Every year, the Tony Awards celebrate the best plays and musicals on Broadway. And every year, the rest of the country struggles to put together a general sense of what those plays and musicals are about — and which ones are worth seeing if you’re in the area — out of a two-sentence summary for each show and a litany of indecipherable in-jokes in the host’s opening musical number.
That’s where we come in. This year, Vox sent representatives to all of the major Tony nominees so that we could tell you everything you need to know about them. (Well, except for one play. More on that below.) We’ve gone over all the nominees for best musical and best play — both original and in revival — and we can tell you what works, what doesn’t, and what the favorites are. Think of this piece as your guide to Tonys night, so that you can see exactly how each winner holds up against the competition.
Here’s what we thought of this year’s 17 major nominees, broken down by category. Winners are noted in bold.
Everything about Harry Potter is outsize: the number of books sold (more than 500 million, making it the best-selling series of all time), the blockbuster film adaptations (which have grossed nearly $8 billion), the innumerable tie-ins (theme park attractions in Florida, California, and Japan; board games, video games, so much merch), the vast and obsessive fandom, and, of course, the epic narrative itself.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — which takes place 19 years after J.K. Rowling’s final book and is based on a story by the author, director John Tiffany, and playwright Jack Thorne — is similarly prodigious. After 22 sold-out months in London’s West End and a record nine Olivier Awards, the show landed on Broadway in March; much has been made of its unprecedented cost, about half of which went toward Hogwarts-ifying the Lyric Theater.
The resulting two-part production is grand but accessible, a truly transportive experience that’s not just for Potterheads. Sure, it’s fun to see Harry, Hermione, and Ron (and Draco too) all grown up and dealing with their own angsty magician teen offspring, and the inevitable saving-the-world-from-evil plot hangs together well enough, but it’s the magic that steals the show. The onstage illusions are so elegantly executed, so delightfully clever, that for a night or two, you can forget that you’re firmly stuck in the muggle world. —Julia Rubin
The British transplant The Children is a quietly seething play. It concerns three old friends: married couple Hazel and Robin (Deborah Findlay, aggressively bourgeois, and Ron Cook, bluff and despairing), and the long-estranged Rose (Francesca Annis, sly and determined), paying an uninvited visit to Hazel and Robin’s dilapidated cottage. It’s dilapidated because it’s a summer house, not really designed for year-round living, but it’s all they have left. The nuclear power plant where the three now-retired friends used to work recently had a meltdown, and Hazel and Robin’s old house was swallowed up by the “exclusion zone.”
Over the course of its runtime, The Children swings adeptly back and forth between uncovering the barely smothered resentments that underlie its central friendship, and delving into the ethical responsibilities that each generation bears to the next. There are no flashy pyrotechnics in the staging, which never leaves Hazel and Robin’s living room, but every moment has its own understated devastation. —Constance Grady
Farinelli and the King, transferred to Broadway from Shakespeare’s Globe in London, has the quality of a fairy tale. But it’s based on history: It tells the story of the mad Philip V of Spain, whose wife sought to soothe his troubled spirits through performances by the celebrated castrato opera singer Farinelli. The intimate friendship that forms between Philip and Farinelli forms the core of the play, with Philip by turns caressing and covetous, and Farinelli half admiring and half fearful of his patron’s mercurial temper.
The play is a showcase for Mark Rylance’s star turn as Philip, and while Rylance, nominated this year for Best Lead Actor in a Play, is as brilliant as ever — by turns childlike and terrifying — he’s supported by a uniformly strong cast. Iestyn Davies and Sam Crane make an affecting turn in the split role of Farinelli (Davies is the voice, Crane the man), but perhaps most affecting is the radiant Melody Grove as Philip’s queen, Isabella. Isabella must be both cold-blooded politician and supportive wife, and it is her steely determination that drives the play ever forward. —Constance Grady
Loosely based on the life of Michael Milken, the story of Junk should be familiar to anyone familiar with the 1980s era of high-flying Wall Street capitalism. Junk’s Milken analogue Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale) is a financial shark in the vein of Gordon Gekko, trying to take over a struggling steel company with investments fueled by the titular junk bonds.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar’s script keeps things moving, never getting too bogged down in the financial flimflammery to lose audiences — a neat trick given the occasionally soporific nature of high finance to anyone who’s not an account. But at the same time, Akhtar’s script never really takes things to any real conclusions. Merkin is meant to be an antihero, always chasing the next big score, no matter the cost, but judgment is never passed on him — or any of the play’s other morally dubious support characters.
