Conversation: 2011 Tony Award Nominations

BY Jeffrey Brown  May 4, 2011 at 1:50 PM EDT

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Left: Tony-nominated actor Andrew Rannells as Elder Price in ‘The Book of Mormon,’ which scored the most the nominations with a total of 14. Photo by Joan Marcus. Right: Robin Williams in ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,’ which received three nominations, but not for its lead actor or in the Best Play category. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
 

While most of the stories coming from Broadway lately have been about the trials and pains (sometimes literally) of a certain blockbuster musical, on Tuesday at the 2011 Tony Award nominations there was plenty of good news for many of the impressive new productions that came out this year.

The Book of Mormon, a raucous musical by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone about Mormonism, was the most honored with 14 nominations. The Scottsboro Boys, which translated the tragic 1930s true story of nine young black men and boys wrongly accused of raping two white girls, received 12 nominations, despite a very short run on Broadway.

As usual, what got snubbed was also a notable point for many critics. In particular, a few famous film actors (Ben Stiller, Robin Williams and Daniel Radcliffe) did not receive award recognition.

To discuss the nominations, I talked to Linda Winer, theater critic and arts writer for Newsday by phone in New York:

[Read a transcript after the jump]

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown and joining to me today is Linda Winer, Newsday’s theater critic and arts columnist. And she’s here to talk to us about the Tony nominations, which have just been announced. Welcome to you.

LINDA WINER: Thanks very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what generally jumped out at you about the nominations this year?

LINDA WINER: Well, not only jumped out, but, you know, sort of jumped on our heads — it would be impossible to miss — is that The Book of Mormon got 14 nominations. You know when it was first announced that these rascals from South Park had written their first Broadway show and it was going to spoof religion, most people sort of assumed that this was going to be a little bit controversial. And in fact, you know, it 14 nominations, which is just one short of what The Producers got when it set a record in 2001.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s doing well, right?

LINDA WINER: You can’t really, you know, sell a relative to get a ticket.

JEFFREY BROWN: The other musical that 12 nominations was, I guess, I think, also a surprise in its own way — The Scottsboro Boys. Very different musical and it closed real early.

LINDA WINER: That’s one of the shockers of the season. Scottsboro Boys, I found it always to be an extremely honorable show. But, you know— and that can kill you, you know, right? The word ‘honorable’? Don’t you think you want to run out and spend your money to go buy—

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, that’s not the adjective, exactly—

LINDA WINER: ‘I wanna see the honorable show’ — It was very, very well done, but to me a little obvious. And you know it closed basically for lack of interest. And so you feel good that a serious, ambitious musical, which closed in December— but 12 nominations? That’s a lot.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think I read that it’s going to begin a national tour, although it’s not going back to Broadway.

LINDA WINER: Yes, I think its opening first in LA. And the producers, the Weisslers, had been saying that they really wanted to reopen Scottsboro Boys before the season was over. That they thought there was enough interest to make a kind of cause celebre and say we’re bringing it back because people will love it if they only get a chance. And they weren’t able to scramble it together.

JEFFREY BROWN: In another category there has been some talk about this being a pretty strong year for new plays. Is that reflected in the nominations do you think?

LINDA WINER: Oh yeah. This is a year where there were 14 new plays.

JEFFREY BROWN: Put that in perspective for people who don’t follow this.

LINDA WINER: Ok, 14 new plays. Now we are, granted, counting the Peewee Herman show, but Broadway has never — not in years — been welcoming to new plays. You think ‘Broadway’, you think Broadway musicals, you think play revivals with big stars. But the idea that some really important new American playwrights, who are not household names, got a change on Broadway with terrific casts and terrific productions and have been very well received. And now four of the five that I think were deserving have Tony nominations. My heart is breaking for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which got good reviews.

LINDA WINER: Oh yeah, it’s by this new playwright, who is just deliriously original, named Rajiv Joseph. And it’s actually about Iraq and about the craziness of war, but it’s very sly and very, very smart and not didactic and it stars Robin Williams, who is not doing Robin Williams, he’s doing a beautifully restrained very, very wise performance. And he was shut out, and so was the play. So even though this is one of those years when I actually can’t hate the nominating committee, I actually think that they had a hard job to do and they did it well, but there is still some real heartbreaks. You know it doesn’t take the sting out to know that they did a good job.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it’s nice that there was strong competition in this category, as you say. Is there a grand theory out there about why suddenly Broadway was welcoming to new plays? Because in past years I know I’ve talked to many people about the dearth of those, as you said. They just weren’t welcoming them, you just weren’t seeing them.

LINDA WINER: It’s really quite astonishing. First all of them, except for Jerusalem, which came from London, which is its own kind of star, you know, and it has Mark Rylance, who for a sizable population is a star, but not probably for the mass American audience yet. So yes, producers have decided that if they are going to do new plays, that they do have to have brand name actors in them. But I think, sort of Broadway’s good news may be a shadow on Off-Broadway’s bad news, which is more and more producers are thinking that they can’t make any money Off-Broadway. That the only way to really have a chance is to go to Broadway, which is revolutionary, but it’s happened in the last few years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, speaking of brand name stars, I mean, you mentioned Robin Williams not getting a nomination. Just looking at the list here: Daniel Radcliffe…

LINDA WINER: Daniel Radcliffe. What does he have to do in order to get some attention from the Tonys? I think he’s a brave, multitalented, really fascinating fellow — artist — who, you know, in 2008, he dared to play the unstable stable boy in Equus and even be naked for awhile. And to my mind did a really did good job and did not get a Tony nomination. He took lessons in singing and dancing. He comes back and he stars— he makes his musical debut in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which I think he’s totally charming and again has been ignored. So I mean I don’t know why I let myself get excited about awards because they are so stupid and annoying.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet…

LINDA WINER: And yet, this is America and it’s who’s on top, and how many stars, and do you have five stars? And, you know, how much do you make? And—

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I know it’s not going to keep you from going to the theater.

LINDA WINER: Oh no, no, no. After reporting all the interesting news, then I’ve written a column about the sad things that have happened. You know, the people that were left out. But also not just new plays, but also new musicals. That there actually were 12 new musicals. Not all of them wonderful, but almost all of them quite ambitious. You know, just two juke box musicals: Baby It’s You and Rain. Priscilla Queen of the Desert is in some ways— can be considered juke box musical because they use preexisting music, but it’s an extremely, you know, ambitious sort of big party musical. And so with 12 new musicals— I mean 14 new plays and 12 new musicals to choose from, I don’t remember a time when there have been such riches really.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok, well this is a good story then. Winners and even the ones that should have been winners, but they are out there for people to see.

LINDA WINER: Yeah, yeah, I mean most of the shows and the performers that deserved to be nominated were nominated. And it’s just because it’s been such a rich season that some extremely good things, you know, will be history real soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, well, Linda Winer of Newsday, Newsday’s theater critic and arts columnist, on the Tony nominations. Thanks so much.

LINDA WINER: Thank you.