Saturday, November 5, 2011

Here's a Little Story That Should Make You Cry

This week, the Tony Awards Administration Committee got together and made their first round of decisions about Tony eligibility, including what performances fall into what categories.  And in the process, they robbed Jan Maxwell of a well-deserved Tony.

Okay, that statement is a bit of hyperbole.  The Tony Awards are a long way away, and it is entirely possible that four time Tony-nominee Maxwell will finally get her moment in the sun for her sensational turn as the embittered Phyllis Rogers Stone in the top-tier revival of Follies currently running on Broadway.  But by classifying her in the Best Leading Actress category, the Tony committee has made that a lot less likely.

Now, in all fairness to the Tony committee, their decision makes sense.  After all, both the original Phyllis and the 2001 revival Phyllis were nominated in the Best Actress in a Musical category (with original  Phyllis Alexis Smith actually winning the award back in 1972).  The role *is* roughly equal in size and importance to Bernadette Peters' Sally.  And Maxwell is listed above the title, which according to Tony rules places her in the Leading Actress category unless the committee decides to demote her to Supporting.  So they were really just doing their job.

No, the people really at "fault" are the producers of Follies, and even then I use the term "fault" loosely.  Had they campaigned to have Maxwell considered in the Supporting Actress category, it could have been viewed as them belittling her work and the size of her part, and we all know that actors can have very delicate egos (although I suspect Maxwell would have handled it all in stride).  But if they had gotten Maxwell moved to the supporting category, I believe she very likely would have finally won a long-overdue Tony.

There is precedent for this.  Back in 2004 the producers of A Raisin in the Sun decided to have Audra McDonald compete in the Supporting Actress category, despite having a part every bit as large and important as Phylicia Rashad's role in the show.  This paid off marvelously, as it allowed both actresses to win awards for the stellar work while avoiding any competition between the two.  I think a similar strategy for Follies would have worked wonders.

Again, I'm not saying that Maxwell won't win the Tony this year.  She still could.  But by being entered into the Leading Actress category, she faces incredibly stiff competition from some of Broadway's top talent.

For one, she's up against Audra, who I'm going to go ahead and name this season's frontrunner without having seen her or most of her competition.  In addition to having already won four Tonys, she's doing Porgy and Bess, a show that she was born to do.  The last time a piece of casting was this obvious was Patti LuPone in Gypsy, and we all know how that turned out.  Even the notoriously hard-to-please Ben Brantley, head critic of the NY Times, gave McDonald's Bess an out and out rave in his review of the show's out of town tryout.  It's one of the biggest love letters I've seen him give any performer, and makes McDonald the one to watch.

Maxwell also faces competition from her esteemed co-star.  Bernadette Peters is Broadway royalty, returning to the Great White Way after a long absence.  I believe had she opened the Night Music revival, she would have completely bulldozed the competition for that year's Tony race.  She is back in her element (re: Sondheim) with Follies, and one should never underestimate voters' love of Ms. Peters.

The one thing that may give Maxwell the edge over those two Tony favorites is the fact that she has never won before, while they both have multiple statuettes to their name.  But even *that* argument works against Maxwell, because Kelli O'Hara is coming back to Broadway this spring!  Poor Kelli has been nominated three times without winning; the only reason she didn't win for South Pacific was the aforementioned LuPone.  Barring a disaster (and since no one knows much about the show O'Hara's starring in, it could be a disaster), O'Hara will likely be nominated again, and will be in the same hard-working-but-still-unawarded category as Maxwell.

The upside to all of this is that we, the audience, will have plenty to debate come Tony season, as a compelling case could be made for any of these women to be nominated and then win.  Can you imagine what kind of blood bath it would be is Sutton Foster was up for Anything Goes this season instead of last????

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