On May 3, Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s trail-blazing rap musical about the “founding father without a father,” received 16 Tony Award nominations, topping the 15 set by The Producers and Billy Elliot, a record that no one ever thought would be broken.
It was that kind of season. Hamilton set the tone, opening way back in August 2015, and thereafter dominating national discourse in a way no stage show has in a generation. But there were other headlines to be grabbed through the 12-month dash to the Tonys.
Jessie Mueller, the Tony-winning star of the Carole King musical Beautiful, proved she was that rare thing: a genuine Broadway-bred musical comedy star, when she proved to be as big a draw in the new musical Waitress. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the king of commercial theatre in the 1980s and ‘90s, scored a comeback when his School of Rock, inspired by the film comedy of the same name, struck a chord with critics and audiences. Composer Duncan Sheik returned to Broadway with American Psycho, drawing on material (Brett Easton Ellis’ notorious novel about a Wall Street serial killer) as unlikely as that which had inspired his previous Broadway show, Spring Awakening—which returned to town in a praised new production by Deaf West Theatre.
In the same year when the Academy Awards battled criticism that its nominations reflected a lack of diversity in Hollywood, the Tony Awards nods told a different story. Broadway’s stages seemed to be as diverse as in any time in New York theatre history. Fourteen of the 40 acting nominations honored black, Hispanic and Asian-American actors, including members of the casts of Hamilton, Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921, and All That Followed, Eclipsed and The Color Purple.
It was a season when some producers, after long thought, decided that some notable plays by name playwrights had finally earned their turn at the Broadway plate. Fool for Love by Sam Shepard, Sylvia by A.R. Gurney, the pastiche musical Dames at Sea, Becky Mode’s one-man comedy Fully Committed and David Harrower’s Blackbird all got their Broadway premieres, years and sometimes decades after the scripts had established their reputation Off-Broadway and in regional theatre. The latter, nerve-jangling drama—about a young woman who tracks down the much older man who sexually abused her many years earlier—featured the play’s original star, Jeff Daniels, and director, Joe Mantello.
Mantello had a busy year, directing not only Blackbird, but also the Jim Parsons comedy An Act of God early in the season and the Stephen Karam family drama The Humans. Like Blackbird, The Humans marked how willing producers (in this case, the same producer, Scott Rudin, who was behind six productions this season) were willing to risk bringing serious contemporary drama to Broadway. The Humans dealt with the anxiety, uncertainty and despair of modern American life as well as any drama in memory. The gamble paid off. The play packs audiences in and collected six Tony Award nominations.
No producing gamble was greater, however, than the double-barrel Broadway bow of Ivo van Hove, the avant garde Belgian director who built a reputation Off-Broadway over the past two decades, and this season sent a jolt of excitement through Times Square with his experimental takes on the Arthur Miller classics A View From the Bridge and The Crucible. The first featured a cathartic downpour, the second a cataclysmic dust storm. Both were nominated for Best Revival of a Play.
If you were the sort of theatregoer who would rather see a star than a creative struggle, you were not wanting for options. Among the marquee names that visited town (many for the first time) included Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf (Misery), Al Pacino (China Doll), Lupita Nyong’o (Eclipsed), James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson (The Gin Game), Keira Knightley (Thérèse Raquin), George Takei and Lea Salonga (Allegiance), Jennifer Hudson (The Color Purple), Frank Langella (The Father), Forest Whitaker (Hughie), Linda Lavin (Our Mother’s Brief Affair), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Fully Committed), Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Clive Owen (Old Times), Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels (Blackbird) and Andrea Martin (Noises Off).
Still, the story of the season was Hamilton, a show of such cultural currency that it entered into an exclusive mutual admiration society with the White House, with President Obama visiting the show, the show visiting Obama, etc., etc. Miranda and Obama even did a little free-style rapping together for the cameras. (“You think that’ll go viral,” quipped POTUS.) And the composer also found time while in D.C. to convince Treasury Secretary Jack Lew not to knock Alexander Hamilton off the ten-dollar bill. Who says the theatre does have social impact anymore?