Ultimately, Junk seems content to instead raise bigger questions about money and power, value and debt, rather than really explore or answer them. Much like the fictional Merkin’s shaky investments, there’s a lot of flash to Junk, but not enough substance to back it up. —Chaim Gartenberg
Vox was unable to send anyone to John Leguizamo’s one-man show Latin History for Morons before it closed, so unfortunately we can’t give you our thoughts on it. Instead, we’ll send you to Jesse Green’s review for the New York Times, which, uh, may give you a hint as to why the show closed so quickly:
Mr. Leguizamo’s dimwit stance is unsustainable, in part because much of the history, despite the show’s premise, is actually quite familiar. You really would have to be one of the title characters not to be aware of cataclysms like the mass murder of Native Americans. And knowing that, you can’t help feeling the falseness of the effort to wring droplets of sarcastic pride from disasters retooled as comedy. When Mr. Leguizamo compares the Spanish conquistadors to “N.B.A. players at a Kardashian pool party,” you begin to wonder which way the satire hourglass is running.
Perhaps the apt comparison here is to Woody Allen, reconfiguring his idea of Jewish misfortune as wryness and working it out with a shrink. (Mr. Leguizamo’s sessions with his patrician psychiatrist are especially hoary.) The problem is that this Latino nebbish persona isn’t very credible when inhabited by a man of such obvious sophistication and sex appeal. You never believe his ignorance for a minute, any more than you believe his fatherly obliviousness. The setup and the emotional payoff it seeks are misaligned.
Don’t feel too bad for John Leguizamo, though — the Tonys have already announced that they’re honoring him with a Special Tony Award this year.
Bright, fun, gaudy, and fully at home in Times Square between the TGI Friday’s and the M&M store, the Spongebob musical is, by early indications, going to win several major awards at this year’s Tonys. That says more about the state of Broadway than the state of Spongebob, which sports a truly gorgeous set design, well-paced direction from Tina Landau, okay songs, and an ambitious, if politically clunky, plot about friendship, prejudice, and climate change. Gavin Lee sure is a tap-dancing squid! The day I went, my audience was full of Olds who probably had no idea what a Squidward was but who were 100 percent certain they were getting the Broadway-iest kind of Broadway there was.
I don’t mean to be hard on the show: Spongebob is great. There are colors everywhere. The cast is excellent. Ethan Slater is winsome and earnest as a surprisingly jacked Bob (he used to be a wrestler). There are pirates! But it’s an onstage sugar high; fun, but not genre-elevating. Then again, after a few years of transcendence with Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton, maybe Broadway needed this return to its heart: splashy tourist grabs and media franchise crossovers. —Aja Romano
The Band’s Visit — WINNER
Arguably no production on Broadway this season aims higher than The Band’s Visit, the musical based on the acclaimed 2007 Israeli film of the same name. Much like last season’s heart-swelling Come From Away, the show is about the melding of cultures that happens when one group of people is abruptly stranded in a remote place, only to be given temporary shelter by strangers. The stranded, in this case, are a group of Egyptian musicians who wind up in a remote Israeli town due to a travel snafu. The townspeople take them in, and a day of cultural and musical exchange ensues.
The Band’s Visit’s onstage musicians are captivating, but Tony Shalhoub’s performance as the band’s introverted but emotionally effusive conductor is the production’s cornerstone. His slowly unfolding characterization gets an assist from a score by prolific Broadway composer David Yazbek that adopts an almost magical realist approach to language: Conversations begin as halting, ineffective exchanges of dialogue, only to grow increasingly effusive over the course of the show as the bonding power of music takes over.
