LONDON — The Brits and the Tonys enjoy a special theatrical relationship. Or do they?
In terms of acting kudos, one has to answer, yes. Since 1990, a partial list of British Tony-winning thesps includes Dames Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg, Margaret Tyzack, Stephen Dillane, Janet McTeer, Jonathan Pryce and the late Nigel Hawthorne.
The previous decade saw Ian McKellen, Roger Rees, Jeremy Irons and Pauline Collins, among others, stepping in triumph to the podium.
Casting a glance further back to 1973 comes this year’s nominee, Alan Bates, who took that season’s best actor Tony for Simon Gray’s “Butley,” the veteran actor’s last Broadway play prior to his current success in “Fortune’s Fool.”
Rare, in fact, is the Briton arriving on Broadway who doesn’t find himself surrounded by fellow countrymen. “I did feel a little bit like there were more of us (Britons) than of them (Americans),” recalls Adam Cooper, who was Tony nommed several years back for actor in a musical for his terpsichorean turn in the Matthew Bourne “Swan Lake,” with its all-male corps de ballet. (Cooper lost to Martin Short, the Canadian star of “Little Me.”)
“I think we (British) were very well represented that year,” says Cooper. (Bourne, indeed, won two trophies the same night.) “It’s good that we can keep our side, as it were.”
It helps, too, says British director Jonathan Kent, that Broadway seems to respond with kudos and awards to certain styles of British performance — as Kent found when his revivals of “Medea” and “Hamlet” won actress and actor Tonys for Diana Rigg and Ralph Fiennes in 1994 and 1995.
“Americans embrace high-definition, great performance,” says Kent, who launched both productions for the Almeida Theater in London, where he remains co-artistic director through July 15. “They’re not in any way jaded in the way that we British can easily become.”
Away from the acting categories, Tony history tells a somewhat different story. “Racing Demon,” “Arcadia,” “Closer,” and “The Invention of Love” are among the major British plays of recent years to lose the top prize to American competitors, with only “Copenhagen” two years ago taking the play trophy. (Does anyone really think “Love! Valour! Compassion!” is superior to “Arcadia”?)
And the list of British losers in the directing category is a long one: Sam Mendes, Howard Davies, Richard Eyre, Matthew Warchus, to name just a few. Three-time winner Trevor Nunn (nommed again, for “Oklahoma!”), Anthony Page (“A Doll’s House” in 1997) and Australia-born Michael Blakemore (“Copenhagen” and “Kiss Me, Kate” in 2000) are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Nonetheless, Broadway continues to exert a fascination all its own, as several first-time British nominees this year are quick to attest.
“We have felt an enormous sense of welcoming in New York,” says Mike Poulton, adaptor of “Fortune’s Fool,” the 1848 Turgenev text that is eligible by dint of being a Broadway premiere. (What’s more, points out Poulton, his version amounts to a radical rewrite: “People say, ‘Is this a new play or not,’ and all I can say is, ‘Read the literal translation, and you will see how different this is.’ “)
At the same time, Poulton speaks with genuine pleasure of the company he is keeping in the face-off for best play: “It’s a great honor to be in the same category as Edward Albee; he’s been one of my heroes.”
“Mamma Mia!”, up for five Tonys, including musical, has an enthusiastic nominee in book writer Catherine Johnson.
“I hoped very much ‘Mamma Mia!’ would get a nomination, but it didn’t cross my mind that I might,” says Johnson.
Now, Johnson is psyching herself up for the June 2 ceremonies, which she will attend with teenage son Huw.
“I shall be snoozing in a corner when it comes to 11,” laughs Johnson. What about Huw? “Oh,” she says, “he’ll be fine.”