History Plays Make History at the Tony Award Nominations

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

 The Book of Mormon is a history play that combines a contemporary missionary’s trip to Africa with the history of the Mormon religion.  Last week, it snagged fourteen Tony Award nominations, including Best Play.  It was not alone as a history champ; The Scottsboro Boys, about racism in the 1930s, earned twelve nominations, and War Horse, about World War I, earned five.  Musicals about history swept all four Best Musical nominations and history plays earned a bevy of other nods.  Altogether, history plays won eighty-eight of 114 total nominations, or an astonishing 77 percent of the total.

War Horse was the history story named as one of the four Best Play nominees, along with Jerusalem, Good People and The Motherf**ker with the Hat.  The four history plays that swept the nominations for Best Musical were The Book of Mormon, Catch Me If You Can, Scottsboro Boys and Sister Act.  Two of the four directors nominated were for history plays, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris for War Horse and Daniel Sullivan for The Merchant of Venice.  The four people nominated for best director of a musical were Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys, Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes and Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, The Book of Mormon.

Among the performers in history plays nominated for Best Actor were Brian Bedford, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Joe Mantello for The Normal Heart, and Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice.  Actresses in history plays nominated for best actress were Nina Arianda, in Born Yesterday and Lily Rabe in The Merchant of Venice.

History plays have been just as successful in the nominations for other theater awards and off-Broadway honors. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson won the Best Musical award at the Lucille Lortel awards early last week.  History plays swept about half of all the nominations for the Drama Desk awards and the Outer Critics Circle awards.  In fact, Sister Act earned nine Outer critics nominations and Anything Goes eight.

No one can remember when plays about the past, whether the Mormons, World War I, the Scottsboro trials, Andrew Jackson,  Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, 1930s cruise liners, the early days of the AIDS epidemic, 1950s corporate fraud, singing nuns in the 1970s or even, oddly enough, the Green Bay Packers, did so well in Tony nominations.

You had to have a feeling that there was a surge of plays about history, all kinds of history, back in the fall, when the theater season began. In one ten-day period, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys and Lombardi opened.  It was a precursor of history madness on stage.  The flood gates to the past had been opened.  Dozens of history plays, from those about the 1911 Triangle fire in New York City to the murder of Lizzie Borden’s parents to the war in Iraq, followed.


First, the New York stage is rebounding at the box office following a slow period caused by the recession and producers are taking more chances on dramas and musicals, especially history plays.  Second, audiences are buying tickets to more of them, just as they are tuning in more history programs on television.  Third, history plays have drawn superstar actors, such as Al Pacino (Merchant of Venice). Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying) and Robin Williams (Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo).  Fourth, producers are offering plays about the past that are historical, but not the well-known history of “great men.”  The stage has seen plays about the 1950s NFL, the 1960s Shirelles pop group, 1940s mining towns, the Holocaust, 1964 nuns, 1970s racism and Andy Warhol.  Broadway is realizing, just as the book and television industries realized, that history, and our fascination for it, comes in many shapes and sizes.

The success of history plays this year, along with those sure to be unveiled at the multitude of summer theater festivals, will hopefully spark producers to stage even more of them next season, in New York as well as in other communities.  Americans are endlessly attracted to history.  We are, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, boats born back ceaselessly into the past.

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