It looks like Broadway is going to hell.
Our annual survey of Tony Award voters finds a solid plurality favoring “Hadestown,” the folk- and jazz-inflected journey to the underworld, for best musical, the most financially consequential contest. And “The Ferryman,” a sprawling drama whose title alludes to the boatman who brings souls to Hades, is leading in the race for best play.
Over the last several days I’ve spoken or corresponded with 123 of the 831 Tony voters. This is not a scientific poll — voting continues until noon on Friday, and for the results, you’ll have to tune in to the award show Sunday at 8 p.m., Eastern, on CBS — but it offers our best assessment of what is likely to happen in eight key categories.
Keep in mind: This year, for the first time, voters are receiving personalized electronic ballots based on their self-reported attendance, meaning that they cannot vote in categories in which they have not confirmed seeing all the nominees. As a result, the number of ballots cast, particularly in play categories, is likely to be smaller than in past years.
[Everything you need to know about the 2019 Tony Awards.]
Dark and downtown are hot this year.
“Hadestown,” facing off against musical comedies, film adaptations and a jukebox musical, is the artsy contender, born in the nonprofit world with a score by Anaïs Mitchell, a singer-songwriter from Vermont. It seems to have a solid, although not insurmountable, lead for best musical.
The show isn’t for everyone — a number of voters, complaining that the storytelling is underwhelming, said they don’t understand what the fuss is about — but its enthusiasts, citing a moving score and mesmerizing stagecraft, are passionate and numerous. And, even though it is based on an oft-adapted Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, many voters cited “originality” as a key factor in their support.
“‘Hadestown’ was not only the best musical, it was the only good one, with an unforgettable score which I’ll be listening to for years after these others become trivia questions,” said one voter. Another said, simply, “This is my kind of hell.” (We granted voters anonymity to discuss their choices.)
The musical is also benefiting from the absence of a consensus alternative. The show with the strongest shot of overtaking it appears to be “The Prom,” an original musical about a high school inclusion controversy, but the movie adaptation “Tootsie” and “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” are not far behind.
This “Oklahoma!” is the most polarizing show of the season. In five years of surveying voters, I have never heard such hostility from those voting against a show, some of whom view its reframing of the denouement as sacrilegious, but those critics appear to be substantially outnumbered by those who appreciate the fresh take, and even some skeptics said they chose to reward its ambition.
“The director breathed new life into a tired, old show,” one voter said. And another: “I’m sure it’s divisive, and there are parts that had me questioning it myself, but it made me think, and I heard things in the show I hadn’t heard the other hundred times I had seen it.”
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Actually, plays look pretty dark, too.
In a season flush with ambitious plays, “The Ferryman,” a family drama set in Ireland and featuring not only a top-notch cast but also a baby, a goose and a rabbit, consistently stood out. Like “Hadestown,” “The Ferryman,” written by the Englishman Jez Butterworth, has mythic dimensions and features gasp-inducing actions with tragic consequences.
Until the nominations, the Tonys race looked like a battle between “The Ferryman” and Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But, in the most shocking turn of events in the Tonys season, “Mockingbird,” which is a box office hit, was not nominated.
Another American play came on strong: “What the Constitution Means to Me,” an autobiographical reflection, written by and starring Heidi Schreck, about gender and the law. The timely show has become a sensation, selling strongly, attracting celebrities, and spurring conversation.
But a majority of those surveyed are sticking with “The Ferryman,” citing its scale and skill.
“At first I was apprehensive about a three-plus hour play,” one voter told me. “I was wrong — the play was gripping, emotional, full of surprises and nuanced writing and performances. I could’ve stayed for another hour.”
The play revival category is the season’s most hotly contested. A plurality in our survey favors last summer’s starry production of “The Boys in the Band,” which is Mart Crowley’s early gay play about an unsettling birthday party. Not far behind are “The Waverly Gallery,” Kenneth Lonergan’s drama about a family struggling to cope with a woman’s declining memory, and “All My Sons,” Arthur Miller’s classic about a family haunted by a military parts scandal. This race is too close to call.
Veteran performers can make room on their mantelpieces.
Elaine May, an 87-year-old comedian, writer and director performing on Broadway for the first time in more than 50 years, is the overwhelming favorite to win her first Tony, as best leading actress in a play, for her devastating portrayal of a woman losing her memory in “The Waverly Gallery.”
“Elaine May gave the best performance I have ever seen,” said one voter.
And Stephanie J. Block, who is playing the eldest of three versions of “Cher” in “The Cher Show,” is way ahead in the race for best leading actress in a musical. Ms. Block has a trifecta of factors in her favor — the voters are impressed by her performance, they love her personally and they admire a body of work that has seen her nominated twice before. “The right performer at the right time with the right role,” one voter said.
Likely winners made movie roles their own.
Bryan Cranston, who previously won a Tony for “All the Way,” is wowing voters this season with his nightly meltdown as Howard Beale, the fired anchorman whose anger fuels a multimedia production of “Network.”
Peter Finch won an Oscar for the part, and Mr. Cranston now looks to win a Tony as well.
“I was so taken by the raw power, by his connection to the audience and his ability to lay it all out there,” one voter said.
And Santino Fontana, nominated for a second time, is impressing voters with his virtuosic performance as Michael Dorsey, an underemployed actor, and Dorothy Michaels, the woman Dorsey pretends to be, in “Tootsie,” a role made famous on film by Dustin Hoffman.
“A remarkable piece of acting,” one voter said of Mr. Fontana. And another: “Loved everything he did in the role. Didn’t see him working — it all came so easily to him.”
There is no consensus about a runner-up in either race, making it difficult for anyone to overtake either performer.