2023 Tony Awards: Who SHOULD Win, and Why

Below are my preferences – not predictions – for the 2023 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 769 Tony voters soon enough — this Sunday, June 11th (6:30 p.m. Eastern on Pluto TV, then 8 p.m. on CBS and Paramount+).

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.

Best Play

Ain’t No Mo’
Between Riverside and Crazy
Cost of Living
Fat Ham

Poll pick: Leopoldstadt
My preference: Leopoldstadt

“Leopoldstadt,”  a play by the 85-year-old Tom Stoppard inspired by the death of his own extended family in the Holocaust, traces four generations and fifty-six years in the life of a Jewish family in Vienna. It’s bustling with characters, bristling with debate, packed full of facts. It’s epic and intimate, intellectual and ultimately moving. And it’s the right play to highlight in a time that’s seen a surge in antisemitism.

All of the other nominated plays deserve recognition; the middle three have received it, each of them winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  What I hope is that the Tony broadcast, which already promises to differ from its usual format (to accommodate requests by striking members of the Writers Guild of America) will find a way to highlight these worthy plays, not just the musicals.

Best Musical

& Juliet
Kimberly Akimbo
New York, New York
Some Like It Hot

Poll pick: Kimberly Akimbo
My preference: New York, New York

“New York, New York”is a new musical by the 96-year-old John Kander (who is receiving a Special Tony Award Sunday for lifetime achievement), with an assist from his long-deceased partner Fred Ebb and his new collaborator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. It wins me over with its score, its breathtaking scenic design, the lively choreography, a finale that left me exhilarated, and its subtle resonance to current times: Set in the aftermath of World War II, the musical presents characters who each experienced the collective trauma in personal ways, and together are trying to recover from it. Granted, the individual stories the show tells of a diverse group of new New Yorkers each trying to make it here can feel overly familiar. Jaded New Yorkers might find the overlapping storylines’ eventual convergence too much like an old I Love New York commercial. But I’m a native New Yorker unembarrassed by such boosterism. I prefer to think of “New York, New York” — with its focus on (among others) a Black veteran, a Cuban immigrant, a Jewish refugee — as a musical that should have been made seventy years ago, shortly after the show is set, but Broadway wasn’t ready for it then.

My preference is admittedly among the least likely to be chosen by Tony voters, judging by the musical’s mixed critical reception and by the love shown in the other New York theater awards for “Kimberly Akimbo” and “Some Like It Hot.” There is much I admire in both of these musicals, as you’ll see in some of the other categories below. Each has at least one aspect that turned me off — the glib resolution to the love relay among the teenagers in “Kimberly Akimbo,” the bang-us-on-the-head direction of “Some Like It Hot” — but my preference is largely a matter of personal taste.

And that’s always the question I have about these awards: How much are they based on collective taste rather than some comparative measure of “quality?”

To paraphrase the reasoning in a jury verdict, my preference is based on the preponderance of the elements.

Best Revival of a Play

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
A Doll’s House
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window
Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog

Poll pick: A Doll’s House
My preference: August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson

“The Piano Lesson” features a starry cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Danielle Brooks, and John David Washington, but they and the rest of the eight-member cast work as an ensemble, portraying a family of storytellers in a play haunted by ghosts – literal, metaphoric, historic…above all, by August Wilson. They are adept at handling the horror, but also capturing August Wilson’s inimitable cadences, and his abundant humor, which elevates bickering into an art form.

I found Jamie Lloyd’s austere direction of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” –black modern dress, no sets, the actors barely get out of their chairs — largely off-putting, even as I welcomed the new adaptation of Amy Herzog. I was delighted finally to see a production of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” Lorraine Hansberry’s second Broadway play after “A Raisin in the Sun,” demonstrating the breadth of a talented playwright who was too ill to fix the flaws in the play before it opened and died at age 34, two days after it closed. I’m in the minority in not being bowled over by “Topdog/Underdog,” which is reportedly favored to win.

