For Tonys, latest often means greatest

Early-season prods. often overlooked

It was in December 1998 that a London export to New York opened to sellout business and what was, at the time, the strongest advance sale — nearly $4 million — for a non-musical in Broadway history. Not only that, David Hare’s “The Blue Room” cemented leading lady Nicole Kidman’s status as an entirely separate entity from her then-husband, Tom Cruise, a realization within the industry that went on to land her leading roles in “Moulin Rouge” and then “The Hours,” for which she won an Oscar.

So how did the 1999 Tonys mark such an event, albeit one that had closed in February, almost four months earlier? Easy: They didn’t. One of the most successful Broadway entries in years got not a single Tony nod, even though its prior London run picked up six Olivier noms.

The tale is illustrative of an ongoing Tony-time verity: Shows that open earlier in the season tend to have less of a chance of being nominated and/or winning, though there is always the exception that proves the rule.

For proof, look no further than two of the more spectacular trump cards of director-choreographer Tommy Tune, whose show “Nine” bested “Dreamgirls” in 1982 just as “The Will Rogers Follies” beat “Miss Saigon” to take the musical Tony in 1991.

Were they really the best shows of their respective seasons?

That’s debatable. What isn’t was their positioning near the end of their two theater years.

The same “Will Rogers”/ “Saigon” season spawned an equally feisty play race between Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” and John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation.” The Tony went to the Simon play, which opened in February, over “Six Degrees,” which was first seen at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse auditorium the previous June before shifting upstairs to the larger — and Tony-eligible — Vivian Beaumont that fall, more than four months before “Yonkers’ ” bow.

The fact is, a show or performance or design has to be doubly or triply impressive to hold Tony voters’ attentions — a feat managed during the 1981-82 season by David Edgar’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” which had long finished its limited engagement before winning both play and actor (for Roger Rees). The same, alas, was not true 16 years later of Michael Gambon in David Hare’s “Skylight”: Gambon and co-star Lia Williams had long decamped from Broadway, leaving that season’s Tonys to go to current (at the time) players Christopher Plummer (“Barrymore”) and Janet McTeer (“A Doll’s House”).

The 1998-99 season, in turn, saw scarcely a more acclaimed production than the revival of Sophocles’ “Electra,” with its formidable star Zoe Wanamaker. But that production was history by the time the Tonys rolled in, which resulted in a scant three nominations and no mention at all of director David Leveaux.

Well, there’s always next year.

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