Danielle Brooks has been crying all morning, she told me, a couple of hours after learning she’d been nominated for a Tony Award.
“The other day at the stage door there was a young black girl who looked sorta like me, and she saw me and just started bawling her eyes out,” Brooks said over the phone. “She said, ‘Thank you, your presence showed me I don’t have to change any part of who I am.’ That’s what the show did for me, seeing people who look like me on stage. The Color Purple was the first Broadway show I saw, when I was 15, and it made quite an impact on my life. Now people at the stage door are doing the same thing.”
A Juilliard School alumna, she’s best known for her role as Tasha “Tastee” Jefferson, one of the toughest of the tough women on Netflix’ Orange Is The New Black. Brooks is nominated for her featured performance in director John Doyle’s revelatory revival of the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel of African American female bonding, survival and triumph. Cynthia Erivo, the British singer-songwriter who stars in the show and is a nominee in the leading actress in a musical category, has experienced something similar: “People tell me they see themselves in the story, that it encourages them to follow their dreams,” she said. “Young people find it completely inspiring, and that inspires me.”
There’s a theme here, one that may be even more significant than the all-important issue of who got snubbed by the Tony nominators (which we’ll come to soon enough). Here is featured actor in a musical nominee Daveed Diggs, who doubles as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, which scored a record-breaking 16 nominations including Best Musical:
“I knew it was something I wanted to do, even though I didn’t know it was gonna be a thing,” he said, also on the horn. “I never saw a cast like this when I was growing up. So I knew it was important, being a part of this paradigm shift. It has made me have a greater sense of ownership over the story of our country, I’m more patriotic than I ever have been in my life.”
His fellow cast member Leslie Odom Jr., a nominee for his leading role as Aaron Burr opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton (also nominated), said that when he first heard the music for the show, “It was the most contemporary score I’d ever heard. Those of us who love musical theater long for the days of yore, when theater music mattered in pop culture. It would permeate the consciousness. This show was as close as I’d ever gotten to that. I thought, ‘This sounds like the music I listen to.’ “
Music of a different kind, but surely as universal, was on Jessica Lange’s mind as well. She has won her first Tony nomination for the Everestian role of Mary Tyrone in Jonathan Kent’s superb revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a far cry from the actress known to FX audiences for American Horror Story or moviegoers with fond memories of Tootsie. I asked her how it felt to spend three-and-a-half hours in the corrosive embrace of a brutal family story taking place a century ago.
“I think this is the genius of O’Neill,” she said, in another phone conversation. “He was writing this deadly truth about his family that transcends time or place. Everybody connects to something, that theme of blame or guilt, of loneliness, is universal. All the anger and recrimination and even hate — but at the core of everything is this love. The audiences here are so completely with the play. They’re really listening. There’s no rustling of papers, no coughing. You can feel the collective energy in the silence. It’s palpable.”
So before we kvetch about who got passed over and who didn’t deserve to be nominated, let’s remind ourselves that we aren’t likely to see a Broadway version of #OscarsSoWhite. The Tony Awards are problematic for many important reasons (exclusion due to real estate, not racism, is its own kind of cultural redlining). This year, at least, the nominees look a lot more like America than the audiences do (except perhaps on Wednesday afternoons at Hamilton, when the Richard Rodgers is full of New York City public high school kids).
Now, let’s dish: American Psycho. Two nominations, for sets and lighting, neither of which will help it survive. Let’s remember that this show was a mixed success in London and was slated to open off-Broadway at Second Stage when the commercial backers yanked it and rolled the dice directly on Broadway. Bad idea or bad karma, either way, bad move.
Tuck Everlasting, with one nomination (for costumes) is likely a goner despite nice reviews for this too-sweet show.
Two leading ladies in musicals were overlooked. Audra McDonald, the star of multiple nominee Shuffle Along, Or The Making Of The Musical Sensation Of 1921 and All That Followed, will not get the chance to break her own record of six Tony wins. The theory making the chatroom rounds is that she was denied because she’s soon taking three months off from the show to fulfill another commitment in London. I think not. My own theory as a die-hard Audra admirer is that she is simply wrong for the part.
I’m more saddened by the fate of On Your Feet!, the high-energy biotuner about Emilio and Gloria Estefan that has been doing quite well at the Marquis Theatre but came away with just one nomination, for Sergio Trujillo’s airborne dances. There ought to have been a place on the list of nominees for leading performance by an actress in a musical for the amazing Ana Villafañe. I even know whose place on that list she deserved to take, but I ain’t saying. I’ll take comfort in the fact that great word of mouth on this show should keep it going.
And I envy folks in the audience tonight of every nominated show, because the post-nomination buzz is always infectious. “It feels like your birthday, you should be able to take the day off,” joked Alex Brightman, the accidental star of School Of Rock. “It’s gonna be insane.”
On the other hand, nominee Chris Jackson, who plays George Washington in Hamilton, looks forward to escaping back to normal tonight at the Richard Rodgers. “This definitely goes in the dream-come-true category,” he said of his nomination. “Will it be hard to focus tonight? No! The show is the one part of my day I fully understand.”
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