Best Revival of a Musical

Into the Woods
Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Poll pick: Parade
My preference: Into The Woods

If the timing of the production of the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical “Into The Woods” — just nine months after the death of Sondheim — enhanced its enchantment, its appeal was undeniable. That is largely because of the cast, who brought out the fractured fairy tale humor that I most appreciate about the show while delivering the songs as beautifully as I’ve ever heard them.

I found “Parade” sophisticated musically, intensely acted and gorgeously sung, but I also found it an obvious and sometimes trivializing dramatization of the murder trial and lynching in 1915 of Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of a pencil factory in Atlanta.

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

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog
Corey Hawkins, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog
Sean Hayes, Good Night, Oscar
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Between Riverside and Crazy
Wendell Pierce, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

Poll pick: Sean Hayes
My preference: Stephen McKinley Henderson

 Henderson plays a quintessential New Yorker, feisty and stubborn, and somebody easy to fall in love with — until the actor shifts our perception of the character from lovable to something close to ugly. It’s a subtle, detailed performance by the incomparable 73-year-old actor, who is best known as a foremost interpreter of the plays by August Wilson.

Sean Hayes’ portrayal of the real-life pianist and raconteur Oscar Levant is further demonstration of his comic timing, but he shows off his dramatic chops, emphasizing Oscar’s inebriation from prescription medication, and his acute attacks of anxiety as well as deep expressions of agony There was something histrionic about much of his performance, which struck me as an effort at virtuosity at Oscar Levant’s expense.

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

Jessica Chastain, A Doll’s House
Jodie Comer, Prima Facie
Jessica Hecht, Summer, 1976
Audra McDonald, Ohio State Murders

Poll pick: Jodie Comer
My preference: Jodie Comer

In her remarkable Broadway debut (and her first stage role), Comer portrays a lawyer who is sexually assaulted, as well as all the characters with whom she interacts. It is an emotionally raw and physically demanding performance that drives home the humiliation, betrayal, and feelings of helplessness that accompany sexual assault and its aftermath. Comer’s is a bruising and persuasive portrayal.

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

Christian Borle, Some Like It Hot
J. Harrison Ghee, Some Like It Hot
Josh Groban, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Brian d’Arcy James, Into the Woods
Ben Platt, Parade
Colton Ryan, New York, New York

Poll pick: J. Harrison Ghee
My preference: Ben Platt

Platt, returning to Broadway after his star-making role as the nerdy, socially awkward title character in “Dear Evan Hansen,” feels ideally cast as the nerdy, emotionally remote Leo Frank. Platt has a remarkable ability to use his singing to reveal the inner emotions that his character has trouble communicating to other people. His singing is lush and thrilling in his duets with Micaela Diamond, and devastating at the end.

J. Harrison Ghee deserves the kudos that have been coming their way. Ghee sings wonderfully and has fine comic timing, but is portraying a character that feels engineered to fit a message, rather than reflecting the nuances of a believable human being.

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

Annaleigh Ashford, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sara Bareilles, Into the Woods
Victoria Clark, Kimberly Akimbo
Lorna Courtney, & Juliet
Micaela Diamond, Parade

Poll pick: Victoria Clark
My preference: Victoria Clark

The 63-year-old actress plays a teenager with a disease that makes her age prematurely. She looks like a middle-aged woman, but persuasively (and sometimes hilariously) behaves like an adolescent — not a caricature of one, one that is awkward, yes, but also sensible, reliable, the caretaker in her dysfunctional family, and one open to both adventure and love.

