2022 Tony Awards: Who SHOULD Win, and Why

In this most trying of seasons, the theater community has been attempting to redefine what Broadway means, and that includes producing work that surely would not have made it to Broadway before the cataclysmic events of the past two years. The result has been some extraordinary work, some experimental work, some work showcasing communities typically kept at the margins.

This is a welcome development, but a complicated one when it comes to Tony time.

Below are my preferences – not predictions – for the 2022 Tony Awards, in keeping with a tradition I’ve been maintaining for more than a decade. I am a critic, not a seer or a bookie. We’ll learn the choices of the Tony voters on Sunday, June 12th, which is soon enough.

But I also continue another annual tradition, a survey of my readers for their preferences (again, not their predictions) in 12 of the 26 categories, which helps gauge the nominees’ popularity.

Let’s face it: The decision to give a Tony to one nominee over another is always more complex than the subjective and amorphous criteria of “quality.” There are questions of the voter’s taste, and of the nominee’s track record, timeliness, likeability, popularity and commercial appeal. It’s also worth stating the obvious: The choice of one could be driven by a rejection of its alternatives. This year’s Tonys in particular feel fraught. The complications of scheduling in the 2021-2022 season (which officially began March 2020) has reduced the number of eligible Tony voters, with some observers speculating that it gives more weight to voters whose main consideration is long-term commercial potential. 

It also bears pointing out that there are a dozen other major New York theater awards, some of which offer a more accurate map of the theatrical landscape.  (Here’s my guide to New York Theater Awards).  But the Tonys are the only ones on network television.

Best Play

The Lehman Trilogy
The Minutes
Skeleton Crew

Poll pick: The Lehman Trilogy

My preference: Clyde’s

“Clyde’s,” a play about a truck stop sandwich shop ruled by a tyrannical boss whose employees see themselves as artists and craftsmen of sandwich making, is a savory comedy by Lynn Nottage, who is better known for her tragedies ( “Ruined,” “Sweat.”) But it’s marked by the same empathy and social consciousness; indeed, one of the characters in “Clyde’s” was also in “Sweat.” All of the characters were formerly incarcerated, their lives edged with sadness and struggle.  They were portrayed by a terrific five-cast led by Uzo Adubo, which includes two actors, Kara Young (making her Broadway debut) and Edmund Sullivan, who have been giving us one stunning performance after another over the past few years Off-Broadway and online.

“Clyde’s” also is the only Broadway production that has ever “simulcast” the exact same live performances on computer screens as what audiences were watching at the Helen Hayes Theater, in the final two weeks of its run – a worthy digital experiment that is one of the only conscious efforts this season toward a more accessible Broadway of the future.

Three of the other four nominated plays were transfers from Off-Broadway – and better there. 

Along with many others, I found “The Lehman Trilogy” to be a theatrical epic, inventively staged and extraordinarily acted, when I saw it at the Park Avenue Armory. But it was also historically blinkered, glossing over the Lehman brothers’ complicity in slavery. That shortcoming was amplified when the play transferred to Broadway after the racial reckoning in the theater that began after George Floyd’s murder. The creative team made a few line changes, but the problem remains, and it strikes me as the exact wrong message for the Tonys to be singling out this play at this time. 

Best Musical

Girl from the North Country
Mr Saturday Night
Paradise Square
Six The Musical
A Strange Loop

Poll pick: A Strange Loop

My preference: A Strange Loop

Michael R. Jackson spent two decades writing the book, music and lyrics for this dazzling and dizzying Pulitzer Prize winning musical about a big, gay Black guy who is struggling to write a musical about a big, gay Black guy who is struggling….It’s complex and erudite, but also entertaining —  tuneful and funny. That so many people involved with “A Strange Loop” are newcomers to Broadway, some of whom have created great theater for years in the world beyond Broadway, is emblematic of how fresh this show is for a Broadway audience, and how welcome.

Best Revival of a Play

American Buffalo
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel
Take Me Out
Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress

Poll pick: Take Me Out

My preference: Trouble in Mind

Every one of these except “American Buffalo” were wonderful productions of first-rate plays that deserve the Tony (a drawback to any award that such jewels must compete with one another.)  I choose “Trouble in Mind,” a backstage comedy about racism in the theater written by Alice Childress in 1955, because it retrieves from relative obscurity a particularly timely play 66 years after its Broadway transfer was thwarted, and brings new deserved attention to the gifted playwright Alice Childress,  who was making her Broadway debut 27 years after her death.

