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Tony Awards Take Note Of A Little Musical That Emphatically Could

In <em>Once</em>, based on the cult-favorite Irish indie movie, a guy (Steve Kazee) and a girl (Cristin Milioti) fall in love during a whirlwind week of songwriting in Dublin. The show has earned 11 Tony nominations, including two for its leads.
Joan Marcus
In Once, based on the cult-favorite Irish indie movie, a guy (Steve Kazee) and a girl (Cristin Milioti) fall in love during a whirlwind week of songwriting in Dublin. The show has earned 11 Tony nominations, including two for its leads.

Here's the thing about the Tony Awards: Sometimes you know what's going to clean up when the nominations are announced. (Think last year, and The Book of Mormon.)

And sometimes it's hard to get excited about the shows that get tapped — remember when Sunset Boulevard's only competition for Best Musical was the jukebox show Smokey Joe's Cafe?

Not this year: There's a real race. The bittersweet Irish romance Once — an absurdly appealing stage adaptation of the 2006 indie film — leads the pack with 11 nods.

But it's got competition from a big-name composer-lyricist team: George and Ira Gershwin's Nice Work If You Can Get It — a new show assembled from their back catalog — and a heavily reworked version of their Porgy and Bess both pulled down 10 nominations.

Who's not happy? The team behind Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which earned just two nominations, for costume and set design.

Nobody really expected the Spidermusical to get much attention, though. It's a bigger surprise that Bernadette Peters didn't get some love for her turn as a delusional former chorus girl in Follies; she's a certifiable Broadway institution, and Stephen Sondheim's show has one of the most passionate cults in theater.

Ditto Angela Lansbury, though the play she's swanning her way through — Gore Vidal's political drama The Best Man — is less of an icon. Poor Ricky Martin got passed over in Evita, too.

In fact, my first reaction to this year's nominations is that it's a perfectly respectable mix. The celebs who landed acting nominations mostly earned them with fierce performances in tough parts — Audra McDonald in Porgy, Stockard Channing and Cynthia Nixon in Other Desert Cities and Wit, respectively, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman, and so on — and many of the other slots went to less well-known names (Follies' magnificent Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein, Once leads Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti) who did genuinely superb work.

One bigger name I do regret not seeing on the nominees' list: John Larroquette, whose classy, confident performance in The Best Man might easily have earned him a slot alongside Hoffman, James Earl Jones, Frank Langella and John Lithgow. But then that wouldn't have left room for James Corden, whose riotous playing in One Man, Two Guvnors is the talk of the town.

Ah, well: Not everybody gets to go to the ball. I'm just glad that in a season with 14 comedies and dramas in contention for Best Play, the nominees in that category include fare like Clybourne Park and Venus in Fur and Other Desert Cities -- rich, smart, funny, complicated takes on tough topics from some of the American theater's thinkiest and most incisive writers. In a business that often gets bashed for programming that favors the tried and true, that's something to applaud.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Trey Graham edits and produces arts and entertainment content for NPR's Digital Media division, where among other things he's helped launch the Monkey See pop-culture blog and NPR's expanded Web-only movies coverage. He also helps manage the Web presence for Fresh Air from WHYY.

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