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

Jordan E. Cooper, Ain’t No Mo’
Samuel L. Jackson, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
Arian Moayed, A Doll’s House
Brandon Uranowitz, Leopoldstadt
David Zayas, Cost of Living

Poll pick: Brandon Uranowitz
My preference: Brandon Uranowitz

Uranowitz portrays two characters in “Leopoldstadt” — Ludwig, a professor of mathematics, who is a victim of the Holocaust, and then Nathan, a member of the same family a generation later, who is one of its few survivors. Uranowitz has been nominated for Tony Awards three times before, as sidekicks that provide comic relief. His roles this time around are substantive, and he presents them with clarity and precision. Ludwig’s argument with his brother-in-law about Jewish assimilation is riveting and his later mental deterioration is moving.

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

Nikki Crawford, Fat Ham
Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ain’t No Mo’
Miriam Silverman, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window
Katy Sullivan, Cost of Living
Kara Young, Cost of Living

Poll pick: Miriam Silverman
My preference: Crystal Lucas-Perry

About two months before she began performing in “Ain’t No Mo,” Crystal Lucas-Perry made her Broadway debut in “1776” as John Adams, a portray I found spectacular: Her voice, both when speaking and in particular when singing, was so crystal clear as to feel like the personification of the clarion call to justice.  Then she left to play FIVE roles in “Ain’t No Mo'”: 1. an absurdly caterwauling church lady in at a funeral, 2. a clueless newswoman at an abortion clinic, 3. one of the bawdy, bitching panelists on the TV reality show “Real Baby Mamas of the South Side,” and then two unforgettable characters: 4. Black, who has been locked in the basement for forty years in the mansion owned by a snooty wealthy family, members of the Black Bourgeoisie. “This is your chance to learn who you really are,” Black tells the family, but they refuse to hear it.  and 5. Blue, a middle aged inmate who is being released along with all the other prisoners being shipped to Africa, as long as she signs for the bag with all the belongings she had on the night of her arrest.  I finally understand what a protean talent means.

Miriam Silverman’s role as Mavis, the prig sister of bohemian Iris,, is the juiciest in “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” — in some ways the most conventional Broadway comedy role: The great comic actress Alice Ghostley played the part in the original Broadway production– and won a Tony Award for her performance, the only Tony the 1964 production received. There feels something strategic – almost deliberately subversive — in Hansberry’s turning such a familiar Broadway character as Mavis into a bigot. Silverman does a stellar job, as do the other nominated actresses in this category.

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

Kevin Cahoon, Shucked
Justin Cooley, Kimberly Akimbo
Kevin Del Aguila, Some Like It Hot
Jordan Donica, Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot
Alex Newell, Shucked

Poll pick: Justin Cooley
My preference: Justin Cooley

Justin Cooley — in his first professional stage role! — portrays a delightfully nerdy teenager, who plays the tuba, likes to speak Elvish from “Lord of the Rings” and is a card-carrying member of the Junior Wordsmiths of America, obsessed with anagrams. His character, Seth, is a classmate with Victoria Clark’s character, Kimberly, and then becomes her only friend. Their relationship is the heart of “Kimberly Akimbo,” the sweet spot; their characters become inseparable on stage, and the actors portraying them should not be separated either; both deserve Tonys.

The other nominees in this category each have tremendous show-stopping moments, but Cooley is the only one who, in full partnership with Clark, quietly carries the entire show.

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

Julia Lester, Into the Woods
Ruthie Ann Miles, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Bonnie Milligan, Kimberly Akimbo
NaTasha Yvette Williams, Some Like It Hot
Betsy Wolfe, & Juliet

Poll pick: Bonnie Milligan
My preference: No preference

Bonnie Milligan is a fan favorite (there were more votes for her in the poll than all the other actresses combined.) She is a powerhouse performer (with one great song: “Better”), a comic scene-stealer as a blunt vulgar criminal, who makes the most of such funny, subversive lyrics as “When life gives you lemons… you’ve got to go out and steal some apples…. ‘ Cause who the fuck wants lemons.” If her character feels like it’s imported from a different play, I’d be happy to see her win Tony — and just as happy to see NaTasha Yvette Williams, another powerhouse, whose character the bandleader Sweet Sue thankfully gets a much larger role in the musical of “Some Like It Hot” than the character did in the movie. I was also won over by Julia Lester’s Broadway debut as a hilariously deadpan Little Red Ridinghood. Ruthie Ann Miles as the beggar woman with a secret and Betsy Wolfe as Shakespeare’s liberated wife both do justice to their characters.

