Playwright Paul Rudnick wrote a delicious red carpet moment in his 1997 film In & Out, whose comical plot is set in motion by an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards.
Before the ceremony, an entertainment reporter, played by Tom Selleck, snaps up an interview with a movie star nominee, played by Matt Dillon.
“Basically, awards mean nothing to me,” says the star with nonchalant self-righteousness. “I’m an artist, it’s about the work, all the nominees are artists and we shouldn’t be forced to compete like dogs.”
“Well, I understand you,” says the reporter. “Good point. Then why are you here?”
“If I win!” says the star and smiles.
Showbiz awards are naturally fuller. They are also naturally alluring. That’s why we – artists and audiences alike – worry so much about who goes home with a statuette. For artists, the investment is obvious: winning can mean more and better work. And we viewers love to have our tastes vindicated when people we admire get the fame we think they deserve. So when the Tony Awards come out on June 12, we’ll be campaigning as ever to make sure voters got it right – and bitching as usual about who they robbed.
Even so, I can tell you right now that there will be one egregious omission, a category that must be honored. One in which castmates wouldn’t have to compete with each other like dogs or in any other way.
There is no Tony Award for Best Ensemble. And there really should be.
IF THIS CHAOT, The Broadway season haunted by Covid has taught us all that theater is a team sport.
In theory, we already knew this: it takes a collection of artists working together to make each show. But during the industry’s turbulent comeback – with its pandemic-induced terror and celebration, defiance and caution – we knew it in our bones.
We knew it every time we opened our programs to find those little pieces of paper that told us which understudies were taking which roles for which actors who had tested positive for the coronavirus. We got used to the oh-oh reflex these communications evoked in us – a gut-level assumption proved wrong every time we were lucky enough to have a wonderful understudy. We also got acquainted with the relief we felt when we opened up our programs to not find a replacement.
A cast is a delicate organism, each actor changing the chemistry of the whole. But what ravishing theater can a company create when all its parts work in harmony – the group drawing on the artistry of each member as needed, including those who fill the bank most nights.
IF A SHOW wins Best Play or Musical or Best Revival, credit goes to the writers — and perhaps even more so to the producers who tend to crowd the stage. These categories aren’t really about the cast. When actors win an award, it’s a star’s turn.
However, not every play is made for it — “Six,” for example, whose eight Tony nominations, including best musical, include none in the acting categories. The conceit of the show as a singing competition seems to encourage rushing into the limelight. But “Six” is also a concert, and it goes without saying that it works best when its actors work together in the concert, i.e. together.
When I first saw it, in London, before it came to Broadway, it was only afterwards that I realized that there were two substitutes in action, one particularly strong. But the entire cast had been impressive. It was impossible for me to pick a favorite – because “Six”, a classic ensemble piece, really doesn’t want its performers to outshine each other.
However, I am not advocating an award limited to ensemble shows or honoring only supporting players, which is another definition of ensemble. What is needed is an award for the entire cast of a Broadway play or musical.
It’s hardly an unprecedented idea. The Drama Desk Awards honor an outstanding ensemble: this year “Six”. As theater Twitter likes to point out, the Screen Actors Guild Awards also have ensemble categories – albeit with eligibility for inclusion based on contract and billing. The Tonys could be more comprehensive.
As an adverb in French, “ensemble” means “together”. It’s the only way actors can achieve that elusive, interconnected unity of a truly great cast. And a thoroughly brilliant cast is something of a miracle.
BACK IN AUTUMN and that winter, when I was so obsessed with the Broadway revival of Caroline, or Change that I watched it eight times, I was tempted to tweet on the way home from Studio 54 about a or two supporting acts raved .
I never did because whenever I started designing one in my head, the list always got too long. I couldn’t possibly mention Arica Jackson as the exuberantly singing Washing Machine and Tamika Lawrence as Caroline’s tongue-in-cheek friend Dotty without acknowledging vocal powerhouse Kevin S. McAllister, who played Dryer and the Bus.
