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 Motherfucker 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.