Best Book of a Musical

& Juliet
Kimberly Akimbo
New York, New York
Some Like It Hot

My preference: Kimberly Akimbo

David Lindsay-Abaire adapted the musical from his own 2003 play. I swoon over the core of it, the slowly unfolding oddball relationship between two high school misfits, and appreciate the clever wordplay, and the wildly whimsical jumble of dark subject matter and troubled characters, which navigates between comic and poignant. The book has its flaws — it’s overcrowded with subplots, not all of which I like — but it still stands out.

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

Almost Famous
Kimberly Akimbo
Some Like It Hot

My preference: Some Like It Hot

The pastiche score of bluesy jazz from the 1930s was the best thing about “Some Like It Hot” for me. (If “New York, New York” had been nominated, I might have preferred it.)

Best Direction of a Play

Saheem Ali, Fat Ham
Jo Bonney, Cost of Living
Jamie Lloyd, A Doll’s House
Patrick Marber, Leopoldstadt
Stevie Walker-Webb, Ain’t No Mo’
Max Webster, Life of Pi

My preference: Max Webster, Life of Pi

I would love for this category to result in a tie, with Max Webster for “Life of Pi” and Patrick Marber for “Leopoldstadt,” because both show exemplary skill in mounting plays that are so different from one another that it seems a flaw of the Tonys that they should be competing with one another. If I have to choose, my preference tilts to Webster, because of the nearly-unique challenges he met in seamlessly integrating the disparate elements of this play that are unusually dependent on one another; every actor in the large cast is also a puppeteer, and in effect a part of the scenery as well. Each element of the stagecraft is phenomenal (you’ll see I’ve preferred “Life of Pi” in every category for which it was nominated) The overall effect is wondrous.

Best Direction of a Musical

Michael Arden, Parade
Lear deBessonet, Into the Woods
Casey Nicholaw, Some Like It Hot
Jack O’Brien, Shucked
Jessica Stone, Kimberly Akimbo

My preference: Lear deBessonet, Into The Woods

She keeps it simple. Most of the others overdo it.

Best Choreography

Steven Hoggett, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Casey Nicholaw, Some Like It Hot
Susan Stroman, New York, New York
Jennifer Weber, & Juliet
Jennifer Weber, KPOP

My preference: Susan Stroman, New York, New York

Susan Stroman choreographs one energetic dance after another, most memorably along a steel beam in mid-air. But, even when the cast isn’t literally dancing, she suggests the bustle, hustle and swirl of New York humanity with little wordless vignettes and in other clever ways, working in tandem with the breathtaking scenery: 

Best Scenic Design of a Play

Miriam Buether, Prima Facie
Tim Hatley & Andrzej Goulding, Life of Pi
Rachel Hauck, Good Night, Oscar
Richard Hudson, Leopoldstadt
Dane Laffrey & Lucy Mackinnon, A Christmas Carol

My preference: Tim Hatley & Adrzej Goulding, Life of Pi

 The sets from seamlessly rom the bare white hospital room in Mexico, back in time to the crowded, colorful Pondicherry Zoo two years earlier, and then onto the rough seas, before returning back to the hospital room. There is such cleverness in the design, not least the projection design that creates a very convincing sea. (The Tonys have no category for projection design, so Adrzej Goulding is included in this category.)

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Beowulf Boritt, New York, New York
Mimi Lien, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Michael Yeargan & 59 Productions, Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot
Scott Pask, Shucked
Scott Pask, Some Like It Hot

My preference: Beowulf Boritt, New York, New York

Beowulf Boritt’s spectacular sets, enhanced by a first-rate design team, add up to a three-dimensional travelogue of New York City, from Times Square, Central Park and Grand Central Terminal to the neighborhood stoop and fire escapes full of kibitzers.  He manages to find creative ways to present these landmarks.

