By: David Sheward
Just five days before the Tony nominations are announced, the Tony Administration Committee met and made its final ruling as who’s eligible in which category. To paraphrase Charles Dickens (or the 1950s movie version of A Christmas Carol), the reaction from the theater blogosphere has resembled a chorus of scalded cats. The two biggest causes for brouhaha concern the four young actresses playing the title role in Matilda and the status of Kristine Nielsen of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
The talented quartet of little girls who alternate as Roald Dahl’s spunky genius were ruled ineligible for Best Actress in a Musical and will be awarded a Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theater. All that is very fine, but it breaks precedence with the Billy Elliot boys. The three young men who alternated in that role were considered eligible as a single, joint nominee for Best Actor in a Musical, and won. What’s the difference here? It is because there are four as opposed to three? Or perhaps the Matilda producers did not want to have to give Tony voters free tickets on four separate occasions and lose all that income? This happens with the Tonys all the time. Unlike the Supreme Court, they do not abide by previous cases. There have been plenty of times when actors has been considered leading AND featured for the same role–Zena Walker and Stockard Channing both played the same part in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. But Walker won a Featured Tony and Channing triumphed in the leading category when the play was revived. same with Joel Grey and Alan Cumming in Cabaret.
A lesser controversy also involved Matilda. Bertie Carvel, who brilliantly embodies the monstrous headmistress Miss Trunchbull, is arguably a supporting actor. The role is not as prominent as Matilda herself and is not onstage for much of the action. However, the Tony committee ruled Carvel as a leading actor (he was similarly categorized for the Olivier Awards which he won.) This means Carvel’s main competition is another cross-dressing performer Billy Porter in Kinky Boots. But Porter is playing a man who likes to dress as a woman, while Carvel is playing a female role. If he wins, he’ll be only the third performer to win a Tony for playing a character of the opposite sex. The other two are Mary Martin as the every-youthful boy Peter Pan and Harvey Fierstein as the harried housewife-turned-glamourpuss Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. I think Carvel should be a Featured Actor and it will be interesting to see if the Drama Desk puts him there when their nominations are announced on Monday. The Outer Critics agreed with the Tonys and have considered him leading.
The biggest tempest seems to be over Kristin Nielsen who delivers a brilliant performance as Sonia in Durang’s crazy and touching take-off on Chekhov. An Obie winner and longtime performer in Durang’s works, Nielsen is both hysterically funny and heartbreaking as the lonely, middle-aged Sonia, particularly in a telephone scene where he shyly flirts with her potential first boyfriend. She has been deemed eligible for Best Actress in a Play. However, many Tony watchers are furious because competition is particularly stiff this year. Cicely Tyson will probably win for The Trip to Bountiful. There’s also Laurie Metcalfe in The Other Place, Bette Midler, Holland Taylor and Fiona Shaw in their solo shows. Nielsen might got shut out altogether and not even get a nomination. She stood a much better chance of winning in the Featured Actress category, according to many bloggers and posters.
But Nielsen truly is a leading actress in this play. For once, I agree with the Tonys’ decision even if it means no nod for her. Perhaps Nielsen wanted this and had her producers campaign for it so she would not be placed in an inappropriate category and seen as less important than her co-stars, David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver, who happen to be big names in movies and TV. Unlike Sonia, Nielsen may have wanted to stick up for herself.
There was a similar situation in 1969 when William Daniels, definitely the leading man of 1776, declined a featured actor Tony nomination. His character John Adams, was onstage constantly and was the prime mover of the action–getting the Declaration of Independence signed by all the contentious Continental Congress. This cleared the path for a true featured actor–Ron Holgate in the much smaller role of Henry Lee in the same show–to win. In a similar instance, upon winning a featured Tony for The Ritz, Rita Moreno said "I’m sorry to Miss Supporting Actress whoever you are, but I am the leading lady of the The Ritz." But she took the award home anyway.