5 Ways This Year’s Tony Awards Reveal That Theater Is Changing

5 Ways This Year’s Tony Awards Reveal That Theater Is Changing

Tonight’s Tony Awards ceremony will celebrate the best work on Broadway. For those of us who spend a lot of time in and around theater, the event is also a prompt, encouraging us to reflect on what the current crop of shows tells us about how the industry and the art form are doing.

Here are some things I’ve been thinking about as this awards season unfolded:

Short of money, nonprofit theaters around the country are staging fewer shows, shedding jobs, and in a few cases, closing. Some observers worry that the model that has sustained regional theater for the last half-century is broken.

But, at the same time, this year’s Tony Awards tell an amazing success story: 100 percent of the nominees for best new musical, and 100 percent of the nominees for best new play, were developed at nonprofit theaters.

Among plays, “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” “Mary Jane,” and “Prayer for the French Republic” were all staged on Broadway by the nonprofit Manhattan Theater Club. (“Mary Jane” had an earlier Off Broadway run at another nonprofit, New York Theater Workshop.) “Stereophonic” was transferred to Broadway by commercial producers after an enthusiastically received Off Broadway run at the nonprofit Playwrights Horizons, while “Mother Play” opened directly on Broadway, presented by the nonprofit Second Stage Theater.

Among musicals, “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Suffs” were first staged at the nonprofit Public Theater before being transferred to Broadway by commercial producers. “Water for Elephants” had a pre-Broadway run at the nonprofit Alliance Theater in Atlanta, and “The Outsidersdid the same at the nonprofit La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. “Illinoise,” a dance musical, had a particularly nonprofit nurturing: it was staged at Bard’s Fisher Center, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and the Park Avenue Armory before commercial producers took it to Broadway.

Broadway often frets about the perceived advantages of British productions, which have historically received more government support, cost less to develop, and can benefit from the Anglophilia of some American theater fans. The last five winners of the best play Tony Award all transferred from London (though one of those, “The Inheritance,” was written by an American).

But this year, all five nominees for best play were developed in the United States, as were all five nominees for best musical. A London-born “Merrily We Roll Along” production is expected to win in the best musical revival category, but other London transfers, like the new musical “Back to the Future” and the new play “Patriots,” fared poorly in the awards derby.

As recently as 2019, Rachel Chavkin of “Hadestown” was the only woman directing a musical on Broadway. The situation was so grim that when she won a Tony, she used her acceptance speech to call out an industry that had been talking for years about the paucity of women directors, but had made very little progress.

This year it’s a very different story. Four of the five directors nominated for musicals are women (Maria Friedman, Leigh Silverman, Jessica Stone and Danya Taymor), as are three of the five Tony-nominated play directors (Anne Kauffman, Lila Neugebauer and Whitney White).

In 2015, the year that I started covering the theater beat, two of that season’s 10 new Broadway musicals had scores by pop artists (Sting and Tupac Shakur). During the season being celebrated at tonight’s Tony Awards, 8 of 15 new musicals had scores by pop artists (among them: Alicia Keys and Sufjan Stevens).

It has now become routine for new musicals to cost more than $20 million to capitalize, and it is very difficult for any to recoup that amount. (Only one of the nine musicals from the 2022-23 season has said it made back its initial investment: “& Juliet,” which announced last week that it had recouped its $17 million capitalization cost.)

Plenty of big musicals are still in the pipeline, but it’s clear that many producers are now turning to plays, as well as small-cast musicals, as safer bets. A host of starry plays are heading to Broadway — including “The Roommate” with Mia Farrow and Patti LuPone, “McNeal” with Robert Downey Jr., “Romeo and Juliet” with Kit Connor and Rachel Zegler and “Othello” with Denzel Washington and Jake Gyllenhaal — because producers believe there’s a clearer path to profitability with short-run, star-driven dramas.

This is notable because Broadway in recent years has worried about the survival of plays in a world where the tourists who buy most of the tickets strongly prefer musicals. Now, because of the tough economic climate for musicals, the outlook for plays has markedly improved.

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