The 71st annual Tony Awards, given for excellence in the Broadway theater, will air live on CBS on Sunday, June 11, starting at 8 p.m. Kevin Spacey will host. This year features an extraordinary number of Jewish nominees and works with a strong Jewish connection. The following are confirmed Jewish nominees in all but the technical categories.
Please note: the best play Tony goes to the playwright and the play’s producers. The best musical Tony goes to the musical’s producers. The number of nominated producers is so large that, with one exception, just below, I simply can’t cover them in this article. As in my regular column, Jewish folks mentioned are in capital letters.
Leading actor in a musical: BEN PLATT, 23, “Dear Evan Hansen.” Platt, who became well known to movie audiences as Benji Applebaum in the “Pitch Perfect” films, is a favorite to win the Tony.
The fourth of five children, Ben is the son of MARC PLATT, 60, a leading showbiz producer. The elder Platt is Tony-nominated this year for producing “Indecent,” a best-play nominee. The whole family is musical and there’s a family tradition of adapting show tunes for family events and singing them together (including at Ben’s bar mitzvah).
It was almost natural for Ben to start performing professionally as a child and by age 11 he was in a national touring company of a Broadway show. Recently, he told Seth Meyers that he sang the part of Sky Masterson (from “Guys and Dolls”) in Hebrew at Camp Ramah. He treated Meyers’ audience to a few verses of “Luck Be a Lady” in Hebrew.
“Evan Hansen” is about a socially awkward teen who tells a big lie to become more popular, and the ramifications of that lie. It was difficult, reviewers have noted, to make a very nervous protagonist whose lie exploits a family’s grief sympathetic. But, the critics say, Platt rose to that challenge masterfully. He told the New York Times: “I have had a struggle with anxiety, always, and as a proud Jew, that’s not a surprising thing. But I don’t think I have as much trouble as he [Evan] does connecting with people generally — I think I’m pretty good at that, and that’s Evan’s biggest challenge.”
Lead actress in a musical: BETTE MIDLER, 71, “Hello Dolly.” Critics have said that Midler practically was born to star in the title role. This revival is a smash. “Dolly” is Midler’s return to Broadway after an absence of almost 50 years. Born and raised in Hawaii, she moved to New York in 1965 and quickly landed a big off-Broadway role. Then, from 1966 to 1969, she played Tzeitel, the oldest daughter, in the original run of “Fiddler on the Roof.” She told CBS “Sunday Morning” that she didn’t return to Broadway sooner because musical shows changed and had became “musical theater.” Her love was musical comedy, and “Hello, Dolly” is certainly that. She added that two years ago she had finished a successful run of her touring variety musical show and she was looking for a new challenge. “Dolly” was just the right challenge.
Midler also told “Sunday Morning” that she realized she would be judged against the original iconic performance by Carol Channing. So she sought out Channing, now 96, and, she said, “They had a lovely afternoon together.”
Supporting actor, musical: BRANDON URANOWITZ, 30, “Falsettos.” He plays Mendel, a Jewish psychiatrist, in this revival of a musical originally staged in 1992. The show is about a Jewish family and ends with a bar mitzvah near the deathbed of the bar mitzvah boy’s father. Uranowitz says he recalls practicing for his bar mitzvah by singing “Miracle of Judaism,” a “Falsetto” number.
Uranowitz was born and grew up in West Orange. In 2011, he played the son of the late FLORENCE GREENBERG in “Baby It’s You,” a juke-box musical that had a brief Broadway run. Greenberg was a Passaic housewife who created her own record company and discovered the Shirelles, a huge girl group, in the 1960s.
Best director, play: SAM GOLD, 39, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” and REBECCA TAICHMAN, 47, “Indecent.” Best director, musical: JERRY ZAKS, 70, “Hello Dolly”; RACHEL CHAVKIN, 37, “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”; and MICHAEL GREIF, 57, “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Here’s a little more about two of these directors:
Gold is the resident director of the Roundabout Theater Company, one of Manhattan’s leading nonprofit theater companies. He’s married to AMY HERZOG, 41, a Pulitzer-nominated playwright (“4000 Miles”).
Zaks, the son of Holocaust survivors, has been a leading Broadway musical director for more than 20 years. He has two hits now running simultaneously on Broadway: “Hello, Dolly,” and a musical version of the hit 1993 movie, “A Bronx Tale.” Zaks grew up in Paterson.
The best play and best musical Tonys, as noted above, are given to the show’s producers. Here are the Jews, many nominees in their own right, associated with those “best” shows.
Best Revival, Play: “The Little Foxes,” by LILLIAN HELLMAN (1905-84); Best Revival, Musical: “Falsettos,” music & lyrics by WILLIAM FINN, now 65, and book by JAMES LAPINE, now 68; “Hello Dolly,” music & lyrics by JERRY HERMAN, now 85. Best (new) play: “Indecent,” by PAULA VOGEL, 65.
“Indecent” is about the controversy surrounding the 1907 Yiddish play “God of Vengeance” by SHOLEM ASCH (1880-1957). Asch’s play, about a Jewish pimp who seeks respectability by donating a Torah scroll and marrying his daughter off to a yeshiva student, was heavily criticized by many Jews when it first played New York, and the producers were convicted of obscenity. The verdict later was overturned.
Vogel is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. My sense is that she was raised mostly in her mother’s faith (if any faith at all). In a video interview, she said that writing this play put her in touch with Jewish culture and her Jewish identity. Interestingly enough, the Tony-nominated director of Vogel’s play, Rebecca Taichman, wrote her own play about the events depicted in “Indecent” which the Yale Repertory Theater staged in 2000.
Best (new) musical: “Dear Evan Hansen,” music and lyrics by BENJ PASEK and Justin Paul, both 32. Pasek and Paul wrote the lyrics for “City of Stars,” and won this year’s Oscar for best song with “La La Land” film composer JUSTIN HURWITZ, 32.
The duo, who met in college, had earlier hits, including a Broadway musical version of “A Christmas Story.” However, “Evan Hansen” is the first show they wrote that was not based on another source and they hit a home run.
The riveting story of “Evan Hansen” was written by STEVEN LEVENSON, 31, and he’s nominated for best book (script) for a musical. (Pasek and Paul’s score is nominated for best original score.)
“Groundhog Day” also is nominated for best new musical. It’s a song-filled version of the hit 1993 movie, which was written by DANNY RUBIN, now 60, and the late HAROLD RAMIS. Rubin is nominated for best book for a musical.
Finally, in this category, is the unlikely hit “Come from Away” by IRENE SANKOFF and DAVID HEIN, both 40. They are married and both originally are from Canada. Previously, they were best known for the cult hit musical “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.” (It’s based on Wein’s mother’s real-life coming out as an older adult.)
“Come from Away” takes place in Newfoundland, Canada, right after the 9/11 attacks. Hundreds of planes were forced to land in Newfoundland and the local people rushed to aid stranded passengers. The musical’s subtext — the moral value of helping strangers in need — gives the show a contemporary edge. It’s both a critical and audience favorite. (Hein and Sankoff’s score is Tony-nominated for best original score and the duo are nominated for best musical book.)
Worthy of Note: “Oslo,” a best play nominee, is about the (true) efforts of two Norwegian diplomats to bring together Israeli and the PLO representatives for secret peace talks in 1993. There are important Israeli characters.
Danny DeVito and Patti LuPone are nominated for acting Tonys for playing Jewish characters in, respectively, “The Price” by the late ARTHUR MILLER, and “War Paint.” Lupone plays cosmetics mogul HELENA RUBENSTEIN (1872-1965).