We’re still seven weeks away from the Tony nominations on May 3, but this year’s competition is already a horse race. “Hamilton,” which opened all the way back in August, may look like the juggernaut musical of the year, but can it keep up its momentum until the June 12 ceremony? And just this week, the play categories got a jolt of energy from the starry openings of “Eclipsed” with Lupita Nyong’o and “Blackbird” with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams.
Here are seven burning questions about this year’s crop of contenders:
1. Can anything beat ‘Hamilton’?
This one's easy: No. Although a couple of strong musicals opened this fall ("School of Rock," "On Your Feet!") and four more remain to open this spring ("Shuffle Along," "Waitress," "American Psycho," "Tuck Everlasting"), "Hamilton" has spent the entire season as Broadway's pop-culture beacon, with hype that's reached from the Billboard charts to late-night TV to the White House. That kind of attention is good for all of Broadway, and it won't go unrewarded. Besides, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone in the theater industry who doesn't love the show, and it doesn't hurt that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's creator and star, is one of the best-liked people on the Street. All of that makes "Hamilton" a lock for the Tony Awards' top trophy, best new musical. Which raises a follow-up question:
2. What won't 'Hamilton' win?
That's what's really has theater types buzzing. What categories might see other shows break through? Wins for "Hamilton" in best new musical and best original score seem assured. Miranda, who plays Alexander Hamilton, isn't actually a shoo-in for lead actor in a musical, but right now, Tony watchers think that award will go to Leslie Odom Jr. for his turn as "Hamilton" nemesis Aaron Burr. "Hamilton" is thought to be vulnerable in lead actress, set and director -- although some suspect the show's director and design team will ride the awards-sweep momentum to wins. (Besides, "Hamilton" director Thomas Kail earned a lot of good will earlier this year by making Fox's live broadcast of "Grease" far more entertaining than anyone thought it would be).
3. How will 'Shuffle Along' fit in?
By anyone's estimation, "Shuffle Along" is a serious contender. It's conceived and directed by George C. Wolfe, the muscular director of shows ranging from "Angels in America" to "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" to "Lucky Guy," and it stars a powerhouse cast led by Tony winners Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter. But here's the thing: Nobody knows what it is, and they won't know until it begins performances March 15. Producers are smartly positioning it as a revival, which seems apt, since it's built around an influential but overlooked production from 1921. But there's also a new libretto (written by Wolfe) that chronicles the original show's behind-the-scenes backstory. Is there enough new material to qualify this "Shuffle Along" as a new musical (thereby putting the show in contention with "Hamilton")? We won't get an inkling of that until previews start, and the Tony Awards Administration Committee won't make a final decision on the show's eligibility until the day before the May 3 nominations.
4. Can Audra win again?
Any time McDonald, the Tony Awards' winningest actress, shows up on Broadway, she's an instant favorite for a trophy. Her last appearance, in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," won her a historic sixth award in 2014. Could she win a seventh for "Shuffle Along"? At this point, Tony voters don't know how big McDonald's role in "Shuffle Along" is, so no one knows whether she'd be considered this year as a leading actress or a featured actress. (In the leading actress contest, she'd have tough competition in "The Color Purple" star Cynthia Erivo, whom many in the industry currently see as the top candidate to win.)
5. Lupita vs. Michelle vs. Jessica?
Will three of Hollywood's awards-season darlings square off for leading actress in a play? Maybe, maybe not. Nyong'o, who won unqualified raves for "Eclipsed," will certainly get a nomination, but some in the industry wonder if the actress, top-billed in an ensemble show, might end up eligible in the supporting actress category. Acclaim was slightly less unanimous for Williams for her leading role in "Blackbird," but she garnered more than enough enthusiastic praise to make her a real contender. And looming on the leading-actress horizon: Jessica Lange, taking on the massive role of Mary Tyrone in "A Long Day's Journey Into Night," opening April 27.
6. Will the Tonys' annual box-office bump even exist this year?
Every year, the media attention that the Tonys bring to Broadway results in a boost at the box office for awards-season favorites. This year, though, those hype-driven sales look most likely to go to, you guessed it, "Hamilton," which is already topping out a jaw-dropping $1.7 million a week. Any extra sales to head "Hamilton's" way wouldn't even register. (Assuming anyone can get a ticket anyway.) A related question: With "Hamilton" stealing the Tony spotlight, will producers of other shows spend less on industry campaigning and more on marketing their shows to actual ticketbuyers?
7. Could ratings get any lower?
CBS' annual Tony Awards telecast has long struggled with lackluster ratings, and last year the broadcast flirted with a record low. Viewership for the June 12 ceremony is impossible to predict -- big-name hosts and nominees don't always yield big ratings -- but optimists see some likelihood that "Hamilton" could draw extra eyes, thanks to its colossal cultural profile. Host James Corden may or may not attract additional TV viewers, but given his booming digital presence, he's almost sure to add some social-media heat to the Tonys, which, like the theater industry itself, is always thirsting for younger audiences. With all those musical-theater nominees, the possibilities for "Carpool Karaoke" are endless.