The Tribe At The Tonys
The 71st-annual Tony Awards, for excellence in the Broadway theater, will air live on CBS on Sunday, June 11, starting at 8 p.m. EDT, hosted by Kevin Spacey. This year features an extraordinary number of Jewish nominees and works with a strong Jewish connection. The following are confirmed Jewish nominees in all but the technical categories.
Note: The Best Play Tony goes to the playwright and the play’s producers. The Best Musical Tony goes to the musical’s producers. The number of nominated producers is so large that, with one exception, they are not included in this article.
Leading actor in a musical: Ben Platt, 23, Dear Evan Hansen. Platt, who became well known to movie audiences as Benji Applebaum in the Pitch Perfect films, is a favorite to win the Tony.
The fourth of five children, Ben is the son of Marc Platt, 60, a leading showbiz producer. The elder Platt is Tony-nominated this year for producing Indecent, a best play nominee. The whole family is musical and they have a family tradition of adapting show tunes for family events and singing them together (including at Ben’s bar mitzvah).
It was almost natural for Ben to start performing professionally as a child, and by age 11 he was in a national touring of a Broadway show. Recently, he told Seth Meyers that at (Jewish) Camp Ramah in California he sang the part of Sky Masterson (from Guys and Dolls) in Hebrew. He treated Meyers’ audience to a few verses of “Luck Be a Lady” in Hebrew.
Evan Hansen is about a socially awkward teen who tells a big lie to become more popular and the ramifications of that lie. It was difficult, reviewers have noted, to make sympathetic a very nervous protagonist whose lie exploits a family’s grief. But, they all add, Platt has masterfully risen to that challenge. He told the NY Times: “I have had a struggle with anxiety, always, and as a proud Jew, that’s not a surprising thing. But I don’t think I have as much trouble as [Evan] does connecting with people generally — I think I’m pretty good at that, and that’s Evan’s biggest challenge.”
Lead actress in a musical: Bette Midler, 71, Hello, Dolly! Critics have said that Midler was practically born to star in the title role and this revival is a smash. Dolly represents a return to Broadway for Midler after an absence of almost 50 years. Born and raised in Hawaii, she moved to New York in 1965 and quickly landed a big off-Broadway role. Then, from 1966-1969, she played Tzeitel, the oldest daughter in the original run of Fiddler on the Roof. She told CBS Sunday Morning (May 20) that she didn’t return to Broadway sooner because musical shows changed and had become “musical theater.” Her love was musical comedy and Hello, Dolly! is certainly that.
She added that two years ago she had finished a successful run of her touring variety musical show and she was looking for a new challenge and Dolly fit the bill.
Midler also told Sunday Morning that she realized she would be judged against the original, iconic performance by Carol Channing. So, she sought Channing, now 96, out and, she said, they “had a lovely afternoon together.”
Supporting actor, musical: Brandon Uranowitz, 30, Falsettos. He plays Mendel, a Jewish psychiatrist, in this revival of a musical originally staged in 1992. The show is about a Jewish family and ends with a bar mitzvah near the deathbed of the bar mitzvah boy’s father. Uranowitz says he recalls practicing for his bar mitzvah by singing “Miracle of Judaism,” a Falsettos number.
Best Director, play: Sam Gold, 39, A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Rebecca Taichman, 47, Indecent. Best Director, musical: Jerry Zaks, 70, Hello, Dolly!, and Rachel Chavkin, 37, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Michael Greif, 57, Dear Evan Hansen.
Here’s a little more about two of these directors: Gold is the resident director of the Roundabout Theater Company, one of Manhattan’s leading nonprofit theater companies. He’s married to Amy Herzog, 41, a Pulitzer-nominated playwright (4000 Miles). Her grandfather, Arthur Herzog Jr., was a leading figure in the Detroit jazz scene in the 1930s-1950s. He wrote, with Billie Holiday, such classics as “Don’t Explain” and “God Bless the Child.”
Zaks, the son of Holocaust survivors, has been a leading Broadway musical director for more than 20 years. He has two hits now running simultaneously on Broadway: Hello, Dolly!, and a musical version of the hit 1993 movie A Bronx Tale.
The Best Play and Best Musical Tonys, as noted above, are given to the show’s producers. Here are the Jews, many nominees in their own right, associated with those “best” shows.
Best Revival, Play: The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman (1905-1984); Best Revival, Musical: Falsettos, music and lyrics by William Finn, now 65, and book by James Lapine, now 68; Hello, Dolly!, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, now 85. Best (new) Play: Indecent, by Paula Vogel, 65.
Indecent is about the controversy surrounding the 1907 Yiddish play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch (1880-1957). Asch’s play, about a Jewish brothel owner who seeks respectability by donating a Torah scroll and marrying off his daughter to a yeshiva student, was heavily criticized by many Jews when it first played in New York and the producers were convicted of obscenity (the verdict was later overturned).
Vogel is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. In a JN interview (“Indecent”; April 6), she said that writing this play put her in touch with Jewish culture and her Jewish identity. Interestingly, the Tony-nominated director of Vogel’s play, Rebecca Taichman, wrote her own play about the events depicted in Indecent which the Yale Repertory Theater staged in 2000.
Best Musical: Dear Evan Hansen, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, both 32. Pasek and Paul wrote the lyrics for “City of Stars,” and won (2017) the Oscar for best song with La La Land film composer Justin Hurwitz, 32.
The duo had prior hits, including a Broadway musical version of A Christmas Story. However, Evan Hansen is the first show they wrote not based on another source and they hit a home run.
The riveting story of Evan Hansen was written by Steven Levenson, 31, and he’s nominated for Best Book (script) for a musical. (Pasek and Paul’s score is nominated for best original score.)
Also nominated for Best (new) Musical is Groundhog Day. It’s a song-filled version of the hit 1993 movie which was written by Danny Rubin, now 60, and the late Harold Ramis. Rubin is nominated for Best Book for a musical.
Finally, in this category, is the unlikely hit Come from Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, both 40. They are married and both are originally from Canada. Previously, they were best known for the cult hit musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding (it’s based on Hein’s mother’s real-life coming out as an older adult).
Come from Away takes place in Newfoundland, Canada, right after the 9-11 attacks. Hundreds of planes were forced to land in Newfoundland and the local people rushed to aid stranded passengers. The musical’s sub-text — the rightness of helping strangers in need — gives the show a contemporary edge. It’s both a critical and audience favorite. (Hein and Sankoff’s score is Tony-nominated for Best Original Score and the duo are nominated for Best Musical Book.)
Worthy of note: Oslo, a Best Play nominee, is about the (true) efforts of two Norwegian diplomats to bring together Israeli and the PLO representatives for secret peace talks in 1993. There are important Israeli characters.
Danny Devito and Patti LuPone are nominated for acting Tonys for playing Jewish characters in, respectively, The Price by the late Arthur Miller, and War Paint. Lupone plays cosmetics mogul Helena Rubenstein (1872-1965).
MICHIGAN GRAD CORNER
The theater magazine Playbill just published a list of the college (if any) this year’s Tony nominees attended. They note that Pasek and Paul are U-M grads (they met freshman year). Other U-M Tony nominees: Gavin Creel, Supporting Actor, musical, Hello, Dolly! and Michelle Wilson, Supporting Actress, play Sweat.
Nate Bloom Contributing Writer