The Tony Awards: Now with more mud wrestling!
Nominations for the theater world’s biggest night can always make things awkwardly competitive between co-workers, as industry colleagues vie against each other in categories that will have only one winner each. Things got even trickier this year when an unusually high number of nominees found themselves competing for the same trophy with their co-stars.
“It’s a little weird,” admits Julie White, the Broadway veteran who’s nominated for a featured actress Tony for her performance in “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” alongside her castmate Kristine Nielsen. “What are we going to do? Mud wrestle for it?”
“She’s tried to kill me,” Nielsen chimes in, before describing a slapstick sequence in the play during which a cream pie ends up in someone’s face. “The tea scene we do has become insane. That pie is everywhere!”
She’s kidding. But mudwrestling might still seem the best option in a year packed with contests between castmates: In addition to Nielsen and White, there are also Caitlin Kinnunen and Beth Leavel, both in the running for lead actress in a musical for “The Prom,” and Jeremy Pope and Ephraim Sykes, two “Ain’t Too Proud” co-stars nominated for featured actor in a musical. Lilli Cooper and Sarah Stiles of “Tootsie” and Ali Stroker and Mary Testa of “Oklahoma” are all up for featured actress in a musical.
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On the one hand, it’s gratifying for collaborators to see so many on their team recognized. But multiple noms can also play up one of the least pleasant aspects of awards season: when castmates are left out of the celebration.
“Gary” is a prime example. The high-low comedy mashup scored seven noms, but only two of its three cast members made the cut, leaving out Nathan Lane, who plays the title character.
Both White and Nielsen express astonishment over the exclusion. “I feel like Abbott and Costello with Nathan. The only reason I’m here is because of him,” Nielsen says. “I don’t even think ‘Gary’ would be done on Broadway without Nathan doing it.”
In a similar situation, the Broadway hit “To Kill a Mockingbird” (with nine nominations in all) got noms for only two of the three actors who play the show’s central trio of kids. “It is intense,” says Celia Keenan-Bolger, up for a featured acting award, as is her co-star Gideon Glick. “And of course in our show I think there are people I felt were overlooked.”
Will Pullen, the third member who plays a significant young character, didn’t score a nom. But things haven’t been awkward, Keenan-Bolger says, because Pullen has been so gracious.
“He just said to us, ‘Listen, here’s the deal: You get to talk about this the whole time. There are no weird feelings. I’m so happy for you guys.’ It’s like he was taking care of us, when it should’ve been the other way around!”
In the race for lead actress in a musical, Leavel and Kinnunen are both vying for the gold for their work in “The Prom.” Leavel is a Tony-winner (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and New York theater veteran, whereas Kinnunen is making her Broadway debut.
But there’s no cutthroat competition here. “We’re such a family, so I can celebrate her and she can celebrate me,” Leavel says. “It’s fabulous. I’m so proud of her.”
Kinnunen reciprocates. “I feel supported and cared for, and like we have each other’s back,” she explains. “To be able to take this journey with her and with Brooks [Ashmanskas, another nominated co-star] is incredible. To be onstage with them, and to make eye contact and say these lines that we’ve been saying for years, it just takes on a new meaning. It’s special.”
It’s a similar situation over at the Temptations bio-musical “Ain’t Too Proud.” Pope (also up for lead actor in a play for “Choir Boy”) and Sykes, along with nominated lead Derrick Baskin, share such a close bond that all three of them went to Bali together last year.
“Eph, he’s my real partner in this show,” Pope notes. “We’re both from Florida, and we found out a couple of weeks ago that we might actually be cousins. Which is funny, because David and Eddie, who we play in the Temptations, were also cousins. I can’t wait to root him on. He’s like, ‘You gonna win,’ and I’m like, ‘No, you gonna win!’”
As with “The Prom,” “Oklahoma!” has two castmates in one category, with each nominee at a different point in their careers.
