If you’ve heard anything about the Tony nominations, released on Tuesday, it’s probably that Hamilton broke records today with 16 nominations in 13 categories, taking at least one slot in every category for which it had eligibility. This is both unsurprising, and just; Hamilton recently became the ninth-ever musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it’s an emotional, exciting, intricately written work—a hip-hop-infused masterpiece of nuanced character development, exploration of sophisticated themes, and visual storytelling onstage.
But what makes this Broadway season fascinating is the fusion of new and old, the callback to the Great White Way’s Jewish roots coupled with the Tony committee’s recognition that a many number of shows speak to other minority experiences. For example, while it’s admittedly not a particularly Jewish year for original works, the excellent revivals of this season make up for it.
For Best Play Revival, two of the four nominees are Arthur Miller works (The Crucible and A View from the Bridge), which both also fared well in other categories. For Musical Revival, two of the four nominees are from songwriting team Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock: One, of course, is Fiddler on the Roof, and the other is She Loves Me, which, of course, has Jewish roots. (Harnick, it should be noted, will also receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the show.) She Loves Me earned a whopping eight nominations—no easy task for a revival—while Fiddler‘s other nominations are for Best Actor (Danny Burstein’s Tevye is amazing), and for Best Choreography for Israeli artist Hofesh Shechter’s stylings. Schechter was brought in to bring new life to a work rarely altered from its original form. The choreography recalls the original production, but, under Shechter’s direction, is unafraid to make new choices—an apt metaphor for this Tony season.
One play that fared well was Eclipsed, with six nominations. All of them are for people of color, and all but one are for women. In fact, Eclipsed, set during the Liberian Civil War, is the first Broadway show with an all black and female cast, writer, and director. It’s not only Hamilton making history.
After Hamilton, the musical with the most nominations (ten of them) is Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. While Hamilton uses non-white performers and art forms to tell a story of white founding fathers, Shuffle Along is an examination of a real chapter in African American history. Producers were smart by not getting scared away at the idea of having more than one “black” show on Broadway (yes, this happens; Eclipsed director Liesl Tommy once recalled hearing “We’ve got one African play; we don’t need another one”). The distance from tokenism to actual diversity is key.
Furthermore, The Color Purple has returned to Broadway and grabbed four nominations, and while it’s technically a revival, it’s only about a decade old. Its swift return shows that Broadway is now more receptive to a musical about a black, queer woman.
And the call for diversity answered in this year’s Broadway season goes beyond race and gender. Even though it closed months ago, Spring Awakening‘s revival has three nominations, including Best Direction of a Musical. This production, also bringing back a musical only a decade old, was bilingual, in both English and ASL to explore themes pertaining to people with disabilities. While it’s not the first show to do this, it is rare, and it was the first show in Broadway history to include an actor who uses a wheelchair. (This should have happened sooner.)
This is what theater, and especially musicals should be about: Using an accessible, popular art form to tell stories that audiences would otherwise be unfamiliar with; giving voice to narratives that other forms of media ignore. This is a counter to the disastrously white Oscars.
(Notably, two musicals about ethnic minorities got snubbed: Allegiance, about Japanese internment during WWII, that closed after a few months, and the Gloria Estefan jukebox show On Your Feet!, which is only nominated for best Choreography.)
Also, it’s worth reasserting that while Hamilton doesn’t boast a Jewish story or creative team, Alexander Hamilton himself had a strong Jewish connection! In addition, one of the show’s (three!) nominees for Supporting Actor in a Musical, Daveed Diggs, is Jewish. Besides—and I don’t say this lightly—I consider Lin-Manuel Miranda an honorary Member of the Tribe. Have you ever seen the video of him singing a tune from Fiddler at his own wedding? He’s a writer who feels the history of musical theater in his very bones, and uses that in his work, including the art form’s Jewish origins and continuing legacy.
(And yet after all this, the Tony’s are during yontif this year, falling on the second night of Shavuot. I tried tweeting at the official Tony account that they were anti-Semitic for the scheduling decision, but no one got back to me. I wonder why. In any case, I’ll find a way to watch, no matter what it takes.)
So yes, Hamilton is likely to (deservedly) sweep the musical categories come June 12. But that’s cause to celebrate, in a special way for Jews, who should be excited when an industry we largely created now boasts one of the most beloved pieces of 21st century culture, and rather than just bask in its success, opens up its season to a huge range of amazing stories.
And besides, the scope of shows this year, what the Tony committee has honored and beyond, shows that Broadway may be reaching a new maturity. Let’s hope the trend continues.