Best Revival of a Musical

Caroline, or Change
The Music Man

Poll pick: Company

My preference: Caroline,or Change

My enthusiasm for this first Broadway revival of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s inventive, thoughtful and affecting musical about the relationship between a Black maid and a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana,is not just because of the breathtaking performance of Sharon D Clarke. What makes this work so powerful, and especially timely, is how this splendid cast tells a small story about change – literal pocket change – while offering a larger glimpse into the complex undercurrents in a tense moment of change in American history. It’s the right musical for the times.

I loved this season’s revival of “Company,” more despite its gender swapping than because of it. 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

Billy Crystal, Mr. Saturday Night
Myles Frost, MJ
Hugh Jackman, The Music Man
Rob McClure, Mrs. Doubtfire
Jaquel Spivey, A Strange Loop

Poll pick: Jaquel Spivey

My preference: Jaquel Spivey

It was always between the two newcomers to Broadway, Myles Frost and Jaquel Spivey. The other three are appealing personalities and solid veterans, who have given better performances in other shows. 

Frost is an immensely talented dancer and singer, and his Michael Jackson impersonation is spot-on. But that’s what it is, an impersonation, and one that’s been approved by the Michael Jackson estate, which means we get only the MJ we saw on music videos and TV interviews. Given the complexity of this real-life character, that’s not enough for me.

 Jaquel Spivey’s role as Usher is the first professional gig for this recent college student – the sort of story that Broadway lovers eat up. Somebody else originated the role Off-Broadway, which gave us an opportunity to see a stronger singer and more experienced actor.  But this might be the role of a lifetime, or at least the role of Spivey’s lifetime: It’s hard to separate him from Usher, both of whom fit a profile not usually seen on Broadway. 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Sharon D Clarke, Caroline, or Change
Carmen Cusack, Flying Over Sunset
Sutton Foster, The Music Man
Joaquina Kalukango, Paradise Square
Mare Winningham, Girl From The North Country

Poll pick: Sharon D Clarke

My preference: Sharon D Clarke

Clarke, amazingly making her Broadway debut (she’s British), bowled us over with her soulful delivery of such bigger than life Broadway numbers as “Lot’s Wife,” but what’s most extraordinary about her performance is how persuasively she portrays the character of the maid, Caroline, who has made herself smaller than life, through her own anger, fears and resentment, provoked by the struggles and restrictions imposed on her from an early age.

Joaquina Kalukango definitely has bowl-over moments, and is sure to have a stellar future but the musical she’s in doesn’t give her the opportunity for the same wide range of performance.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

Matt Doyle, Company
Sidney DuPont, Paradise Square
Jared Grimes, Funny Girl
John-Andrew Morrison, A Strange Loop
A.J. ShivelyParadise Square

Poll pick: Matt Doyle
My preference: Matt Doyle and John-Andrew Morrison

Matt Doyle has the breakout moment of his career so far as the reluctant (neurotic) groom singing like a speed reader in “Getting Married Today.” His character is one of the two most radical alterations in the production; in the original, the character is Amy. Doyle portrays Jamie in a long-time same-sex relationship, which gives new heft to the role. I think I would probably want to give the Tony to anybody who essays this impossibly speedy, hilarious and heartfelt number (Veanne Cox certainly deserved her nomination in 1996) 

I don’t know if this is cheating, but I hope there’s a tie. John-Andrew Morrison was wonderful as Usher’s mother. That he’s a man in a dress doesn’t for one minute take away from his credibility or lessen the intensity. He was also one of the “Thoughts” in “A Strange Loop” — all of them should have been honored; there should be a Tony Award for best ensemble.

