While it may be cold comfort at a time of historic theater shutdowns here and everywhere else, Boston’s imprint will be all over this year’s Tony Awards. A pair of high-profile musicals that debuted here dominated the field of a pandemic-shortened season when nominations were announced Thursday.
“Jagged Little Pill,” which premiered two years ago at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater before transferring to New York, led the pack with 15 nominations, including a nod for best musical. ART artistic director Diane Paulus, who won a Tony in 2013 for “Pippin,” was nominated for best direction of a musical, and “Jagged Little Pill” cast member Elizabeth Stanley was nominated as best lead actress in a musical.
Close behind “Jagged Little Pill,” with 14 nominations, was “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” which debuted in 2018 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, reopening that storied venue in lavish style after a lengthy period of renovations.
“Moulin Rouge!” drew nods for best musical and for direction by Alex Timbers, and Karen Olivo was nominated for best lead actress in a musical. In an unusual turn of events, Aaron Tveit of “Moulin Rouge!” proved to be the only nominee in the category of best lead actor in a musical.
That underscored a central fact of this year’s Tony contest: The large hauls of “Jagged Little Pill” and “Moulin Rouge!” took place against a field of competitors that was considerably depleted by the pandemic, which forced a shutdown of Broadway theaters in mid-March. A mere four new musicals were eligible for Tony consideration this year, and only 10 new plays, along with four play revivals.
That total of 18 plays and musicals amounts to barely more than half of the 34 eligible shows last year. The producers of David Byrne’s “American Utopia,” which was presented last year at the Emerson Colonial Theatre before its Broadway run, opted not to submit the show for Tony contention. Sixteen shows that were slated to bow in the spring of 2020 — including possible Tony contenders like “Six,” which had a pre-Broadway run at the ART last year — were not able to have their opening nights in time for the Tony deadline.
One measure of the damage is that the category of best musical revival, which often features some of the most popular shows of the Broadway season, was eliminated this year because no musical revivals opened within the time window for eligibility.
“Slave Play” received 12 nominations, including for best play, a category in which it appears to be a front-runner. Also garnering a dozen nods was “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” including one for best musical. Matthew Lopez’s sprawling, two-part "The Inheritance'' drew 11 nods.
Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside,” which received its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival in the summer of 2018, garnered six nominations, including for best play. “The Sound Inside” is about the bond that develops between a cancer-stricken Yale writing professor (played by Mary-Louise Parker at Williamstown and on Broadway; she received a Tony nod Thursday) and a gifted student. Another work that premiered at Williamstown, Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons” (2019), was also nominated for best play, one of two nods for the production. A revival of Tennessee Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo” that originated at Williamstown earned a pair of Tony nominations.
No specific date has yet been set for the televised Tony Awards ceremony.
Both “Jagged Little Pill” and “Moulin Rouge!” drew on pre-existing songs. “Jagged Little Pill,” which became the highest-grossing and longest-running production in the ART’s history, was inspired by, and featured songs from, the 1995 Alanis Morissette album. Featuring a book by Diablo Cody, who was nominated Thursday, “Jagged Little Pill” is about a suburban family contending with drug addiction, racism, alienation, and rape.
“Moulin Rouge!,” which was adapted from the splashy 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie about a writer who becomes smitten with a cabaret singer and courtesan in turn-of-the-century Paris, featured an array of pop songs. John Logan wrote the book; he too was nominated Thursday.
The Boston-centric nature of Thursday’s musical Tony nominations is visible in the category of best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical, where four of the five nominees are either from “Jagged Little Pill” (Kathryn Gallagher, Celia Rose Gooding, and Lauren Patten) or “Moulin Rouge!” (Robyn Hurder).
The same is true in the category of best performance by an actor in a featured role in a musical, where either “Moulin Rouge!” (Danny Burstein and Sahr Ngaujah) or “Jagged Little Pill” (Derek Klena and Sean Allan Krill) account for four of the five nominees. In the choreography category, it’s two out of three: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui for “Jagged Little Pill” and Sonya Tayeh for “Moulin Rouge!”
Weakened field and all, Thursday’s announcement of the Tony nominations was a rare bright spot at a moment of crisis for Broadway and the rest of the theater world, which have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Broadway League — a trade organization for producers and theater owners that co-presents the Tony Awards with the American Theatre Wing — added to the deep gloom with a recent announcement that Broadway will be closed until the end of next May. And there is speculation that even that might be optimistic.
Against that grim backdrop, theater-lovers have to hope that host James Monroe Iglehart was right when he said, as he delivered the list of Tony nominees on YouTube Thursday, “Theater has always, and will always, survive.”