Now we arrive at the two most competitive categories of the year: Best Actress in a Play and Best Actress in a Musical. With so many sterling performances by Broadway’s leading ladies this year, choosing just one seems criminal, but I will do my best. Please keep in mind my two caveats: 1) I have not seen all of the nominees (at least in the play categories); and 2) Who will win is not necessarily the same as who should win, a difference I will explain in more detail throughout the body of the article.
Best Actress in a Play
Nominees: Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur; Tracie Bennett, End of the Rainbow; Stockard Channing, Other Desert Cities; Linda Lavin, The Lyons; Cynthia Nixon, Wit
Where do I even begin? All five of these women gave critically lauded performances in well-reviewed productions, meaning the eventual winner will be determined as much by buzz as actual merit. While all of the nominees are Tony-worthy, I think Cynthia Nixon has the least chance of winning. Yes, critics adored Nixon’s turn as a college professor with terminal cancer, and the same role won actress Kathleen Chalfant every acting prize she was eligible for when Wit premiered Off-Broadway 14 years ago. But with her show now closed, Nixon doesn’t have the chance to remind Tony voters how well she stacks up against the competition.
Linda Lavin and Nina Arianda have the advantage of being in currently running plays, but they somehow haven’t amassed the same level of buzz as their competition. Lavin famously passed on the Broadway transfers of both Follies and Other Desert Cities in order to do The Lyons, and despite her tour de force performance the show hasn’t really caught on with critics or audiences. Nina Arianda is two for two when it comes to Tony nods (she was also nominated for her Broadway debut last year), but Venus in Fur opened so long ago that I fear she’ll be forgotten despite Venus being in the running for Best Play. She could be a dark horse candidate, but by definition dark horses are not the most likely winners.
The real contenders are Tracie Bennett and Stockard Channing, who are both giving the type of over the top diva performances Tony voters love. Channing finds every shade imaginable in her domineering mother character from Other Desert Cities, and for much of the season was considered the front runner for this award. But then Tracie Bennett arrived and became the talk of the town for her performance as a drug-addled, aging Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow. Convincingly portraying a beloved icon with such ardent fans is no small feat, and since she utterly dominates Rainbow (as opposed to the more ensemble-oriented Other Desert Cities), I think the Best Actress trophy is Bennett’s to lose. I’ll be rooting for Arianda, who has twice proven she is an extraordinary talent and a superstar in the making, but the smart money is on Bennett.
Will Win: Tracie Bennett, End of the RainbowShould Win: Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur
Best Actress in a Musical
Nominees: Jan Maxwell, Follies; Audra McDonald, Porgy and Bess; Cristin Milioti, Once; Kelli O’Hara, Nice Work If You Can Get It; Laura Osnes, Bonnie & Clyde
There is no doubt in my mind Kelli O’Hara, with her versatility and crystal-clear singing voice, will eventually win herself a Tony. But it won’t be for Nice Work If You Can Get It, an underwhelming musical that is by no means her best work. Similarly, if Laura Osnes continues to improve the way she has since getting her big break in the last Grease revival, she will someday find herself in possession of the coveted statuette. But with Bonnie & Clyde unfairly trounced by critics and having shuttered ages ago, Osnes is also effectively out of the running.
The remaining three contenders have each done fantastic work this season, and a convincing argument could be made for any one of them to win Best Actress. Ultimately, I think being a first-time nominee will keep the sensational Cristin Milioti from winning, with the Tony voters reasoning that she has plenty of time left to win the award. That is not a knock against her amazing performance in Once; I would argue she is the best thing about that incredibly strong show.
But perennial Tony favorites Audra McDonald and Jan Maxwell have both exceeded all possible expectations this year. Jan Maxwell was a revelation in Follies, stopping the show twice with her two big numbers. She made the acerbic Phyllis endlessly compelling, slowly stripping away character’s icy veneer to reveal the damaged soul underneath. It was a master class in musical theatre acting, and combined with the fact that this four-time nominee has never won, that makes her the one the beat in many people’s eyes.
Meanwhile Audra McDonald, the universally beloved singing actress, has one Tony for each of Maxwell’s nominations. It would be perfectly logically for the Tony voters to spread the wealth, especially since we all knew McDonald would be excellent in Porgy and Bess, a role she was born to play. But it is impossible to comprehend just how amazing her Bess is without seeing it, and I suspect even her biggest fans would find themselves surprised by what a masterful portrayal it is. McDonald conveys more with her posture and body language than most actresses can in an entire song, and some of the most riveting moments in Porgy are the dialogue-free scenes where you watch Bess’ inner struggle to overcome her self-destructive tendencies. And when McDonald does sing, she achieves such operatic heights of vocal technique and emotion that it is truly transcendent.
I’ve been agonizing over which actress is more deserving for months, and in many ways the race is still too close to call. But call it I must, and my gut is favoring McDonald, despite her almost unprecedented four previous wins. Unlike Maxwell, whose show closed in January, McDonald is still performing nightly and therefore reminding the Tony voters of her nearly unmatched talent. Her Bess is one for the ages, and probably her best work to date, an especially high compliment when those four other Tony Awards are taken into consideration. But if ever there was a tie for Best Actress, this would be the year.
Will Win: Audra McDonald, Porgy and BessShould Win: Audra McDonald AND Jan Maxwell (they are both perfection)
Check back soon for my Best Actor predictions. Until then, catch up on my previous Tony articles:
Best Score and Book
Best Direction and Choreography