The Tony Awards will be broadcast on CBS on June 7, and as is often the case in Broadway-loving circles, much of the talk this year is about the race for Best Actress in a Musical. We are blessed in 2015 with multiple strong contenders—perhaps the strongest field since 2004. But one nominee, despite her small physical stature, stands head and shoulders above the rest. That nominee is Kristin Chenoweth for On the Twentieth Century, and if she doesn’t win, it will be a crime against musical theater.
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To me, Chenoweth is not just the right choice; she is the obviously right choice. This is a relevant distinction, because a lot of people seem to be overlooking the obvious. Conventional wisdom this season has held that the Best Actress race would come down to Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara, for The King and I; lately, there has also been a surge of support for Chita Rivera, for The Visit. Both of those women are giving very good performances, but Chenoweth is giving a legendary one.
Rivera, of course, is already an icon. Her turn in The Visit draws from that reputation; at 82, she has only to appear onstage, looking regal and sly, and the audience colors her in with nearly 60 years of Broadway history. But she doesn’t have all that much else to do in The Visit, an evocative but slender musical parable, and Best Actress should not be an award for lifetime achievement. (I would be happy to see Rivera get one of those; she could put it next to her other two Tonys, and her medal from the Kennedy Center Honors.) A vote for Rivera is, at heart, a vote for Broadway nostalgia.
The O’Hara camp, meanwhile, tends to barely talk about her performance at all. She is poised and fully capable in The King and I, and sings with lovely clarity. It is an admirably classy performance, but not an especially exciting one; on merit, it doesn’t compare to her own previous work in The Bridges of Madison County and The Pajama Game, for example. But therein lies the O’Hara attraction this year: Although this is her sixth Tony nomination, she has yet to win an award, and there is a current of thought that says O’Hara should win because it is “her turn.” It is telling that that much of this support existed before anyone even saw her in The King and I. A vote for O’Hara is, in essence, a vote for Broadway guilt.
And then there is Chenoweth. Cheno. Chenobyl. K-Chen. One of the most distinctive and distinguished Broadway leading ladies to emerge in the past 30 years, Chenoweth is a throwback to a classic breed of sui generis Broadway star: unique women with styles all their own, like Merman, Verdon, LuPone. But she doesn’t coast on her distinctiveness. On the contrary: In On the Twentieth Century, Chenoweth works and sings her heart out. As I wrote in my review: “She has never had a role that cast so bright and sustained a light on her multifaceted talents, and the resulting shine is dazzling. All the powers stuffed into her tiny frame—the huge voice that rises from kazoo to coloratura soprano, the brash look-at-me confidence, the Carol Channing–esque precision clowning—are harnessed to propel the show forward. She’s the little engine that could do anything.” It's one of the great musical-theater star turns in recent memory, and On the Twentieth Century is unimaginable without her. Like O’Hara, Chenoweth has never won for Best Actress; unlike O’Hara or Rivera, she is giving the definitive Broadway performance of her career.
A vote for Chenoweth is a vote for the best lead performance by an actress in a musical this season. It’s as simple as that. Let’s hope the Tony voters get it right.