Jared Grimes’ dancing in “Funny Girl” was the best thing about the production, and the two dancers in “Paradise Square” were terrific.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Jeannette Bayardelle, Girl From The North Country
Shoshana Bean, Mr. Saturday Night
Jayne Houdyshell, The Music Man
L Morgan Lee, A Strange Loop
Patti LuPone, Company
Jennifer Simard, Company

Poll pick: Patti LuPone
My preference: Patti LuPone

Although the part of Joanne was written with Elaine Stritch in mind, who originated the role and is still remembered for it, LuPone has become closely identified with Joanne’s song “Ladies Who Lunch.” It’s like her “Over the Rainbow.” We probably should be tired of it by now, but it never fails to wow. She’s so spot-on spectacular that it almost feels unfair that she hasn’t recused herself.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

Simon Russell Beale, The Lehman Trilogy
Adam Godley, The Lehman Trilogy
Adrian Lester, The Lehman Trilogy
David Morse, How I Learned to Drive
Sam Rockwell, American Buffalo
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lackawanna Blues
David Threlfall, Hangmen

Poll pick: David Morse

My preference: David Morse

All three actors in The Lehman Trilogy deserve Tony Awards for their performances, which depend wholly on their interaction with one another as a series of characters and their descendants over two centuries. That is why it seems churlish to single out any one of them. (There should be a Tony Award for Best Ensemble)
The story in “How I Learned to Drive”  is rightly told from the point of view of the woman who as a child was molested for many years by her uncle. But David Morse’s memorable performance — gentle, earnest, likable, and thus all the more unsettling of a child molester — turns the character into something more human than monstrous, and is central to the success of the production.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Gabby Beans, The Skin of Our Teeth
LaChanze, Trouble in Mind
Ruth Negga, Macbeth
Deirdre O’Connell, Dana H.
Mary-Louise Parker, How I Learned to Drive

Poll pick: Mary-Louise Parker

My preference: Deirdre O’Connell

O’Connell’s performance singlehandedly turned an odd experimental play about ahorrific kidnapping into an exhilarating work of theater. All the other nominees in this category were exemplary, but none so completely and exclusively carried the play — and she did so by sitting on a chair, lip-synching a recording made by the real-life character! Every verbal stumble and stutter was perfectly coordinated, every gesture and facial expression just right.  But her accomplishment was not just technical. As in her previous roles, she managed to inhabit her character, and elicit our empathy.  In this case, she  did so without even using her own voice. O’Connell has been a mainstay of Off-Broadway for decades. What a thrill it would be for this amazing actress to get the attention she deserves.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Alfie Allen, Hangmen
Chuck Cooper, Trouble in Mind
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Take Me Out
Ron Cephas Jones, Clyde’s
Michael Oberholtzer, Take Me Out
Jesse Williams, Take Me Out

Poll pick: Jesse Williams

My preference: Ron Cephas Jones

Jones is both funny and poignant as Monstrellous, the master chef of the truck stop sandwich shop, who leads the other characters in fantasizing about works of culinary creativity. Monstrellous is positively saintly, so much so that the character feels like part of an allegory, yet Jones manages to make him feel real.

I was impressed by the performance of the always reliable Chuck Cooper, especially when he recounts a lynching, and by Michael Oberholtzer,  who makes the character of an ignorant, barely verbal bigot credible and nearly sympathetic. I also  think Jesse Williams deserves credit for bravery, especially in light of the humiliating photo leak of his nude scene. (Again, three nominees from the same play – about a baseball team?!! Shouldn’t there be a Tony for Best Ensemble?)

What tipped me over to Jones is the extraordinary information that just a year before the production, he had a double lung transplant. How remarkable that he was doing eight shows a week so soon afterwards.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Uzo AdubaClyde’s
Rachel DratchPOTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
Kenita R. Millerfor colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
Phylicia RashadSkeleton Crew
Julie WhitePOTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
Kara YoungClyde’s

Poll pick: Rachel Dratch

My preference: Uzo Aduba

 This is such a difficult category. I went back and forth, listing four different choices one by one. (At one point I listed “no preference.).  Rashad, for example, was terrific,  down-to-earth, shedding all traces of Clair Huxtable. But the actress who portrayed the character Off-Broadway was more suited for the role, and Rashad already has a Tony. Kenita R. Miller was touching as the Lady in Red, but why single her out from seven actresses who were all wonderful, and acted inextricably together. (Did I mention that there should be a Tony for Best Ensemble.)

I then turned to Kara Young, making her Broadway debut as Letitia,the single mother of a disabled child. But I realize I was less impressed with this specific performance than with the diverse and appealing characers she’s portrayed Off-Broadway and online: She was adorable in C.A. Johnson’s “All the Natalie Portmans,” and fierce as the street urchin in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Halfway Bitches,” then both fierce and adorable as the 18-year-old title character in Paula Vogel’s revival of Eisa Davis’s “Bulrusher.”

