Tony awards 2018: glitzy nominations reflect Broadway's blockbuster year

SpongeBob, Mean Girls and Harry Potter lead the way after a record-breaking year but are the big-budget productions hampering original alternatives?

A humble sponge is feeling pretty good right now, though Katharine McPhee, one of the presenters of the 2018 Tony nominations, managed to mispronounce SpongeBob SquarePants: the Broadway Musical at least two different ways. (Leslie Odom Jr, the other presenter, also mangled the phonics, though this may have been a show of support.) In her defense she had to say it often: the jaunty tale of an absorbent undersea hero was nominated for 12 Tony awards, a tie with Mean Girls. Angels in America, The Band’s Visit, My Fair Lady and some English wizards also have plenty to celebrate.

This was a strange-ish year on Broadway, with fewer than usual musical revivals and few new plays (with a couple of adaptations and one-person shows to make up the numbers). Hardly any musicals had all the critics cheering and much of the play acclaim has gone to two imports, as brilliant as they are long: Angels in America and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

The nominations are a reminder that Broadway has mostly become a pricey tourist attraction. Though the majority of its tickets are still sold to locals, it is designed to appeal for a here-on-a-holiday crowd, with kid’s shows, movie adaptations and star vehicles dominating. These days, musicals are a surer bet than plays; adaptations and revivals are seen as safer than originals. Name recognition is seemingly a must.

That strategy is working, in financial terms at least. This was another year for gangbuster Broadway receipts. Plays, especially those without stars – and even those with them – struggle at the box office. Many of the theaters that could house new work are filled with long-runners. With three Disney shows running, plus Wicked and Anastasia, there’s lots here for shorter patrons, but less to appeal to grown-ups.

The 2018 Tonys have lavished plenty of love on shows that are trying to split the difference, between parents and their children, shows that decided to take entertainment seriously and exuberantly. The goofy, effervescent SpongeBob is the feelgood surprise of the morning. Though squishy at the box office, it’s a show unashamed of its silliness, and ambitious in its theatricality. While it likely will lose the big award to the grown-up melancholy of The Band’s Visit, the critical darling of the season, it has some strong possibilities for performance and design awards, maybe even a best director. They only other real contender is Mean Girls. It has a generic score and a merely adequate production, but Tina Fey’s witty book is a pleasure and there are some knockout comic turns.

Andrew Garfield in Angels in America.
Andrew Garfield in Angels in America. Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg/AP

Angels in America, the prestige hit of the season, garnered 11 nominations. Cursed Child, a show that many had initially dismissed as a franchise affair, racked up 10, a testament to its strong cast, astonishing design and ingenious, exuberant direction.

Looking across the categories, many of the nominations went as expected, though there were a few surprises, like an original score nod for Angels in America. There are precedents for this, of course, but it still points to the weakness and scarcity of new musicals. A choreography nomination for Harry Potter’s Steven Hoggett, also deserved, flashes the same indicators.

Unusually, six female actors were nominated for a leading role in a musical. Katrina Lenk (The Band’s Visit) and Lauren Ambrose (My Fair Lady) were all but assured, with Hailey Kilgore (Once On This Island) likely. They have been joined by LaChanze (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical), Taylor Louderman (Mean Girls), and Jessie Mueller (Carousel), a Broadway favorite who some critics thought miscast. The stars of Frozen were shut out entirely and overall the show received only three nominations, which is cold. Pour a pina colada out for Escape from Margaritaville, which received none at all. Which is fine.

Other no-hitters: The Parisian Woman, Marvin’s Room, Time and the Conways, M Butterfly, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, Prince of Broadway, The Band’s Visit, Home for the Holidays. If The Terms of My Surrender was eligible, it was likewise not honored and the Bruce Springsteen solo, which chose not to put itself in contention, will receive a special award, as will John Leguizamo for Latin History for Morons, which also rounded out an anemic best play category.

Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Schumer and Laura Benanti in Meteor Shower.
Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Schumer and Laura Benanti in Meteor Shower. Photograph: Matthew Murphy

Unexpected nods included Amy Schumer – in a category that might as well be renamed This One’s for Glenda Jackson – for the tepidly received Meteor Shower and Deborah Findlay for strong work in the underrated The Children. (Francesca Annis ought to have joined her.) Summer’s Ariana DeBose and Carousel’s Renée Fleming were both mild surprises in a featured actress category that also includes Diana Rigg, who essentially received a nod for just showing up splendidly.

There weren’t too many snubs, though James McArdle was ignored for his featured actor work in Angels in America, with nods going instead to his colleague Nathan Lane and two Lobby Heroes, Michael Cera and Brian Tyree Henry, as well as Iceman’s David Morse. Alex Newell, a Once On This Island favorite, did not crack featured actor in a musical.

Some of the most interesting categories look to be the directing ones, with voters asked to compare the wildly different work of David Cromer and Tina Landau for best direction of a musical. In other years play directors Marianne Elliott or John Tiffany wouldn’t have much competition, but this year they have each other. Among the angels, wizards, teen witches, shellfish and melancholy musicians, it ought to be quite a night.


Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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