NEW YORK — With the introduction this year of an awkwardly titled new category — best re-creation of a leading role by an actor/actress — the Tony Awards will extend its honors for the first time to a performer stepping into a part on Broadway rather than originating it. But when the nominations for the 60th annual kudofest are announced May 16, one key acting accomplishment will continue to go unrecognized: ensemble.
So while individual cast members from shows like “Sweeney Todd,” “The History Boys” and “Rabbit Hole” no doubt will be among contenders for acting kudos, the collective work so central to the success of those and other productions will receive no acknowledgement.
This year’s Screen Actors Guild awards for ensemble cast went to “Crash,” “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.” Kudos to the winners, but it seems unjust that film and television thesps receive plaudits for their work as a group while the finely tuned machinery of a crackling stage ensemble is ignored in the industry’s highest honors.
Not to undermine the merits of the SAG honorees for film and TV, but those casts rarely appear as a unified body, in the traditional sense of the word ensemble. And their perfs mostly come together in the editing room from multiple takes. So SAG really is applauding the overall excellence of the cast, but not necessarily their cohesion as a unit. To a certain extent, the award is also a nod to the casting director who assembled the talent.
Onstage, it’s tight ensemble playing that often dictates a memorable theater experience. Without the safety net of retakes, actors must play off one another and maintain their harmony as a group regardless of the endless variables of mood, concentration or audience response. If one of the actors is out of sync in a play or musical, the entire cast can be thrown off. But when the actors onstage are attuned to one another’s rhythms, there’s nothing like it.
The ensemble strength of some of this year’s Tony candidates makes a forceful case for inclusion of that category.
There’s nothing hyperbolic about director Nicholas Hytner’s claim that the “History Boys” cast is “like a jazz ensemble.” Having performed the play on and off for two years in its premiere run at the National in London, then on tour internationally and in a forthcoming film version prior to opening on Broadway, that cast has the advantage of extended immersion in the material that few productions can match.
The young actors playing high school Oxbridge hopefuls in Alan Bennett’s play have the easy camaraderie, the jokey rapport, the rambunctious energy of lads rubbing shoulders in the same classroom for years. Likewise, the cast members playing school faculty have the weary familiarity of longterm colleagues. Watching the effortless interplay onstage of those two generations and the outsider that comes between them is like witnessing the precision, unity and discipline of a brilliant orchestra.
But “History Boys” is not the only outstanding ensemble this season.
The actors in the recently closed “Rabbit Hole,” led by Cynthia Nixon, defined the frazzled but affectionate bonds of a family whose closeness is challenged by tragedy. The cast of “Shining City” seem connected by a tangible network of anxiety and longing. In “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” the actors show a grasp of Martin McDonagh’s musical language and clueless characters that invigorates the blood-drenched satire about the futility of violence. And in the under-appreciated revival of Edward Albee’s “Seascape,” the two couples representing reflected images of two generations and two species were a marvel of delicacy and balance.
While they never share the stage in “Faith Healer,” the distinctive acting styles of Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones and Ian McDiarmid are channeled into a binding overall purpose in Jonathan Kent’s subtly considered production, mirroring the conflicting perspectives in the four interconnected monologues of Brian Friel’s masterful play.
Among the year’s most demanding ensemble vehicles is the Lincoln Center revival of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing,” not least due to the play’s roots as a drama hatched by the legendary New Group. Few casts today have the benefit of working and breathing together through the entire creative process as that company did. But while the accomplished actors onstage in Bartlett Sher’s fine production still appeared, just prior to the April opening, to be exploring their rapport as a group, there was a clear sense of a unit evolving organically. .
Musical ensembles also have distinguished themselves this season, notably in the buoyant revival of “The Pajama Game,” in which every character role is memorably animated; in “Jersey Boys,” the leads’ pitch-perfect harmonizing turning back the clock four decades to the Four Seasons in their youth; and in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” its cast mugging up a storm in a playful tribute to bubbly 1920s tuners that never descends to mockery.
Indisputably, however, the towering achievement of an ensemble this season is the cast of John Doyle’s bewitching “Sweeney Todd” revival. Doing double duty as actors and musicians, Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone and their castmates are tasked not only with inhabiting their characters but at the same time acknowledging the thrilling theatricality of Doyle’s concept.
Add to that the job of maneuvering set pieces, acing some of the most complex, regimented blocking of a show in recent memory, and performing a score without the guiding hand of a conductor and you have an uncommonly intense demonstration of focus, eight performances a week.
It’s clearly too late this season for the Tony committee to introduce an official ensemble award to recognize the demon barber and the doomed denizens of Fleet Street. But with Doyle’s production of another vintage Sondheim show employing actor-musicians, “Company,” due on Broadway in the fall, maybe it’s time to consider honoring the category in the 2007 awards.