Tony Awards: Best New Musical Nominees
The nominees 2022. The race for Best New Musical at the Tony Awards – traditionally the most financially valuable award – is a broad six-way contest this year. Here’s a closer look at each nominee:
But what about Caissie Levy as stepmother Rose and child actor Adam Makké as my wildest favorite Noah? (Full disclosure: I’ve seen him in the role seven times and never seen either of the other two Noahs.) Then there were the grandparents, all together, and Caroline’s children and N’Kenge’s adorable moon. Also the glamorous radio – that’s three actors – and John Cariani as Noah’s sad father, who actually plays his clarinet.
The depth of talent amazed me. So when all but one of the show’s cast members were skunked in the Tony nominations – the star, the amazing Sharon D. Clarke, received her only acting nod – it only reinforced my belief in the need for an ensemble award.
In my Fantasy Tonys category of best cast in a musical, the casts of “Caroline” and “Six” would go up against “A Strange Loop,” about a musical theater writer (Jaquel Spivey) and the restless chorus of his mind’s self-loathing (James Jackson Jr.) and sexual ambivalence (L Morgan Lee); Company, with its Bobbie (Katrina Lenk), claustrophobic at the idea of a couple and surrounded by cautionary tales in the form of her friends (Patti LuPone! Jennifer Simard! Matt Doyle!); and Girl From the North Country, whose boarding house is so full you’ll have to pick wonders like Todd Almond and Tom Nelis from the crowd.
For plays it would be “Clyde’s” which was marketed with a star in the middle, the great Uzo Aduba, but was actually a graceful comedy machine built by all the workers at a sandwich shop (Kara Young! Ron Cephas Jones! ); For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which weaves moments of solo poetry (Tendayi Kuumba, Kenita R. Miller, and Okwui Okpokwasili are notable figures) with convoluted dancing of the whole company; Is This a Room, about the arrest of Reality Winner (Emily Davis), who was addicted to all four actors for her weird, tense energy; “POTUS,” whose sketchy silliness and guerrilla politics balance the zany (Rachel Dratch, Lea DeLaria) with the elegant (Vanessa Williams) and empire (Julie White); and “Take Me Out,” the baseball game that takes three of the six spots in the Best Actor category (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jesse Williams, and Michael Oberholtzer).
The best ensembles are about teamwork and the generosity of the players.
I NEVER Sports fan, but I keep thinking about the first time I saw the Boston Celtics play back in the Larry Bird era. I remember being captivated by the way the players passed the ball to each other and shared it for the greater good. It was a star-studded team, but it seemed to me that it wasn’t a star-driven team. And that made them, like Ted Lasso’s Richmond footballer (played by Screen Actors Guild ensemble award-winning actors), incredibly fun to watch.
It could be that the addition of a Tony Award for Best Ensemble would slightly change the nature of what is produced on Broadway and give a boost to shows that are not designed for coast – as there are many sports teams and not a few Broadway – Shows are – on the attraction of a superstar.
That might maneuver Broadway a little closer to the theater’s own ideals.
In an interview a few years ago, Mark Rylance told me about his discomfort with awards, including the Tonys. He said he once felt “deeply depressed” and “really lonely” after the win; that he had been far happier to be among his small group of nominees than to have been selected and had to walk past them on his way to the podium.
“The thing is,” he said, “I came to the theater for the group, the community.”
Admittedly, Rylance is one of the most critically acclaimed theater actors. He shudders slightly at the specter of receiving awards. Still, the comfort he said he felt at being part of a clique of nominees rang true: “That’s all I ever wanted,” he said, “was to be in a company.”
This sense of belonging is a powerful attraction for many actors who dedicate their lives to the stage. And when a cast meshes so well that they manage to create something sublime, shouldn’t they all be honored together?
Of course, that would mean pitting whole casts against each other. Like dogs, as the movie star in “In & Out” would say.
But on Broadway, that most Darwinian of theaters, isn’t that what shows do every night anyway?