Enough talk (for the moment at least) about who and what didn’t get Tony nominations earlier this week. Let’s turn to some who did. Each year, the announcement of nominees is accompanied by a list of shows according to the number of nominations they got, all the better to establish bragging rights. So we know that two new musicals, An American In Paris and Fun Home, led the category with 12 nominations each, while The King And I had the most among musical revivals, with nine. Wolf Hall Parts 1 and 2 had the most among new plays, with eight nominations, and Skylight, with seven, had the most among play revivals.
But let’s look at multiple nominees through a different lens. I’m thinking of the artists who helped make those shows so memorable and the extraordinary range of talent they represent. Topping this list would be Bob Crowley, with four nominations in three different shows: His ingenious sets for Skylight and, with 59 Productions, An American In Paris; and his costumes for that show as well as for The Audience.
Could Skylight and An American In Paris be any different? The first is a one-set drama that takes place in a part of London beset by squalor and suffused with threat that makes the apartment at once claustrophobic and hermetically sealed; the second is a gauzy romantic vision of the City of Light that unfolds kinetically through the use of sliding panels, drops and projections that are enticingly suggestive rather than realistic.
And The Audience brings us back to London, though this time to Buckingham Palace, where Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth holds weekly meetings with the various Prime Ministers over several decades, giving Crowley the opportunity to reveal a gimlet eye for the sartorial essence of each period over the last half-century – no mean feat given a cast of men and one women who aren’t what we talk about when we talk about fashion icons.
Two of the Crowley shows, An American In Paris and Skylight, featured lighting by double nominee Natasha Katz that added immeasurably to the contrasting atmospheres of those disparate shows. Set designer David Zinn also scored a couple of nominations for distinctly different shows: the detailed restored heritage house of Fun Home (a challenge because the show is presented in the round, demanding sets that are more suggestive than realistic) and the seedy New Orleans motel of Airline Highway, which manages, like the set for Skylight, to capture the essence of somewhere we’d rather not live but are happy enough to visit for an afternoon or evening.
Several producers had multiple nominations and there, too, the choices show catholicity of taste: Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel are the lead producers of the Tudor drama Wolf Hall Parts 1 and 2, for example, as well as the nominated revival of the all-American romp You Can’t Take It With You. Similarly, Scott Rudin is behind the transfer from London of Skylight (with his London co-producer Robert Fox) as well as the contemporary American classic This Is Our Youth, also an import, though this time from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
But I doubt any of this season’s producers can match the sheer audacity of Kevin McCollum, who got behind three wholly original shows and walked off with nominations for two of them: the risqué, rough-hewn comedy Hand To God and the rousing faux-Shakespearean musical spectacle Something Rotten! (The third show, The Last Ship, earned a nomination for Sting’s score, as well as for Rob Mathes’ orchestrations). McCollum has had the unheard of, not to say unenviable, challenge of drawing attention to his shows, neither of which boasts marquee names or established brands.
And so out of of sheer necessity, he’s urged his promotional teams to be very creative. Before opening, the ads for Hand To God boasted about its lack of a star, a London imprimatur or a movie-connection. After opening to raves, McCollum and the folks at AKA ad agency placed humorous ads in Playbill opposite the billing pages of big-name shows, to plant the idea that if you like, say, the wife-dispatching Wolf Hall, “you’ll be heading to” Hand To God next.
“I knew I had a great play with zero awareness,” McCollum told me. “The people who see a show in the first few weeks read their Playbills. If we could get into the Playbill for The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time with a bit of humor, we could get into the heads of the people seeing it.”
And for Something Rotten! he worked with Spotco to play on the very notion of Shakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to emphasize the show’s loopy spirit and the promise of a lowdown good time along with a certain vaguely historical cachet — not unlike the promise of tomfoolery embodied in the “Comedy Tonight” opening of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, updated to the Renaissance.
“The show was originally called The Bottom Brothers,” McCollum said. “You can imagine the jokes. It’s a big musical comedy about the first musical, and the title works metaphorically as well as literally. Folks, it’s called Something Rotten! We worked really hard not to be meta with the show. It’s so not meta.” To drive the point home, here’s an exclusive first-look at the show’s new campaign, unveiling this week and built around some critic’s remark that the exclamation point in the title promises an old-fashioned good time with no political or social agenda beyond that.
Whether the paying audience gets the message and, more important, passes it along to friends and colleagues…well, that’s the gamble every producer takes. In the end it won’t be Tony nominations or ads or even critics that make or break each of these shows, but the one thing none can live without: word of mouth from audiences so pleased that everyone goes home thinking, “I’ve got to tell everyone I know to see this.” Absent that, ads or no ads, you’re a no-go.