This doesn’t always work; often Yazbek’s lyrics seem to flounder, to stop just short of conveying the magic of strangers meeting and finding reflections of themselves within each other. But when it does work, the moments are rich, captivating, and full of lingering beauty. —Aja Romano
Whether you’re a fan of the 2013 Disney animated movie Frozen, not a fan of the 2013 Disney animated movie Frozen, or someone who’s never seen the 2013 Disney animated movie Frozen, you probably already know what you’re going to get from the 2018 Disney Broadway musical Frozen: a largely faithful stage adaptation of the 2013 Disney animated movie Frozen.
With a book by Jennifer Lee, the movie’s screenwriter, and an expanded score by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who won an Oscar for writing the movie’s “Let It Go,” the official anthem of toddlers everywhere), the stage Frozen contorts the movie’s plot in some odd ways — mostly to make “Let It Go” the Act 1 closer, as you knew it would be — and it does its level best to provide some added character development to princess sisters Elsa and Anna (an effort that includes making the latter kinda horny), as well as grapple with how a fantastical kingdom might cope, economically, with winter suddenly arriving in the middle of the summer. There’s even a lengthy dance number set at a sauna touting the benefits of “hygge,” which already makes the musical feel like a cultural artifact from 2017.
But the revamped story does nothing to fix the movie’s biggest flaw, a third-act twist involving one character’s duplicity that comes out of nowhere. And despite the massive amounts of cash obviously spent on the production (the Olaf the snowman puppet and the full-body reindeer puppet are pretty incredible), the sets and costumes are disappointingly safe. The actors are okay, the new songs are solid, and everything is just barely above average, right down to how often the actors are directed to stand in a semicircle around whoever is singing at the moment. It’s the kind of show where the biggest applause comes for a costume change. —Todd VanDerWerff
2018 has been a slow year for musicals, with the result that odds on the best musical race are split pretty evenly between big brand tie-ins Frozen, Spongebob, and Mean Girls. (Thanks for playing, The Band’s Visit!) [Wow, that one turned out wrong. — Ed.] Spongebob has a slight edge going into the Tonys, but let me take this opportunity to make the case for why Mean Girls, much like fetch, should happen instead.
Sure, Mean Girls is uneven: Jeff Richmond’s score, while largely catchy, is unremarkable, and some of Nell Benjamin’s lyrics are downright bad. (Regina George, we are warned, is “Like a lioness / Only with less fur / Do not mess with her.” Sure.) But Tina Fey’s book is rock-solid, with an arc for every character, jokes galore, and a spot-on sense of how teen girls love and betray one another. And when Benjamin gets the chance to be affecting instead of trying to be funny, she’s great; Gretchen Weiners’s song of low self-esteem is genuinely touching.
Plus, the ensemble cast is one of the strongest currently on Broadway: Taylor Louderman’s Tony-nominated turn as Regina is a standout, Barrett Wilbert Weed elevates Janis into a scene stealer, and Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell flesh out the Plastics beautifully.
In a Fun Home or Hamilton year, none of this would be enough for the top prize, but when the big competition is Spongebob and Frozen? Mean Girls deserves the tacky plastic prom queen crown. —Constance Grady
Best Revival of a Play
Angels in America — WINNER
When the Angel crashes through the ceiling at the end of Millennium Approaches — the first half of the National Theatre’s seven-and-a-half-hour revival of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning masterpiece about the AIDS epidemic — it’s as though she’s crashing straight into your head and rearranging your mind. And as she pulls herself off the stage floor, drawing the scraps of herself together to coalesce into a single entity, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before on Broadway.
The Angel is traditionally an all-American Barbie, blonde and draped in flowing white robes, but under Marianne Elliott’s direction, the Angel — like the play itself — becomes shaggy and ragged and feral, so alive as to be frightening.
