Noms spotlight critical faves, B.O. hits

Who says big, brash Broadway is no place for art and esoterica?

Not the Tony nominating committee, who lavished more attention last week on art-house critical faves — “Spring Awakening,” 11 noms; “Grey Gardens” and “The Coast of Utopia,” 10 each — than on splashy crowdpleasers such as “Curtains” (eight noms), “Mary Poppins” or “Legally Blonde” (seven each).

Although box office rewards are inconsistent, the strong kudos count for the kind of creatively risky fare that dominates this season’s Tony race underscores the increasing diversity of Rialto offerings. This shift has been reflected with growing visibility at the Tonys, bringing Broadway theater’s leading annual honors more in line with the Oscars, where small-scale films for years have rubbed shoulders with blockbusters in the major categories.

“Spring Awakening” is a sexually frank rock musical adapted from an 1891 German expressionist play, juxtaposing dark period drama with contemporary adolescent angst; “Grey Gardens” was adapted from the cult Maysles brothers documentary about the vertiginous downfall of real-life mother-and-daughter aristocrats Edith and Little Edie Bouvier Beale; “The Coast of Utopia” is a sprawling, nine-hour, three-part political epic about the 19th century Russian intelligentsia by erudite wordsmith Tom Stoppard.

We’re not exactly surfing the commercial mainstream here.

This season in particular, idiosyncratic legit offerings more akin to indie pics than to big-budget tentpoles have aimed to carve a niche on the Rialto — bumping up fare that more traditionally would have remained Off Broadwayt instead of aiming for the high-stakes main stem.

Of the 35 shows eligible for Tonys, 28 of them walked away with at least one nom. “It’s a testimony to the diversity of the work,” says Howard Sherman, exec director of the American Theater Wing, one of the presenters of the Tonys.

Pure-minded legiters have bemoaned what they perceive as the corporate commercialization of Broadway: The 1980s saw the heyday of British mega-tuners; then the 90s brought the Disney Theatrical era and the arrival of “The Lion King.” More recently, there’s been a deluge of cut-and-paste jukebox tuners and readily marketable screen-to-stage transfers. Many feel the increased mainstreaming of the Great White Way has come at the expense of the fertile creative climate that yielded such American legit landmarks as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”

Prodded in part by the shifting economics of both the Rialto and Off Broadway, some producers recently have been willing to chance putting a show on Broadway that in the past would have stuck to the commercial fringes.

The broad spread of Tony noms can be interpreted as a reaction to the overwhelming dominance in recent seasons of juggernauts such as “The Producers” and “Hairspray.” It’s also a declaration that the unconventional edge of “Spring” or “Gardens” can coexist with the bubblegum cheer of “Legally Blonde,” the family values of “Mary Poppins” or the tongue-in-cheekiness of comic whodunit “Curtains.”

The first big indicator of this trend was the 2004 Tony upset of box office powerhouse “Wicked” by quirky puppet tuner “Avenue Q,” a low-budget upstart that transferred from Off Broadway. Also that year, producers rallied to move Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s ambitious musical “Caroline, or Change” from the Public to a short-lived Broadway run, spurred by the conviction that its artistic achievement deserved the validation of a Rialto spotlight, however brief.

The next Tony season saw musical trophies given not just to the year’s obvious smash (“Monty Python’s Spamalot”), but also to an intimate comedy about pre-teen social misfits (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) and a pedigreed, serious-minded new musical drama in an unapologetically old-fashioned romantic vein (“The Light in the Piazza”).

The longevity of four-year-old “Avenue Q” and two-year-old “Spelling Bee” may prove that a show doesn’t have to be a supersized spectacle to run on Broadway, but both those tuners are comedies. Commercial viability of darker stories such as “Spring” and “Gardens” remains an open question.

A tough sell in previews, “Spring” benefited from enthusiastic reviews, building to become a steady if not exactly stellar performer with a growing youth following. “Gardens” also received strong critical support, in particular for Tony-nommed lead actress Christine Ebersole’s tour-de-force dual-role turn. But a show about crazy cat ladies was always going to be a niche proposition. Producers clearly hope the 10-nom haul can be parlayed into an improvement on last week’s 56% capacity.

Jack O’Brien’s production of Stoppard’s sweeping “Utopia” trilogy was a hit for Lincoln Center Theater — but as a nonprofit, LCT has, among other things, a strong membership base that could help cushion the risk of the undertaking, with its elaborate design and 45-member cast. Still, the critical response, wide editorial coverage and keen word of mouth made it an unmissable New York cultural event.

Despite the financial question marks, riskier fare continues to crop up on Broadway with growing frequency. This season saw culty downtown cabaret act Kiki & Herb graduate to the Great White Way (and earn a Tony nom for special theatrical event), not to mention an unusually packed crowd of plays — including top contenders “Utopia,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Little Dog Laughed” and “Radio Golf” — that were uncertain endeavors just by dint of not being tourist-friendly musicals.

Of course, as underlined by the commercial fizzle of well-reviewed Off Broadway transfer “Little Dog,” the gamble doesn’t always pay off.

Producers Boyett Ostar scored the strongest reviews of the season for David Grindley’s revival of “Journey’s End,” which reaped six Tony noms, but the play struggled to draw an aud and recently announced a Tony-day closing of June 10, indicating that ticketbuyers are just not receptive in the current climate to a sobering war drama — even when the show seems likely to pick up a trophy for best revival.

The same producers bankrolled the U.S. transfer from London’s National Theater of period melodrama “Coram Boy,” which has a cast of 40, a full onstage choir and seven additional musicians. But Gotham critics were underwhelmed. Despite six Tony noms, the failure to make the cut for best play likely will not help the massive production’s chances of recouping.

The commercial producers attached to Manhattan Theater Club’s “LoveMusik,” the arty biotuner based on the relationship of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya and directed by Harold Prince, were clearly hoping for an extended afterlife for the musical. But like “Coram Boy,” the show’s four nominations — including nods for leads Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy — missed the top category of best musical, which inevitably diminishes expectations.

Regardless of the hit-and-miss fortunes, producers will continue to be on the lookout for unorthodox new fare, and Off Broadway nonprofits have become a vital testing ground that spares gestating projects from the high fiscal stakes of Broadway. As with “LoveMusik,” producers can get in early on a property by striking enhancement deals with a nonprofit. “Spring,” for instance, was shepherded to the Atlantic Theater Company and then on to Broadway by Tom Hulce and Ira Pittelman; “Gardens” first blossomed last season at Playwrights Horizons.

Whether this season’s underdog tuners will recoup is anyone’s guess. But with Broadway continuing to diversify, producers are taking the chance that projects that once seemed unlikely successes just might make an enduring impact.

Go to Variety.com/awardcentral for a complete list of Tony nominations.

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