“It’s a dream in itself to be nominated with Mary,” says Stroker, a rising young actress who has only been on Broadway once before. “Mary’s a Broadway legend. She is a mentor. She is a friend. It feels so good to be able to look to her and be like, ‘What’s gonna happen next?’ She’s such a veteran.”
All that is well and good for the nominees. But for everyone else in the show: How the heck do you decide who to root for?
“There’s this Oscar ceremony in 1969 when Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn tied,” says the nominated director of “Oklahoma!,” Daniel Fish. “I’m hoping it’s gonna be that.”
The musical revival contender’s lead producer, Eva Price, jokingly suggests a different approach. “Here’s what you do,” she says. “You put boxing gloves on Mary Testa and Ali Stroker, and you tell them to duke it out. Now that’s a show I want to be at!”
For her part, Testa seems to have a healthy attitude about it all. “This is my third Tony nomination,” she says. “I know how it is. There’s no rhyme or reason sometimes to these things, and fairness is not always what happens. You just have to put one foot in front of the other and try not to take anything too seriously. You cannot hang your worth on this kind of stuff.”
Special Tony Awards
Each year, in addition to the usual roster of competitive awards, the organizers of the Tony Awards dole out a handful of special honors. This year’s lifetime achievement honorees include beloved Broadway veterans Rosemary Harris (now on Broadway in “My Fair Lady”), playwright Terrence McNally (whose play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” is having a starry revival) and composer Harold Wheeler (the orchestrator of “Ain’t Too Proud”), while other special awards are going to creatives deemed to have turned in extraordinary work this season: Sonny Tilders and Creature Technology Co. for the scene-stealing puppet in “King Kong,” and “Choir Boy” music director and arranger Jason Michael Webb. We take a look at two of the special awards honorees.
Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award
Light was an AIDS activist and LGBTQ+ ally long before it was cool.
“People said to me, ‘This is going to be a career-ender for you,’” Light recalls of her early involvement in events including the LGBT March and the AIDS Ride in the 1990s. “People wrote me letters and told me they’d never watch me again,” she says. “But this community was under siege by a disease, and people weren’t speaking about it.”
With a career that’s included “The Ryan White Story” and “Transparent” — not to mention back-to-back Tony Awards for “Other Desert Cities” (2012) and “The Assembled Parties” (2013) — Light will take home a different kind of trophy on June 9, when she’ll receive the 2019 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for her passionate advocacy to end HIV/AIDS and her support of LGBTQ+ and human rights.
It’s an honor that feels particularly meaningful to her. “I think we’re all here to be of service, and I don’t mean that in some sort of new age-y way,” she says. “I mean it deeply. All around me, for all of my life, I have seen people be of service. I’ll accept this award on behalf of all of those people who inspired me and took me in and said, ‘We will include you and we appreciate you.’ It’s my appreciation for them. That’s where I live with this.”
Special Tony Award
A Broadway fan favorite for years, Mazzie never took home an award. That’ll change this year, when the late actress will receive a posthumous Special Tony Award not only for her work, but also for her strength and leadership following her diagnosis with ovarian cancer in 2015.
A Tony nominee for “Passion,” “Ragtime” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” and the star of the Off Broadway revival of “Carrie,” Mazzie spoke publicly and bravely about her cancer battle in support of such causes as the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation and the Actors Fund’s Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative. She worked right up until her death in September, performing Off Broadway in Terrence McNally’s “Fire and Air” and in concerts around the country with her husband, Jason Danieley, the Broadway actor who spent the past season in the cast of “Pretty Woman.”
Among the accoldaes received over the years, Mazzie won the Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding actress in a musical in 2000 for “Kiss Me, Kate” and accumulated four Drama Desk Award nominations and four Drama League Award nominations. Other works include “The King and I,” above, “Enron” and “Bullets Over Broadway” where she originated the role of Helen Sinclair.
What: The Tony Awards
When: 8 p.m. ET June 9
Where: Radio City Music Hall