Tony Nominations: Newcomers Have a Lot to Learn — and Teach

When the Tony nominations were announced, Broadway watchers expected to hear a lot of famous names in the lead actress in a play category. Helen Mirren. Elisabeth Moss. Carey Mulligan. Ruth Wilson. All of them earned a spot on the list, but the name they called first? Geneva Carr.

“You know Helen Mirren was like, ‘Geneva who?’” laughs Carr, who scored the nomination for her Broadway debut in the demonic handpuppet comedy “Hand to God.” Carr used to be a banker until she went to a play in the early 1990s at a little Off Off Broadway space. It inspired her to quit and become an actress. “I just started auditioning because I didn’t know any better.”

Now she’s the one unknown on that formidable list of lead actress nominees — and her presence there plays up how much the work on Broadway this season has sprung from a fertile collaboration between newcomers and veterans.

“Hand to God,” for instance, comes from a slew of Broadway tyros — including playwright Robert Askins and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (both also nominees) — in a project shepherded into the Booth Theater by veteran producer Kevin McCollum. The members of the creative team for another McCollum project, “Something Rotten!” (with 10 noms), are also making their Broadway debut — and now find themselves in a Tony competition with Broadway royalty Kander and Ebb. And the two musicals that claimed the most nominations this year (at a dozen apiece), “An American in Paris” and “Fun Home,” scored their pole positions with a notable blend of fresh faces and experienced hands.

Of the five acting nominees for “Fun Home,” two are regular Broadway pros (Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn), one (Beth Malone) only has a handful of New York credits and two — Emily Skeggs and young Sydney Lucas — are making their Broadway debuts.

“The greatest teams are the ones that combine beginners and people with experience,” says the show’s composer, Jeanine Tesori, who notched her fifth Tony nom for the show. “Having the newcomers there is a reminder for us to go back to the beginner’s mind as we’re working.”

The show for which Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher is nominated, “The King and I,” paired Broadway regular Kelli O’Hara with a New York stage newcomer who’d never appeared in a musical, Ken Watanabe. Sher relished the teamup. “Newcomers have all the joy and beautifully open eyes that you don’t get with veterans,” he says. “You need the newcomers to remind you of the joy, and the really great veterans, like Kelli, become leaders and set great examples.”

In “American in Paris,” a whopping 13 cast members made their Broadway debut, including the two nominated leads, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope. The dance-heavy adaptation of the 1951 MGM movie-musical mingles those Broadway neophytes (but dance-world pros) with Broadway regulars like Max von Essen (also nominated) and Veanne Cox.

Dancer-choreographer (and artistic associate at London’s Royal Ballet) Christopher Wheeldon makes his Broadway debut as a director-choreographer with the show, and he says he felt very much like a newcomer with a lot to learn. “I had this unrealistic notion that as the director of a musical, you just took material and put it onstage,” he admits. “But you’re expected to wear many hats. You’re shaping a book. You’re helping structure the music. I’d never directed actors in my life. That was sweat-inducing.”

At the same time, the experienced dancers had to learn to think like actors. “As a dancer, you spend your whole life trying to levitate and look weightless,” Cope says. “But as an actor and a singer, I’ve learned that your best friend is the floor, and feeling grounded.”

“It was a challenge finding myself in my character,” Fairchild chimes in. “I could find the hurt in the character easier than the guilelessness and the trickster. Finding those parts of myself, and then exercising them in a repetitive fashion, that was the hardest part for me.”

“And to be honest, it’s absolutely terrifying using my voice,” Cope adds. “Maybe the odd karaoke, but I’ve never considered myself a singer!”

“Robby and Leanne were fearless,” says producer Stuart Oken. “They were more fearless than some of the seasoned actors. I think it’s because in the dance world, when a choreographer tells you to do something, and you just say yes.”

As for the hoopla of award nominations, the veterans can offer a little perspective to the newbies. “Over the years you figure out there’s a narrative that develops with awards seasons,” says “Something Rotten!” nominee Christian Borle, who was first nominated for a Tony for “Legally Blonde” and won for “Peter and the Starcatcher.” “Looking back on it now, I didn’t have a chance of winning for ‘Legally Blonde.’ But I got all worked up!”

Still, it can be hard not to get excited. “Some nominations don’t mean anything,” says Moss, much nominated for her TV work but now in the Tony race for the first time for her performance in “The Heidi Chronicles.” “This feels like it means something because it’s from a community I respect.”

A lot of veterans think of it as their duty to welcome the newcomers to the Broadway club. Kuhn described the “Fun Home” cast celebrating the eight people, onstage and backstage, making their Broadway debuts in the show. “We had our own little ceremony,” she says. “We all made a circle and they all ran around it and gave everybody high-fives.”

After Micah Stock, the one newcomer in the very famous cast of “It’s Only a Play,” nabbed that production’s only nomination, no one was happier for him than his castmates. “That night at the curtain call, after we took our last bow, Nathan Lane stepped forward and everyone in the cast turned and looked at me, and Nathan said, ‘We are so proud of Micah Stock for his first Tony nomination,’ ” Stock says, getting emotional at the memory. “And then we drank.”

In any event, having a wealth of experience doesn’t mean you can’t savor a nomination when you get one. Just ask Patricia Clarkson, the Oscar nominee up for her first Tony for “The Elephant Man.” “I’m 55,” she says. “Everything’s a little sweeter!”

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