Angels is the play to beat in this category by a mile, and it’s unlikely that any of its fellow nominees will rise to the challenge. There are other great plays in revival on Broadway this season, but Angels has a fierceness and a vitality that no other production can quite match. It’s worthy of the buzz — and of seven and a half cumulative hours of your time. —Constance Grady
Lobby Hero is a sparse, straightforward production anchored by a Kenneth Lonergan script that lets its four characters play off each other — or, more accurately, grimace in each other’s general directions. All are main characters in a sense, but Michael Cera’s hesitant, smartass security guard and Brian Tyree Henry’s grounded moral compass took center stage by curtain call. (Not that Bel Powley’s determined rookie cop and Chris Evans’s slimy and mustachioed superior don’t make a mark, because when they do, whew.) Every actor clearly relished speaking Lonergan’s words (especially when they were funny), but maybe the most striking thing about the play is that it’s set in 2002 but just as easily could’ve been set today. —Caroline Framke
The current limited production of Iceman couldn’t be timelier; the last time Broadway saw a staging of Eugene O’Neill’s landmark play, it was 1999, and the sinister lead role was played by Kevin Spacey, whose presence seemed to rigidify, rather than energize, the large cast in a way that perhaps makes sense only in retrospect.
Denzel Washington is better positioned than any other living actor to overwrite Spacey’s performance. His character Hickey is a charming salesman who usually brings the party with him to the hopeless alcoholics at his local New York bar; this time, however, he brings death. In the hands of a different actor and director, Hickey’s doomsaying could easily weigh down the entire production. But Washington has living legend George Wolfe, who turns every production he directs into a miracle of stagecraft. In his hands, O’Neill feels lighter, funnier, and more humanist than in other recent productions; it’s also, blessedly, a true ensemble piece — a whole hour goes by before Washington even shows up, and you barely notice.
Where Howard Davies’s 1999 production revolved around Spacey, Wolfe’s production places Washington as one of three tentpole performances, between Colm Meaney’s beleaguered bar owner and David Morse’s haunting, haunted ex-revolutionary. Their dynamic gives Washington room to be light, breezy, and self-deceptive even as he’s handing out life-or-death sentences to his bar mates; his descent into madness in turn makes Morse’s tortured, clear-eyed performance even more gripping. It’s poetic, lively, engaging theater — and proof that O’Neill remains one of American theater’s shrewdest and most relevant writers. —Aja Romano
It’s been weeks since I’ve seen Three Tall Women, and I still think about certain parts of the play every day. Sometimes it’ll just be a look that Glenda Jackson gave, or the way Laurie Metcalf was standing in a particular scene, or how Alison Pill’s face sharpened when delivering a line.
The three tall women in Three Tall Women, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Edward Albee about his adoptive mother, portray two sets of characters: a lawyer, a caretaker, and an aging mother in the first act, then the same woman in different stages of her life in the second. It’s a searing revival, one that almost feels forbidden given the depth and pain the play explores. Metcalf and Pill are excellent, but Jackson is absolutely electric, so much so that I found myself looking for her reactions, expressions, and body language even in scenes that didn’t belong to her. —Alex Abad-Santos
Tom Stoppard’s Travesties is a nerdy delight of a play from 1974, and the revival seems well-timed. It takes place within the mind of Henry Carr, an old man (played in the revival by Tom Hollander) who’s reminiscing about his time in Zurich in 1917, during the First World War. In the elderly Carr’s recollection, a cast of familiar characters intersected in Zurich at that very moment at notable points in their lives: James Joyce (Peter McDonald), writing Ulysses; Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich), at the rise of Dada; and Vladimir Lenin (Dan Butler), leading up to the Russian Revolution. But all of these people also appear, in Carr’s mind, within the framework of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, in which he played a starring role while in Zurich.
There’s some reality mixed into the fiction (the real Henry Carr actually did star in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and he appears as a figure in Ulysses as well). But it’s not meant to be a historical record — nor, I imagine, would it be quite as enjoyable if you didn’t have at least a passing familiarity with Ulysses and Dada and Lenin and Earnest.
