Who says Broadway won’t take a risk? "The Book of Mormon" and "The Scottsboro Boys" — two very different musicals with very different fates — have emerged with the most Tony Award nominations this season.
"Mormon," which induces giggles with its diarrhea jokes and songs about body parts, and "Scottsboro," a searing look at a racial injustice that featured a graphic whipping, clearly pushed the boundaries of traditional Broadway fare. One paid off, the other did not.
"People are excited when they sit down in those seats because they don’t know what’s going to happen," said Rory O’Malley, whose turn in "Mormon" earned him a nomination for best featured actor in a musical. "This is dangerous in the best sense."
That could also sum up the sentiment created by John Kander and Fred Ebb’s "Scottsboro," based on the real story of nine black teenagers wrongly put on death row in the 1930s for allegedly raping two white girls. It closed abruptly in December after playing just 49 performances and 29 previews.
The musical frames the story as a minstrel show — that deeply racist storytelling device performed by whites in blackface — and then immediately subverts it by having an all-black cast. Some performances of the show even drew protesters who claimed the musical was actually embracing the minstrel convention.
"It was a subversive piece, and a piece that was going to push buttons, stir hearts, but we also knew that it was the truth," said Joshua Henry, who won a best leading actor nomination for playing the lead Scottsboro boy. "I’m just happy that we weren’t forgotten and it does give me faith in daring theater."
"Mormon," which received 14 nominations, and "Scottsboro," which got 12 nods, face competition for the title of best musical from two shows inspired by movies: "Catch Me If You Can" and "Sister Act." With "Scottsboro" closed, though, the odds are against it winning.
The four nominated plays include the heartwarming human-puppet hybrid "War Horse," which was a huge hit in London, David Lindsay-Abaire’s blue-collar "Good People," Jez Butterworth’s vanishing English tale "Jerusalem" and Stephen Adly Guirgis’ searing recovery story "The Motherf—- With the Hat."
Among individual actors who earned nominations were Al Pacino, who played Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," Vanessa Redgrave in "Driving Miss Daisy," Edie Falco in "The House of Blue Leaves" and Ellen Barkin in "The Normal Heart."
Overlooked were James Earl Jones in "Driving Miss Daisy," Daniel Radcliffe in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," Ben Stiller in "The House of Blue Leaves" and Aaron Tveit from "Catch Me If You Can." Kathy Griffin, not surprisingly, did not get a nomination, despite calling her one-woman show "Kathy Griffin Wants a Tony."
With 14 nominations, "The Book of Mormon" takes its place among Broadway musicals with the most Tony nominations, just below "The Producers" and "Billy Elliot," which each won 15 nominations.
About two Mormon missionaries who find more than they bargained for in Africa, the musical was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of Comedy Central’s irreverent "South Park," and Robert Lopez, co-creator of the equally irreverent Tony Award-winning musical "Avenue Q." All got nominations for the music, book and lyrics. Casey Nicholaw won a best choreography nomination for the show and shared honors with Parker for best direction of a musical.
As for the real Mormons, the church would not add to the comment they first issued when the musical opened: "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."
The Tony nominations for "The Scottsboro Boys" may give producers an argument to put the work back on Broadway. It had started off-Broadway and critical acclaim paved the way for a Broadway run. Producer Barry Weissler had been seeking support from the theatergoing public to resurrect the show by pledging to buy tickets if it is remounted.
In the best actor in a musical category, Henry faces competition from Norbert Leo Butz in "Catch Me If You Can," Tony Sheldon from "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" and Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, both in "The Book of Mormon."
Butz told his 14-year-old daughter about the nomination after she got home from school. "She’s thrilled," he said. "She said, ‘Dad, maybe this time I can come.’ She’s trying to bribe me into coming to the ceremony. I said, ‘You know what? Let’s just take it a day at a time.’"
Redgrave faces competition in the leading actress category from Nina Arianda from "Born Yesterday," Frances McDormand in "Good People," Lily Rabe from "The Merchant of Venice" and Hannah Yelland in "Brief Encounter."
The category for best featured actress in a musical will contain Laura Benanti from "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," Tammy Blanchard in "How to Succeed," Victoria Clark of "Sister Act," Patti LuPone, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and Nikki M. James for "Mormon."
The good news came on a special day for James: Tuesday was also the 12th anniversary of her father’s death. "It’s sort of a bittersweet moment but I bet he has something to do with it. It feels almost like kismet," she said.
Clark learned she had won a nomination while walking her dog, which was appropriate since she was also walking her dog when she found out she’d gotten the part of Mother Superior in "Sister Act."
"I always get important phone calls when I’m walking the dog," she said.
Blanchard said she started shaking and crying when she got the news. "You spend your whole life as an actress as some kind of gypsy woman, facing rejection," she said. "Just waiting for months — sometime years — for that special role."
The Cole Porter comedy "Anything Goes" was nominated for nine awards, including best revival (with "How to Succeed" — the only shows nominated in the category) and best leading actress for Sutton Foster, who faces Patina Miller for "Sister Act," Donna Murphy from "The People in the Picture" and Beth Leavel for "Baby It’s You!" Foster, who already has a Tony, found out she had earned her fifth nomination by getting several text messages while still in bed. She has little time to enjoy the moment, though, as she was preparing for Tuesday night’s performance. "It never stops," she said, laughing.
Miller, who stepped into Whoopi Goldberg’s role from the 1992 movie, said "Sister Act" is close to her heart. "It was meant for me," she said. "I hoped and prayed I would get the opportunity. So when the opportunity came, I just went with it."
The category for best actor in a play has Pacino, Brian Bedford in "The Importance of Being Earnest," Bobby Cannavale in "The Motherf—- With the Hat," Joe Mantello in "The Normal Heart" and Mark Rylance in "Jerusalem."
Bedford, who plays the fearsome Lady Bracknell in the Oscar Wilde comedy, had one small regret — that he also didn’t pick up a nomination for best director. "But that seems a bit greedy," he said with a laugh.
Instead, director nods went to Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris for "War Horse," Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe for "The Normal Heart," Anna D. Shapiro for "The Motherf—- With the Hat" and Daniel Sullivan for "The Merchant of Venice."
Best director nominations in a musical went to Rob Ashford for "How to Succeed," Marshall for "Anything Goes," Nicholaw and Parker for "Mormon," and Susan Stroman for "The Scottsboro Boys."
Playwright Larry Kramer, whose "The Normal Heart" won five nominations, including for best play revival, acknowledged that the success of the AIDS play surprised even him. A reading in February that led to the Broadway run struck everyone with its timeliness, even though it was written in the 1980s.
"I’m very moved that it moved so many people," he said.
The Tony Awards, which are presented by the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing, will be handed out June 12 at the Beacon Theater, broadcast live by CBS.