Tony Nominations Highlight a New Era – Wall Street Journal

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While “Hamilton” made history at the Tony Award nominations on Tuesday, Broadway as a whole is raising the curtain on a new era.

The groundbreaking musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda set a record with 16 nominations, moving beyond the previous record of 15 held by both “The Producers” and “Billy Elliot.”

“All we wanted to do was get our show on and make our show the best possible thing it could be,” Mr. Miranda said after the nominations.

Meanwhile, Broadway finds itself in a remarkably fertile phase: Nominators selected five candidates for best musical, instead of four, for the first time since a 2014 rules change that allowed the number to expand, a move made in response to the rising number of shows.

This year, 11 new musicals were Tony-eligible, compared with only two in 1995. Since the 2010-2011 season, an average of 10.6 new musicals have opened each season.

“I really think there’s a seismic change happening,” said William Ivey Long, chairman of the American Theatre Wing, which co-presents the Tony Awards. “We’ve got so many earth-shattering productions. Every night I’m going, ‘Did I just see another landmark?’ And I think I did.”

The nominations also suggest Broadway is honoring performers of color at a time when the film industry has come under heavy criticism for a lack of diversity in the Academy Awards. This year, 35% of the 40 nominees for acting in plays and musicals are actors of color.

It isn’t a fluke. Minority actors filled 30% of all roles on New York City’s stages in the 2014-2015 season, according a study on ethnic representation in city theaters, released this week by the AsianAmerican Performers Action Coalition.

Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong'o, and Saycon Sengbloh in a scene from Danai Gurira's ‘Eclipsed.’

“People want to see themselves on stage,” said Heather Hitchens, president and chief executive of the Wing. “And the fact that they can….makes the case that theater really is for everyone.”

The diversity of the 2016 nominees reflects the wide-ranging spectrum of the stories told onstage.

“Hamilton” tells the story of America’s founding with actors of color portraying white historical figures.

Fellow nominee “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” which received 10 nominations, looks back at the nearly forgotten 1921 musical with an all-black cast and creative team.

Nominees “School of Rock,” “Bright Star” and “Waitress” all depict the search for acceptance and love—by way of rock lessons, short stories and fresh pies, respectively.

Among the new plays, nominators gave six nods each to “The Humans,” about the tribulations of a contemporary American family, and “Eclipsed,” about women striving through life in captivity during civil war in Liberia. Also nominated was “The Father,” starring Frank Langella as an aging man dealing with dementia, and “King Charles III,” an imagined future history of the reign of the current Prince Charles.

Brandon Victor Dixon and Audra McDonald in ‘Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed’

In the nominations for actors, Broadway honored visiting Hollywood stars, but their presence wasn’t as dominant as in years past. Lupita Nyong’o was nominated for her work in “Eclipsed.” Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels both received nods for “Blackbird,” a nominee for best revival.

Choices for performances in musicals reflect a reliable who’s who on Broadway. This year’s actress category is particularly sweet for Laura Benanti, star of “She Loves Me,” who landed her first nomination for actress in a leading role.

“This feels like a bit of a milestone,” she said.

She is nominated along with Phillipa Soo of “Hamilton,” Jessie Mueller of “Waitress” and two actresses who took a break from London stages to make their Broadway debuts: Cynthia Erivo of “The Color Purple” and Carmen Cusack of “Bright Star.”

Best actor in a musical will pit Mr. Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, against co-star Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr. But the competition is fierce throughout the category, including the rock ’n’ roll energy of Alex Brightman of “School of Rock,” the classic Broadway talent of Danny Burstein in “Fiddler on the Roof” and the charm of Zachary Levi in the romantic comedy “She Loves Me.”

Phillipa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda in 'Hamilton'

Three men of “Hamilton” are competing against each other for best featured actor: Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs and Jonathan Groff. Mr. Jackson said the feeling backstage is friendly and supportive, rather than competitive, though he added, “I’m doing my best to let the air out of Daveed’s tires.”

Hoping to bypass the trio are Brandon Victor Dixon of “Shuffle Along” and Christopher Fitzgerald, who gives a show-stealing comedic performance as a lovable nerd in “Waitress.”

“To stand out in this season is tough,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “I put everything in.”

His comedic counterpart is a nominee for best featured actress in a musical: Jennifer Simard, who played a nun with a gambling addition in “Disaster!”

One of the hottest races is for director of a musical. It pits the leaders of two new shows— Thomas Kail of “Hamilton” and George C. Wolfe of “Shuffle Along”—against three at the helm of new revivals: John Doyle’s “The Color Purple,” Scott Ellis’s “She Loves Me” and Michael Arden’s “Spring Awakening,” which was designed to include deaf and wheelchair-bound actors.

“Spring Awakening” had a limited run that ended in January, making Tony voters rely on their memories as they face their ballots. No matter what the outcome at the June 12 awards, the production started a conversation about disability and the arts and that, Mr. Arden said, “is our biggest campaign.”

Write to Pia Catton at

Tony Nominations Highlight a New Era – Wall Street Journal