Best Costume Design of a Play

Tim Hatley, Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell, Life of Pi
Dominique Fawn Hill, Fat Ham
Brigitte Reiffenstuel, Leopoldstadt
Emilio Sosa, Ain’t No Mo’
Emilio Sosa, Good Night, Oscar

My preference: Tim Hatley, Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell, Life of Pi

The Tonys have no category for puppetry (as the Drama Desk Awards do) which surely explains the bizarre decision by the Tony nominating committee to label the puppet designers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell as costume designers.(I suppose you can argue that some of the puppets are worn like costumes.) So I consider a vote for them a backdoor recognition of the extraordinary puppetry in “Life of Pi.” This is a further demonstration of how how interrelated all the different elements are in “Life of Pi.”

A shout-out to Emilio Sosa, especially for “Ain’t No Mo,” which required he meet two challenges in the costumes — that they enhance the comedy while avoid turning the characters into caricatures, and that they be easily removable, because of all the quick costume changes required.

Best Costume Design of a Musical

Gregg Barnes, Some Like It Hot
Susan Hilferty, Parade
Jennifer Moeller, Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot
Clint Ramos & Sophia Choi, KPOP
Paloma Young, & Juliet
Donna Zakowska, New York, New York

My preference: Paloma Young, & Juliet

Paloma Young’s costumes are a gender fluid mashup of Elizabethan and.. Boy Band circa 2000 — similar (if softer and more playfu)l to Gabriella Slade’s blunt-force armor in “Six.”

I also loved the 1940s costumes by Donna Zakowska, so spot-on that they brought us back to the era.

Best Lighting Design of a Play

Neil Austin, Leopoldstadt
Natasha Chivers, Prima Facie
Jon Clark, A Doll’s House
Bradley King, Fat Ham
Tim Lutkin, Life of Pi
Jen Schriever, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Ben Stanton, A Christmas Carol

My preference: Tim Lutkin, Life of Pi

, “Life of Pi” is so seamlessly integrated that the lighting is fully a part of the set

Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Ken Billington, New York, New York
Lap Chi Chu, Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot
Heather Gilbert, Parade
Howard Hudson, & Juliet
Natasha Katz, Some Like It Hot
Natasha Katz, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

My preference: Natasha Katz, Sweeney Todd

The sense of dread in “Sweeney Todd” is left almost entirely to Natasha Katz’s superb lighting. She deserves to win her eighth Tony Award for the way she makes the light struggle through the darkness, or cast ominous shadows, or suddenly flash from Sweeney’s razor like a lightning strike of evil.

Best Sound Design of a Play

Jonathan Deans & Taylor Williams, Ain’t No Mo’
Carolyn Downing, Life of Pi
Joshua D. Reid, A Christmas Carol
Ben & Max Ringham, A Doll’s House
Ben & Max Ringham, Prima Facie

My preference: Carolyn Downing, Life of Pi

Thunder, lighting, lions roaring, underscoring, all in balance and coordinated with all the other effects.

Best Sound Design of a Musical

Kai Harada, New York, New York
John Shivers, Shucked
Scott Lehrer & Alex Neumann, Into the Woods
Gareth Owen, & Juliet
Nevin Steinberg, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

My preference: Kai Harada, New York, New York

Best Orchestrations

Bill Sherman and Dominic Fallacaro, & Juliet
John Clancy, Kimberly Akimbo
Jason Howland, Shucked
Charlie Rosen & Bryan Carter, Some Like It Hot
Daryl Waters & Sam Davis, New York, New York

My preference: Daryl Waters & Sam Davis, New York, New York

They infuse the 1940s sounds with Latin beats and brassy Big Band thrills.

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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