The Tony Award nominations honoring the best of Broadway theater in New York were announced on Tuesday, April 30. And since the theater world has historically been very welcoming to the LGBTQ community, it should come as no surprise that a number of the nominated shows feature out creative talents and characters who sometimes don a certain amount of drag.
I was able to catch up with a few of these shows during recent trips to New York. And Chicago theater fans have much to look forward to when the Tony Award ceremonies are broadcast live on CBS-TV from New York's Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 9, since a number of nominated shows have already played the Windy City.
The film-to-stage musical adaptation Kinky Boots topped the Tony nominations list with 13, including nods for Best Musical, Book for out playwright Harvey Fierstein, Score for pop star Cyndi Lauper and Direction and Choreography for Jerry Mitchell. Kinky Boots played a world premiere tryout locally at the Bank of America Theatre in 2012, and the show is certainly in better shape now on Broadway than it was on opening night in Chicago.
Lauper dropped and replaced songs to the show's benefit, notably providing a much more appropriate and contemplative song in "Step One" for reluctant British shoe factory owner Charlie Price (Best Actor in a Musical Tony nominee Stark Sands) as he takes his first risky step at making women's fetish footwear to be worn by men. And though the Act II confrontation scene is still problematic between Charlie and the shoe-designing drag queen Lola (the singing and acting powerhouse that is Best Actor Tony nominee Billy Porter), Fierstein has made the exchange much more believable and pivotal before the show's ultimately splashy and happy conclusion (which involves loads of fabulously attired drag queens and British factory workers who have taken to heart the notion that you can change the world by changing someone's mind).
The other two Best Musical nominees, A Christmas Story, The Musical and Bring It On: The Musical, both played Chicago touring engagements before hitting Broadway. Bring It On notably featured a positive portrayal of a transgender teenager.
More playful gender-bending could be found in the five-time Tony Award-nominated musical revival The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which featured Best Actress in a Musical nominee Stephanie J. Block performing as an actress famed for her performances impersonating male romantic leadsa theatrical convention popular throughout the late 19th century and one still carried on in many operas and British holiday pantomimes of today.
A much more serious and historical look back at effeminate men and drag conventions in burlesque was seen in out playwright Douglas Carter Beane's drama The Nance, which prominently stars out actor and two-time Tony Award-winner Nathan Lane in a Lincoln Center Theater production at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre. Beane was fascinated with the effeminate sketch comedy male character known as a "nance," long a staple of burlesque and even immortalized, if slightly altered, in film via Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz and in Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.
Beane examines not only nance characters in the context of hoary burlesque sketches, but what it might have been like for gay actors who often had to resort to subterfuge in finding sex and love in the late 1930s. Lane plays a celebrated nance called Chauncey Miles, who picks up a young man named Ned (a strapping Jonny Orsini) initially as a one night stand.
Lane is perfect in the role of Chauncey, since he can not only hit the burlesque sketches out of the park, but he's also dramatically compelling as a right-wing actor who is also filled with self-loathing and doubt about monogamous gay relationships. Though I could overhear several audience members expressing disappointment over The Nance's unhappy ending, the odds stacked against Chauncey at the time probably would have seemed insurmountable.
Out director Jack O'Brien's production probably can't be bettered in terms of staging, comic casting (notably Lewis J. Stadlen and Cady Huffman) and production values (the amazingly detailed rotating set by John Lee Beatty is a wow). So it's a surprise that The Nance failed to score a Best Play Tony nomination.
With The Nance out of the running, the Best Play Tony focus goes to three works by out playwrights: Richard Greenberg's drama The Assembled Parties, Colm ToÃbÃn's one-woman show The Testament of Mary and Christopher Durang's Chekhov-inspired comedy Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. The late Nora Ephron's journalism drama Lucky Guy starring Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks rounds out the Best Play nominees.
Like the race for Best Musical, the Best Play category largely is between the two works by Ephron and Durang which both have six Tony nominations apiece. Though I haven't seen Lucky Guy, I think this might be Durang's year with his delightful comedy that borrows plot strands and character types from Chekhov dramas (not to mention Greek tragedy with Shalita Grant's hilarious take on the feisty future-visionary maid Cassandra).
Set in modern-day Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Vanya… stars David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen respectively as gay brother Vanya and adopted sister Sonia. These two sad-sack introverts are confronted by the arrival of their famous and self-absorbed Hollywood actress sister, Masha (Sigourney Weaver), and her hunky boy toy Spike (Billy Magnussen, who isn't always fully attired in the show).
Although you don't have to have an appreciation of Chekhov to roar with laughter at "Vanya," it certainly is a bonus to see how Durang weaves those theatrical hallmarks into his very, very funny comedy that also has its emotionally heart-tugging moments (particularly Nielsen's Act II telephone call for Sonia).
And though there is no gender-bending drag involved in Vayna…, you can't help but convulse with laughter at the characters' costume party get-ups. Just how Durang worked Snow White and Dame Maggie Smith into the mix is a sign of his quirky comic genius.
Kinky Boots continues in an open run at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York. Visit www.kinkybootsthemusical.com for tickets and more information.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues through Sunday, June 30, at the John Golden Theatre in New York. Visit www.vanyasoniamashaspike.com for tickets and more information.
The Nance continues through Sunday, Aug. 11, at the Lyceum Theatre in New York. Visit www.lct.org for tickets and more information.
For a full list of Tony Award nominations, visit www.tonyawards.com .