchased at the end of Lorraine Hansberry's classic, A Raisin in the Sun.
The first act takes place in 1959, and looks at the unhappy lives of the sellers (and features the character of Karl Lindner, the representative from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association who shows up in Hansberry's play). The second act takes place in 2009, when a yuppie couple has purchased the very same house as a tear-down in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Jon Robert Baitz's Other Desert Cities might give Clybourne Park a run for its money – it's a searing drama about an Old Guard California Republican family with secrets, which come to the surface when the daughter writes a tell-all memoir. (Both Stockard Channing and Judith Light are nominated for Tonys, but Stacey Keach, Rachel Griffiths and Thomas Sadowski, the three other actors in the show, were equally deserving.)
The other two nominees in the category are highly enjoyable evenings in the theater: Peter and the Starcatcher tells the origin story of Peter Pan in a theatrically inventive way (Christian Borle, of TV's Smash, gives an outrageous turn as Black Stache, the man who will become Captain Hook; he might win a best supporting actor nod). And Venus in Fur features a knockout performance by Nina Arianda, as an aspiring actress who shows up late to an audition and seems to know her character way too well; she's got a great shot to take best actress.
Best Musical Revival
The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess
Jesus Christ Superstar
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice made a big comeback this year, when the two shows they made their name with opened on Broadway within two weeks of each other. That said, I don't think either Evita (a big hit, with Ricky Martin playing the role of Che) or Jesus Christ Superstar (doing middling box office) will take top prize; it's going to be the now-shuttered revival of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies versus the current Broadway "revisal" of The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (a title which somehow manages to ignore the essential contributions of librettist DuBose Heyward).
Both shows had their supporters and detractors. The Sondheim show requires enormous resources — more than 40 actors and 28 musicians — and this revival delivered it, along with some spectacular performances by Danny Burstein (also a shot for best actor in a musical) and Jan Maxwell, among others. It's going to be a long time before Broadway sees this show done in such a big way again.
The Gershwin opera also requires enormous resources, but in the Broadway version, with a revised book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks and an adapted score by jazz musician Deidre Murray, it came across to many as underpowered and misguided. (In fact Stephen Sondheim created a brouhaha with a scathing letter to The New York Times, in response to an article it ran prior to the pre-Broadway engagement.) There were few shows on Broadway this season as polarizing as Porgy and Bess; the only consensus seemed to be that Audra McDonald, as the drug-addicted Bess, was deserving of a fifth Tony.
Best Play Revival
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
Gore Vidal's The Best Man
This may be the only slam-dunk category. The revival of Arthur Miller's 1949 classic, Death of Salesman, which closed last weekend, was the season's biggest hit; look for stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Willie Loman, Andrew Garfield, as his son Biff, and director Mike Nichols to take home Tonys this evening.
While the other shows in this category didn't create as much excitement, they were all blessed with excellent performances – Cynthia Nixon, as the poetry professor riddled with ovarian cancer in Wit (nominated), Tyne Daly, as the imperious opera singer Maria Callas in Master Class (unnominated), and a passel of stars in the surprising timely 1960 presidential campaign drama The Best Man, among them James Earl Jones (nominated), Angela Lansbury (unnominated), and John Larroquette (unnominated).