6:10 PM PDT 5/5/2016 by David Rooney
Stephen Karam’s ensemble drama about the conflicts and comforts of the American family in an age of anxiety took best play honors, while George C. Wolfe’s glittering historical exhumation was named best musical.
In a decision that stands to turn up the heat behind Tony Awards prognostications, the New York Drama Critics Circle on Thursday voted to name Stephen Karam’s The Humans best play of the season, while the prize for outstanding musical went to Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.
Both productions fared well in the Tony nominations earlier this week, with The Humans earning six mentions, including best play, while Shuffle Along landed 10, second only to clear frontrunner Hamilton with 16. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop historical blockbuster was ineligible for NYDCC consideration this year, having won last year’s prize for its original pre-Broadway incarnation at the Public Theater.
Both Shuffle Along and The Humans are produced on Broadway by Scott Rudin, the latter a transfer of Roundabout Theatre Company’s off-Broadway production.
A funny-sad, unsettling domestic comedy-drama about a struggling Pennsylvania family’s tense Thanksgiving gathering, Karam’s play is on equal footing with Danai Gurira’s women-in-war drama Eclipsed in the Tony race, with six noms apiece. However, some pundits are giving The Humans the edge. Its clear NYDCC win on an easy first ballot at least indicates strong support from critics, the majority of whom are also Tony voters.
Shuffle Along, as its lengthy subtitle makes evident, is a revitalizing historical reappraisal of the largely forgotten 1921 Jazz Age musical, which was the first production to make it to Broadway featuring an all-black cast and assembled by an all-black creative team. The newly contextualized show was written and directed by George C. Wolfe, woven around the original book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, using the original songs by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.
Other plays that figured significantly in the NYDCC’s voting included Eclipsed, as well as Annie Baker’s John, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria, Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj and Lucas Hnath’s The Christians. Musicals that also drew support in voting included the recently opened Dear Evan Hansen, which is tipped to transfer to Broadway next season; and American Psycho, which was largely overlooked in the Tony nominations, figuring only in two design categories.
The NYDCC prize for best musical is an optional addition to the annual best play honor; voting members choose each year whether to recognize a musical, based on the merits of the season’s premieres. The group also votes on whether to add a separate honor for best foreign play. But despite some support in discussions this year for Mike Bartlett’s audacious “future history play” about the British monarchy, King Charles III, the consensus needed to vote on that award was not reached.
The NYDCC also chose to present three special citations this year. Those included director Ivo van Hove and his regular lighting and set designer Jan Versweyveld for their collaborative achievements; their work this season included two acclaimed Arthur Miller revivals on Broadway, A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, as well as the more divisive David Bowie musical, Lazarus.
A career achievement citation will go to beloved stage veteran Lois Smith, who shows few signs of slowing down at age 85 and appeared this year in the plays John and Marjorie Prime. The final citation went to Oskar Eustis for his outstanding leadership of the Public Theater, which generated the Broadway transfers of Hamilton and Eclipsed, as well as last season’s Tony winner for best musical, Fun Home.
Now in its 81st year, the NYDCC comprises theater critics from 22 daily newspapers, magazines, wire services and websites, including The Hollywood Reporter. This year’s awards will be presented May 17 at a private cocktail reception; the play honor includes a $2,500 prize awarded to the playwright. Full details on the 2016 voting can be found on the organization’s website: dramacritics.org.