Behind Broadway’s Tony blare

Award voters create wide-open race

If Tony nominations represent a temperature gauge for the Broadway climate, then this year’s nods demonstrate that the theater community is refusing to bow to Hollywood luminaries or to put another dime in the jukebox, baby.

Some of the biggest surprises came in who was left off the roster of Tony bids, which were unveiled May 10.

But the cheerier news is that the nominating committee showed an unusual willingness to balance artistic merit and commercial success.

“Monty Python’s Spamalot” leads the Tony race with 14 nods, closely followed by two diverse musicals, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Light in the Piazza,” with 11 bids each.

“Spamalot” has set the Shubert box office aflame since it opened in March, and “Scoundrels” is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. But the committee looked beyond commercial heavyweights to recognize “Piazza,” one of the few musicals this season to aim not for irony but for romance and psychological complexity.

The fourth best-musical contender, chiming in with six nods, is the modestly budgeted “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” (The show started at an Off Off Broadway theater co-op, blossomed in a Barrington Stage production, leapfrogged to Off Broadway venue Second Stage and, from there, to Broadway.)

All four shows stand to benefit from their Tony push, but especially the recently opened “Spelling Bee” and the serious-minded “Piazza,” which has announced an extension through September of its limited run.

The candidacy of all four shows across the principal creative categories, in addition to each landing multiple acting nods, also stands to make this year’s race an uncommonly open field, without the usual clear frontrunner.

While a number of other musicals — “Good Vibrations,” “Brooklyn,” “Little Women,” “All Shook Up,” “Dracula” and even Stephen Sondheim’s radically reworked “The Frogs” among them — were either almost or entirely overlooked in nominations, the relatively high number of new tuners this season has been heartening in a sector prone to despair about the slow death of the art form.

The new play slot is a different story, pitting John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer winner “Doubt” and Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” — both of which opened recently to stellar reviews — against August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” and Michael Frayn’s “Democracy,” which both closed after failing to recoup commercially.

The fact that only five new plays opened on Broadway this season (the fifth was Donald Margulies’ “Brooklyn Boy,” which also shuttered) indicates that producers are increasingly less inclined to invest in untried material on Broadway. By comparison, the seemingly safer ground of audience-proven works is being heavily mined, with a staggering 13 play revivals jockeying for attention this season.

Top-prize contenders in that field are “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “On Golden Pond,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Twelve Angry Men,” all of which also landed key noms in other fields.

But the absence of even a single nod for two of the season’s most star-powered revivals, “Julius Caesar” with Denzel Washington and “The Glass Menagerie” with Jessica Lange, indicates that the Tony committee is not ready to automatically reward movie stars, no matter what boost they provide to ticket sales.

Whether the snubs impact the readiness of other big-name Hollywood regulars to take Broadway gigs was the subject of immediate post-noms speculation. Likewise was whether the stars’ damaged hubris might dissuade them from signing on as presenters at the Tony ceremony June 5, robbing the ratings-challenged telecast of a vital element.

Other stars shut out of Tony contention include both Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (which did score two tech nods and one for featured actress Amy Ryan). Also excluded were Jeff Goldblum for “The Pillowman” and David Hyde Pierce for “Spamalot.” Both thesps arguably play supporting roles but were pushed in lead categories, which may account for the slight.

But the real outcast this year is the jukebox musical, a format struggling for legitimacy and to repeat the success of “Mamma Mia!,” still the serendipitous model to be emulated.

While Beach Boys songbook tuner “Good Vibrations” was a critical and commercial wipeout whose absence from the nominations roster surprised no one, the cold shoulder to Elvis tuner “All Shook Up,” even in its notable tech departments and talented cast, indicates broad industry hostility to this much maligned patchwork musical genre.

The fates of those two musicals this season may have reverberations with potential investors on the spate of upcoming jukebox shows in the pipeline.

While play revivals multiplied this year, tuner overhauls dwindled in number, suggesting that the reserve of great American musicals due for Broadway revision may be drying up. Only three musical revivals were staged, barely filling out that category on the Tony slate. Those were “La Cage aux Folles,” “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweet Charity,” which opened only after a reversal of the producers’ previously announced intention to close during the show’s Boston tryouts.

And in the real showbiz fairy tale of this season, Christina Applegate — whose plucky determination to open despite barely having time to recover from a broken foot was instrumental in getting “Charity” back on track — scored a best actress nom.