 I hesitated to prefer Auduba, because her character is so one-note — she’s a devil, perhaps literally. But Aduba offers a near symphony of a comic performance. She harasses and teases her employees, barks and berates. She sways her hips in a sexy dance that’s designed to demean them. The actress is probably best known as Crazy Eyes Suzanne in “Orange is the New Black,” but here was completely transformed into such a domineering and denying authoritarian that her employees gossip that she has a side gig: “She’s like a licensed dominatrix.”

Best Book of a Musical

Girl From The North Country, Conor McPherson
MJLynn Nottage
Mr. Saturday Night
, Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel
Paradise Square
, Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas & Larry Kirwan
A Strange Loop
, Michael R. Jackson

My preference: A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson

I mean, the man worked on it for more than 20 years. It is outright erudite, self-aware and layered in allusions, and funny too.

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theater

Flying Over Sunset; Music by Tom Kitt, Lyrics by Michael Korie
Mr. Saturday Night
; Music by Jason Robert Brown, Lyrics by Amanda Green
Paradise Square
; Music by Jason Howland, Lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare
SIX: The Musical
, Music and Lyrics by Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss
A Strange Loop
, Music and Lyrics by Michael R. Jackson

My preference: Strange Loop, Music and Lyrics by Michael R. Jackson

Watch a video of Memory Song

Best Direction of a Play

Lileana Blain-CruzThe Skin of Our Teeth
Camille A. Brownfor colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
Sam MendesThe Lehman Trilogy
Neil PepeAmerican Buffalo
Les WatersDana H.

My preference: Sam MendesThe Lehman Trilogy

It’s hard to deny the wonderful performances, and spectacular stagecraft (although the design did work better in the more spacious Park Avenue Armory.)

Best Direction of a Musical

Stephen BrackettA Strange Loop
Marianne ElliottCompany
Conor McPhersonGirl From The North Country
Lucy Moss & Jamie ArmitageSIX: The Musical
Christopher WheeldonMJ

My preference: Stephen Brackett, A Strange Loop

Stephen Brackett deserves kudos for helping to develop “A Strange Loop” from the get-go, but I was also impressed at how much he enlarged and enhanced the show for Broadway, without undermining its essential intimacy. (see also scenic design category)
Marianne Elliott appears to be on her way to a fourth Tony, and she certainly was a hands-on director, taking the suggestion from her producer to switch the genders, and making it work….a lot of the time.

Best Scenic Design of a Play

Beowulf BorittPOTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
Michael Carnahan and Nicholas HussongSkeleton Crew
Es DevlinThe Lehman Trilogy
Anna FleischleHangmen
Scott PaskAmerican Buffalo
Adam RiggThe Skin of Our Teeth

My Preference: Adam RiggThe Skin of Our Teeth

Rigg makes a spectacular Broadway debut with a series of memorable half surrealist half spot-on tableaux: a convincing suburban home during an encroaching Ice Age, then the Atlantic City boardwalk complete with rollercoaster and neon signs (one of which becomes cleverly R-rated) right before The Great Flood, then a burnt out suburban home after the devastating war.

Every one of these scenic designers deserves a Tony for their work this season — all meticulously detailed, all such welcome 3-D solidity after more than a year of 2-D experiences. (Es Devlin is the probable shoo-in, but his contraption was a better fit in the more spacious Park Avenue Armory.) I’m not sure why I was especially charmed by Rigg’s. (Maybe it was the pet dinosaurs, which I realize was not even his bailiwick.)

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Beowulf Boritt and 59 ProductionsFlying Over Sunset
Bunny ChristieCompany
Arnulfo MaldonadoA Strange Loop
Derek McLane and Peter NigriniMJ
Allen MoyerParadise Square

My preference: Arnulfo Maldonado, A Strange Loop

This is another tough category, in which I changed my choice a couple of times. I’m finally landing on A Strange Loop. Maldonado’s central structure of a series of booths in a row is rich in allusions. They could represent the chambers in his brain; this is after all where his “Thoughts” spend much of their time. They could also represent booths in a porno shop representing his various, and much discussed desires. I also like how Maldonado spent his increased budget, one obviously much higher than the one he made do with Off-Broadway. He goes big in several crucial scenes – especially a scene in a church, complete with neon signage — as big as a Broadway musical, which is now what “A Strange Loop” is. But he does so without changing the intimate, makeshift feel of the show.

