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The Tonys: Musical fluff prevails while revivals trump new plays

May 5, 2009 |  9:59 am

Billy Elliot A glut of great acting talent and a scarcity of distinguished new plays and musicals — the Tony nominations for the 2008-09 season, announced this morning, reveal that the more things economically change, the more they commercially stay the same.

No surprise that “Billy Elliot, The Musical,” the Lee Hall-Elton John juggernaut, pulled in a record 15 nominations, with the three tykes alternating in the leading role sharing a nomination. Might as well roll out the red carpet and hand the production its bric-a-brac right now. The suspense over whether this overstuffed, overpraised British import will receive single- or double-digit Tonys isn’t exactly killing anyone. The relative crown, whose gilt seems to be peeling more and more each year, is already being proudly worn.   

Prognosticators were also fairly certain that “Next to Normal,” a musical that dares to tackle the subject of bipolar disorder, would clinch one of the four best musical spots. One nominee has to shore up the category’s serious credentials, if not integrity, and this production boasts a performance by Alice Ripley that’s favored to grab the best leading actress in a musical award. 
 
Tonys Gallery Somewhat surprising was the absence of “9 to 5: The Musical,” that giant dollop of movie-inspired comfort food specially prepared by Dolly Parton, one of the film’s stars, and Patricia Resnick, the woman behind the original screenplay, from the best musical category. When the show premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre in September, it struck me as a vehicle for audiences that “just want to have nostalgic fun,” no matter that the production has “only occasional success in switching on the old fluorescent-lit office magic.”

Nothing gets in the way of a musical megalith and its Broadway dreams -- certainly not out-of-town mixed reviews. But it shouldn't be too hard to wrap your mind around the illogic of the gamble when you consider the two shows that wound up squeezing “9 to 5: The Musical” out of the category: “Shrek the Musical,” marking Dreamworks’ less than heralded plunge into what traditionally has been Disney waters, and “Rock of Ages,” the jerky ’80s jukebox joy-ride that had its world premiere three years ago at the King King in Hollywood and seemed more likely back then to be heading to the Vegas Strip than the Great White Way.

God of car Ah, distinctions, distinctions. The Tony nominating committee members have had no choice but to become connoisseurs of Happy Meals, differentiating among burgers and fries as they wipe the grease from their upper lips. But don’t cry for Parton, whose score was nominated (and is fated to lose to John’s). Blockbusters with a theme-parkish hook have a way of financially prevailing, come critical rain or even Tony cloud cover.  

The good news concerning the best play category is that three of the four nominated works are by Americans, with nary an Englishman or Irishman in sight, if you can believe it. The bad news is that Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate,” Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to be Pretty” and Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations” don’t stand a chance against Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” whose entire cast (Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini, above) was lavished with lead actor nominations and whose ensemble brilliance went a long way toward making Reza’s schematic manipulations not just theatrically robust but almost human.
   
What would we do without the reliability of our actors?  If not enough of us are sounding the Cassandra alarms this Broadway season, it has everything to do with their astounding quality.

Oscar winners, such as Jane Fonda (“33 Variations”) and Geoffrey Rush (“Exit the King”), were rewarded as expected with nominations in the leading actor and actress categories. Other notable nominees include Stockard Channing (“Pal Joey”) and Allison Janney (“9 to 5: The Musical”) for leading actress in a musical, Raúl Esparza (and not his mercury-impaired "Speed-the-Plow" co-star Jeremy Piven) for leading actor in a play, and Angela Lansbury (“Blithe Spirit”) and Hallie Foote (“Dividing the Estate”) for featured actress in play.

No wonder the most competitive contest this year was best revival of a play, with “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Mary Stuart,” “The Norman Conquests,” and “Waiting for Godot” beating out “The Seagull,” “Exit the King,” “All My Sons” and “Desire Under the Elms.” Suffice it to say, it takes performers of the caliber of Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer (both of whom were nominated for their work in “Mary Stuart”) to make an 1800 play by Friedrich Schiller seem, well, less than 200 years old. 
 
Meanwhile, British directors can duke it out over the hardware: "Billy Elliot's"  Stephen Daldry appears to have a lock on the best direction of a musical award, but only Bartlett Sher ("Joe Turner's Come and Gone"), the lone American director, has a fighting chance against Phyllida Lloyd (Mary Stuart) and Matthew Warchus (nominated for both “God of Carnage” and “The Norman Conquests”).

With a tip of the hat to French playwright Reza, let’s just say plus ça change.  The Brits will understand perfectly well what we’re talking about.  

-- Charles McNulty

MORE TONYS COVERAGE

'Billy Elliot' and 'Next to Normal' top 2009 Tony nominations

L.A.'s 'Rock of Ages' rocks Tony nominations

Tony Awards snub '9 to 5,' 'The Seagull' and 'Desire Under the Elms'

Who should host the Tony Awards? (Suggestions welcome)

Top photo: David Alvarez and Haydn Gwynne in "Billy Elliot, The Musical." Credit: AP Photo / Barlow Hartman Public Relations, David Scheinmann

Lower photo: Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini in "God of Carnage." Credit: AP Photo / Boneau/Bryan-Brown Public Relations, Joan Marcus

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