What makes Travesties so fun is how it merrily mixes and remixes all of these elements and others, trying to replicate the hiccuping stop-and-start of our unreliable memories, while also examining whether the, well, earnest ideologies of Leninism and Dadaism and art for art’s sake could lead to living a good life. Travesties is, in this way, a work of criticism that expands and expounds upon all of its many source texts, and Hollander’s performance as the doddering Carr is so fun to watch that it’s worth seeing even if you aren’t totally up on your 1917 art and intellectual history. —Alissa Wilkinson
Best Revival of a Musical
Once on This Island — WINNER
Based on the novel My Love, My Love, Trinidad-American writer Rosa Guy’s modern retelling of The Little Mermaid, Once on This Island was probably ahead of its time when it debuted in 1990. Creative partners Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty were still years away from producing their smash hit Ragtime, which would prove to be a much less subtle treatise on race than Island’s comparatively complicated fairy tale. The story of a peasant girl who falls in star-crossed love with an aristocrat, Island interwove themes of postcolonial culture clashes, class tensions, and skin-tone prejudice, all into a fun and colorful package.
As a longtime fan of Once on This Island, I’ve frequently had to justify my love for the show to baffled theater lovers who thought it was silly (and who often hated the fairly unorthodox ending). I’m deeply grateful, then, for this timely revival, which resurrects the musical’s vibrance, culture-savviness, and intersectionality for a new generation of fans, all without watering down its lovely peculiarities. Hailey Kilgore’s performance as Ti Moune is ravishing, grounding the entire production in earnest warmth, while Michael Arden’s staging is intimate and robust. Also: Any production that casts Lea Salonga as a goddess is A-okay in my book. —Aja Romano
Bartlett Sher’s staging of My Fair Lady was always going to have seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Lean into Henry Higgins’s inherent misogyny and you run the risk of alienating (at least) half your audience; attempt to alleviate it as much as possible and the ending gets weird. Sher has opted for a mix of alleviation and traditionalism, and the result is pleasant and intriguing, if perhaps a bit underwhelming.
In the middle of a lavish, light production design — a London that whirls, often physically — the cast is the weakest element. The legendary Diana Rigg is fully resplendent, but woefully underused as Professor Higgins’s mother. Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose is lovely, but her Eliza seems to be hampered by a metaphorical stage fright that never fully dissipates. That’s an odd choice, given how fully this production relies on Eliza’s independence as it nixes any and all hints of sexual tension between her and Higgins. In that role, Downton Abbey’s Harry Hadden-Paton is underrated and brilliant, as he pulls off the herculean feat of staying likable and ensuring that Higgins still makes sense as a character who’s, in this production, essentially asexual.
Sher presents My Fair Lady as a story of found family rather than a story of a battle between the sexes. We’ve finally arrived at a cultural point where such a reading makes the most narrative and emotional sense, but this interpretation has its limits, and Sher seems to sidestep it at crucial moments. The result is that this production comes off as a thought experiment — but it’s one you won’t forget anytime soon. —Aja Romano
Ah, Carousel: the most beautiful musical in celebration of domestic violence you’re ever likely to see. The show boasts one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most lush and bittersweet scores, but modern audiences are likely to squirm with discomfort as the show’s troubled hero, doomed Billy Bigelow (the great Joshua Henry), hits first his wife Julie (the equally great Jessie Mueller) and then his child, only for both of them to explain that it’s okay because they know he loves them.
But oh, that music is achingly lovely, and so is Jack O’Brien’s somber direction, with the lurid lights of the carousel gleaming relentlessly out from between choreographer Justin Peck’s ever-moving dancers. And the first scene — a series of half-comic courtship vignettes that culminate in Billy and Julie’s melancholy duet, “If I Loved You” — can stand on its own as a perfect one-act play.
Then you get to the fun domestic violence portion of your evening. This production cuts the infamous line about how it’s possible for someone to hit you and for it to feel like a kiss, but it can’t avoid Julie’s ode to standing by your abusive man, “What’s the Use of Wond’ring.” (“You’re his girl and he’s your feller / And all the rest is talk.” Not with modern divorce laws, Julie!) Carousel is a beautiful play, but it’s an irreparably troubled one too. —Constance Grady
Update: This post has been updated to note the winners.