I was strangely taken with the set design of “Flying Over Sunset,” since it’s so unconventional it’s hard to remember any actual sets — different from the huge, heavy, palpable sets one associates with a Broadway musical. But in retrospect it was the set of this play about three celebrities taking LSD in the 1950s that communicated the clearest about what an acid trip is like.

Best Costume Design of a Play

Montana Levi BlancoThe Skin of Our Teeth
Sarafina Bushfor colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
Emilio SosaTrouble in Mind
Jane GreenwoodNeil Simon’s Plaza Suite
Jennifer MoellerClyde’s

My preference: Montana Levi BlancoThe Skin of Our Teeth

Montana Levi Blanca’s costumes were, like the sets, a combination of spot-on and surreal, going through thousands of years of history. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are (along with John Lee Beaty’s unnominated set design) the best things about the revival of “Plaza Suite,” but she already has a lifetime achievement Tony. Montana Levi Blanco made his Broadway debut in two different productions this season — and deserves to be singled out (see next category.)

Best Costume Design of a Musical

Fly DavisCaroline, or Change
Toni-Leslie JamesParadise Square
William Ivey LongDiana, The Musical
Santo LoquastoThe Music Man
Gabriella SladeSIX: The Musical
Paul TazewellMJ

My preference: Gabriella SladeSIX: The Musical

Slade’s costumes cleverly interpret Tudor era style armor and bodices with a sexy Heavy Metal/S&M aesthetic. It’s more in-your-face fanciful than the realistic, more meticulous work of most of the other nominees, but that made it central to the conceit.

 I’d like to single out Montana Levi Blanco, who was not even nominated for “A Strange Loop,” although he offered an endless supply of variously hilarious, easily read, and spot-on costumes that add to the delight in the actors’ quick-change artistry.  

Best Lighting Design of a Play

Joshua CarrHangmen
Jiyoun Changfor colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
Jon ClarkThe Lehman Trilogy
Jane CoxMacbeth
Yi ZhaoThe Skin of Our Teeth

My preference: Jon Clark, The Lehman Trilogy

The lighting was an integral part of the change in eras and moods.

Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Neil AustinCompany
Tim DeilingSIX: The Musical
Donald HolderParadise Square
Natasha KatzMJ
Bradley KingFlying Over Sunset
Jen SchrieverA Strange Loop

My preference: Tim Deiling, SIX: The Musical

Against, like the costumes in the show, in your face. But it’s supposed to be a rock concert, which are defined by their lighting.

Best Sound Design of a Play

Justin Ellington
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
Mikhail FikselDana H.
Palmer HefferanThe Skin of Our Teeth
Nick Powell and Dominic BilkeyThe Lehman Trilogy
Mikaal SulaimanMacbeth

My preference: Mihail Fiksel, Dana H.

The entire show completely depended on the quality of the sound, since it was lip-synced. It also helped create the haunting mood (along with Paul Toben’s unnominated lighting design.)

Best Sound Design of a Musical

Simon Baker
Girl From The North Country
Paul GatehouseSIX: The Musical
Ian Dickinson for AutographCompany
Drew LevyA Strange Loop
Gareth OwenMJ

My preference: Drew Levy, A Strange Loop

The music was loud, but (unlike SIX) it wasn’t unbearably so, and you could make out the lyrics

Best Choreography

Camille A. Brown, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
Warren Carlyle, The Music Man
Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, SIX: The Musical
Bill T. Jones, Paradise Square
Christopher Wheeldon, MJ

My preference: Christopher Wheeldon, MJ

Ok, so we’re still so enthralled with Michael Jackon’s moves that Wheeldon was bound to reap the benefit, even though he wasn’t around when the pop singer originated the moon walk, etc. But Wheeldon manages to incorporate MJ’s signature moves into a whole world of exciting dance.
There is terrific dancing in all the nominated shows. This is yet another category that makes you feel bad that the nominees have to compete with one another.

Best Orchestrations

David Cullen, Company
Tom Curran, SIX: The Musical
Simon Hale, Girl From The North Country
Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg, MJ
Charlie Rosen, A Strange Loop

My preference: Simon Hale, Girl From The North Country

Hale allows a four-piece band to turn Bob Dylan’s spare melodies into convincing Broadway musical numbers without overdoing it. Besides, “Girl From The North Country” officially opened two years and three months ago (just past the cut-off date for consideration of last year’s Tonys.) It’s been waiting all this time for its moment; it would be nice if it could take home a Tony

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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