They met the challenge, now they’ve been rewarded with a Tony nomination. But how does that challenge differ for the many scribes, helmers and thesps nommed? Here’s what several 2013 Tony nominees had to say on the subject.
“The main challenge of any musical is not to make the songs suck,” says “Matilda” lyricist-composer Tim Minchin. “Finding the right tone and style of music and a through line that allows your characters to come in and out of space is always the hardest thing, so that moment doesn’t suck when they sing. If you have extroverts who are brassy and say everything they think, it’s easier to get them to sing. But “Matilda” has two lead characters in “Honey” and “Matilda” who are modest. Getting them to sing is hard. You don’t want them to reveal everything, that would be against their core.”
Roald Dahl made the story of an abused little girl into a classic novel. “But the structure of the book is just utterly nondramatic,” says book writer Dennis Kelly. “A novel is so different from the theater. The real challenge was I had to invent all those stories that Matilda tells. But Dahl’s tone is so rich, you can go in tons of directions.”
One of those directions for “Matilda” director Matthew Warchus was to cast a male actor as the evil Miss Trunchbull. For thesp Bertie Carvel, the hard part wasn’t crossdressing. “I need to make sure the character I play is larger than life and is a monster, but I wanted to make sure as well as being a monster that she was also a recognizable human and there should be flesh on the bone,” he says.
Other thesps had the challenge of, perhaps, too little flesh.“There’s not a lot of backstory to my character, it’s just the Leading Player,” says “Pippin” star Patina Miller. “Who is this person and what makes this person tick? So just finding the character has been the biggest challenge and I’m still finding her.”
Cyndi Lauper makes her Broadway debut as composer-lyricist with “Kinky Boots.” The tuner demands that she be versatile. “There’s a lot of different kinds of songs in there for different reasons, and all the characters have their own style of music,” Lauper says. “And that was very purposeful.” Regarding director Jerry Mitchell and book writer Harvey Fierstein, “I felt like I was working for them,” she recalls with a laugh. “With several songs, they were, ‘Eh, not good.’ I wanted to give Jerry what he needed rhythmically so he could do his choreography. And I wanted the singers to enjoy the melodies and be happy in what they were doing. If it wasn’t right, we changed it.”
In “Kinky Boots,” Stark Sands plays the shoemaker who converts his factory to one designing boots for drag performers. “Every night I have to maintain the balance of winning the audience over in act one and then not pushing them away in act two. It’s tricky.”
Billy Porter plays Lola, the drag queen. “Maintaining the physical strength to walk and dance and act in 4- to 6-inch heels isn’t easy. You can’t ever phone it in, because as soon as you phone it in your heel gets caught in a crack on stage and you twist your ankle and you’re out of the show.”
Having the physical stamina to play eight perfs a week is also mentioned by other nominees. “I’ve lost 10 pounds doing this play. That ought to tell you where I was with it!” Cicely Tyson says of her turn in “The Trip to Bountiful.”
Tom Hanks, making his Broadway debut in Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy,” calls the eight-perf-a-week sked a challenge. “But it also requires a lot of faith,” he adds. “And you must never ever take anything for granted. I get up in the morning and I start thinking about the show literally as soon as I’m finished brushing my teeth.”
George C. Wolfe, “Lucky Guy’s” helmer, recalls Ephron and trying to direct without her input. “The playwright I’d work with so closely wasn’t in the room on a moment-to-moment basis,” Wolfe says. “Nora left tons of drafts and archives and notes, and we could reference her research, she’d done so much research. That was more easily solved. But her energy and life force wasn’t in the room. Then again, that was also empowering. It kept everyone very focused.”
“The play’s like a marathon,” Nathan Lane says of “The Nance,” in which his performer character finds his risque act censored by the homophobic authorities. “You have to do the burlesque scenes and the emotional scenes all through the play, back and forth. As the play gets darker and darker, the burlesque gets harder and harder.”
Playing the prince in “Cinderella” is the easy part, says Santino Fontana. “But the dancing. I lift Laura Osnes a couple of times. Once over my head! And I’m wearing all white. But I haven’t dropped Laura yet. Knock on wood.”
As long as her luck holds out, Osnes says the big challenge is “making a seamless transition between the contemporary book and classic Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score.”
Douglas Carter Beane wrote that new book for “Cinderella.” “When we went into previews, it became obvious that the show wanted also to be a big romantic comedy. I occasionally had to push things to the side to let the romance take center stage,” the scribe recalls.
Playwright Richard Greenberg calls his drama “The Assembled Parties” “fractured in a deliberate way. We go from room to room and we don’t quite land on the central conflict, and then in act two it is 20 years later. I was trying to balance those two aims clarity and complexity.” Otherwise, “It was dreamlike,” he says of the readings and rehearsals. “This was the experience you wish for and never get. I thought we were doomed because the process had been so lovely.”
David Hyde Pierce can relate. “I can’t think of a challenge with this role,” he says of performing in Christopher Durang’s farce “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” “I’ve had such a good time with it. It’s been a blast. I did re-read a lot of Chekhov and watched Alien a lot.”
“We have so much fun on stage, I’m always scared we’ll have too much fun,” says Hyde Pierce’s co-star Kristine Nielsen. She’s not kidding, as director Nicholas Martin tells it. “The challenge with Durang is always maintaining the tone of hilarity as well as the serious moments and the tenderness.”
The hard part, it seems, was writing act two of “Vanya and Sonia.” “I wrote act one and I didn’t quite know where act two was going to go,” Durang says. “As I’ve gotten older I procrastinate more, so one way I get around it is that I ask a theater if I can have a reading in two months. Then if I know I’m supposed to show up in two months with actors. … So I did that with this play, which made me write act two. It was fun actually. But the hard part was forcing myself to write because I get lazy.”
Indeed, every situation is unique in the theater. For instance, Valisia LeKae’s turn as Diana Ross in “Motown: The Musical.” “The easy part is performing and singing, and when you get off stage you have a list of notes from Berry Gordy,” LeKae says with a big laugh. “That’s the hard part!”
Gordon Cox and Addie Morfoot contributed to this report.