Each season of Broadway brings about a slate of unexpected performances and plenty of unforgettable moments. While the 2016-2017 season didn’t see any new show rise to Hamilton-like popularity -- it’s hard for any TV show, film or stage production to reach that level of pop culture zeitgeist -- there are plenty of standout showcases of what fans have come to know and love about the New York City theater scene.
Perhaps the biggest breakout of the season is Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, the musical adaptation of a section from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace that earned 12 Tony Award nominations, including nods for Best Musical as well as for its cast (Josh Groban, UnREAL breakout Denée Benton and Lucas Steele). “I always dreamed of playing roles like Natasha,” says Benton, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, who plays the titular hopelessly romantic ingénue.
It certainly is the only show to exhibit the creative zeal that Hamilton was celebrated for. “Otherworldly” is one adjective that Steele uses not only to describe his character, Anatole, but the experience itself. And letting audience members sit onstage among the actors certainly provided a new, interactive theater experience that’s more apt for Off-Broadway than typical Broadway productions.
Of course, fans have plenty to choose from when it comes to new musicals. There are the battling divas (Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone) in War Paint; the reimagining of the childhood classic Anastasia; and the unexpectedly delightful Come From Away,about the week following the tragic events of 9/11. “The show is surprisingly funny,” says Tony nominee Jenn Colella, who performed for an audience of Pentagon survivors in an early preview. “They laughed raucously in those moments.”
And then there are career-making performances by Benjamin Platt in Dear Evan Hansen and Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. The latter, an adaptation of the Bill Murray comedy, sees Karl embody Phil Connors with equal parts snark and heart. But his Tony nomination was nearly ripped away from him when he tore his ACL during a preview performance just three days before the show’s official opening. “I had spent 15 minutes being in that dark hole,” the actor recalls of the moments immediately following the onstage injury. Determined, the actor sought medical attention and returned to the stage to not only finish that performance, but also make it onstage for opening night and nearly every show since.
Karl’s stamina is undoubtedly equaled by his fellow nominees, but respect must be paid to a 72-year-old actor making his Broadway debut -- and earning his first-ever Tony nomination on his first try. After 40-plus years in Hollywood, earning an Emmy and Golden Globe for his role on Taxi, Danny DeVito made his mark on stage in Arthur Miller’s The Price opposite Mark Ruffalo and Tony Shalhoub. “Can you imagine that? I have to say, I feel so cool,” he says of the recognition.
The Price is just one of several revivals that earned Tony recognition this season. Sally Field makes her stamp on The Glass Menagerie; Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon swap lead roles in The Little Foxeseach night; Jitney makes black life matter on Broadway (and brings producer John Legend one step closer to an EGOT); and Corey Hawkins brings an unexpected weight to Six Degrees of Separation. Playing Paul in John Guare’s existential play about interconnected lives, Hawkins says he’s fortunate to play a character who’s a different person in every scene. “It’s a roller coaster.”
It’s not unlike the ride Laurie Metcalf takes audiences on with A Doll’s House, Part 2, a sequel to Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play about marriage and gender roles. As Nora, Metcalf volleys dialogue with her co-stars in hilarious (and scathing) fashion. “She is very much quick on her feet,” the former Roseanne star explains.
It’s one of the two most talked about new plays this season. The other is Sweat, which earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama ahead of its three Tony nominations. The timely play, by Lynn Nottage, centers on a Reading, Pennsylvania, blue-collar population in pain and stripped of its dignity. Michelle Wilson, nominated alongside co-star Johanna Day, plays Cynthia, a middle-class factory worker forced to go against her friends in order to come home at the end of the day with a paycheck. And in the Trump era, Wilson says audiences are reacting to it in a whole new way. “It went from being like, ‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ to ‘Oh, this is what happened.’”
And it’s reactions like that that made for another successful Broadway season. Who among ET’s featured nominees -- the standout performances of the season -- will win at the 2017 Tony Awards hosted by Kevin Spacey? Audiences will have to watch when the statues are handed out live from Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 11 starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.
--Additional reporting by Elysa Gardner, Naveen Kumar and Leigh Scheps