NEW YORK - I just finished filling out my ballot for tonight's 67th Annual Tony Awards. This was really hard. In many of the categories, I can't decide because - soul-crushing confession - there wasn't much to love on Broadway this year. The 2012-2013 season - artistically and, as we recently learned, financially - was busy but mostly lightweight and frequently lame.
Then there are the painfully tough categories - best actor in a play, featured actor in a play, set design of a play - where having to choose one from such extraordinary achievements made the dartboard selection technique seem awfully appealing.
Should we reward Tom Hanks for his major triumph in "Lucky Guy," daring to threaten his status as Hollywood royalty with an exposed Broadway debut and a difficult new play left unfinished when playwright Nora Ephron died? What about Nathan Lane, who, despite his two Tonys for musical comedies, hasn't been nominated in more than a decade and has never showed the mature tragic/comic depths that he does in "The Nance"?
Then there is Tracy Letts, whose unforgettable George in "Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" changed the electrical charge around the playwright's beta-dog husband. Can Broadway vote Letts over beloved Hanks or Lane, especially when "Virginia Woolf" closed months ago? You see what I mean? This category hurts.
Best musical is hard to pick, too, but for less inspiring reasons. The season had a respectable 15 musicals - one more than last year - including a healthy-looking nine new ones. But both premieres and revivals (even the few that didn't flop) have been in a creative safety zone of conventional and family entertainment. After seasons aimed at hip, adult or multicultural audiences with edgy musical appetites, this year has been resolutely in the pale middle-of-the-road.
Yes, the season's box-office hits - "Kinky Boots" and "Matilda: The Musical" - would seem to have some cutting-edge credentials. But "Kinky Boots," despite the title and Cyndi Lauper's likable score, is a sentimental feel-good entertainment about drag queens saving a shoe factory. "Matilda," adapted from Roald Dahl's 1988 children's novel, does have a dark side to its depiction of a little-girl genius in a world of grown-up meanies. But this is still a kids show with cartoon cruelty. Besides, at the preview I attended, the sound system was so awful that I felt I was listening to children screaming in another room and I couldn't make out what they were saying.
It's thrilling that music-driven Broadway had a record 26 plays, that 14 were new and, and, unlike previous seasons full of English voices, almost all were by Americans. I'll be fine if "Lucky Guy," Richard Greenberg's "The Assembled Parties" or Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is named best play.
Yes, both Greenberg and Durang have written better works in their long, prolific careers. But these were mostly lived Off-Broadway, and these lifelong dramatists should have their showcases in the center of the commercial theater. Also, Ephron's play, produced posthumously under great stress, turned out to be a tremendously effective character study and love letter to the vanishing world of tabloid journalism.
WORST BOX OFFICE?
Here's the story that Broadway would prefer to bury, especially in this month of national advertising and self-congratulation. But some kind of perfect storm appears to have hit the commercial theater, and not all of it is named Sandy.
The Broadway League has released its annual end-of-season statistics and, for the first time in a long time, the news resists being sugarcoated in happy talk about tourists and superstar profits. Although small warning signs were posted last year when attendance figures were down 2 percent, record-breaking grosses of $1.14 billion - up 5.4 percent in a year - put a nice soft focus on the empty seats.
This year, however, attendance is down another 6.2 percent, the worst in eight years. Meanwhile, grosses stayed virtually flat at $1.14 billion. This is not an unimpressive number, except that it means that people are paying bigger bucks for fewer tickets. According to Crain's New York Business, this ends four years of revenue growth.
We're talking about preposterous sticker shock. While audiences diminished by more than 6 percent, the average ticket price went up 9 percent. That average ticket price, now $101, is not unrelated to the adoption of an airline-style system of "dynamic pricing" - that is, changing the ticket prices constantly to reflect the demand. Worse, to my mind, is the self-destructive growth in so-called premium tickets, Broadway's legal way around scalpers that charges $200-$500 a seat to hits. Is it any wonder that Broadway is in danger of being perceived as a luxury for the 1 percent?
Yes, as the league report says, superstorm Sandy created lost performances and "a slower return to Broadway by our tristate area theatergoers." What the report doesn't address is the terrible fall season. Just three of 16 productions - "Annie" and the limited runs of "Virginia Woolf" and Al Pacino in "Glengarry Glen Ross" - were still running beyond the holidays. Only "Annie" is still with us.
Then there was the shape of the season. Producers are explaining that the big moneymakers - "Kinky Boots," "Matilda," the high-flying circus revival of "Pippin" and the golden-oldies "Motown: The Musical" - couldn't tally up the grosses because they all opened just before the official end of the season in late April.
And whose fault is that? More and more, new shows are backloaded into the season. Producers believe, alas correctly, that late openings have a better chance for Tony nominations and, thus, a spot on the national telecast before the summer tourists arrive.
But look what happened this year. Of 15 spring openings, 12 came in the last two weeks before Tony cutoff. Like an airplane with a load imbalance, the season lost its lift. Mostly weak shows were piled into the autumn, saving the prime offerings until the last minute, when the clutter makes it almost impossible for anything without Tom Hanks to get traction with the public.
STARS? WHAT STARS?
In recent years, producers began banking on the power of Hollywood names to get people into the seats - preferably to pay premium prices. And it appears that stars have been allowed to choose their own vehicles, regardless of their suitability in the role and the familiarity of the play.
But even Scarlett Johansson couldn't sell another routine revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and, though yet another "Glengarry" turned a profit because of Pacino, his name was left off the nomination list along with Jessica Chastain, Katie Holmes, Debra Winger and a dazzling number of other names I'm sure CBS would have liked to have on the TV show.
CRITIC'S CHOICES: WHO WILL WIN?
SHOULD WIN: "The Assembled Parties"
WILL WIN: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"
SHOULD WIN: "Matilda: the Musical"
WILL WIN: "Matilda"
SHOULD WIN: "Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
WILL WIN: "Golden Boy"
SHOULD WIN: "Pippin"
WILL WIN: "Pippin"
SHOULD WIN: Tracy Letts, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
WILL WIN: Tom Hanks, "Lucky Guy"
SHOULD WIN: Kristine Nielsen, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"
WILL WIN: Cicely Tyson, "The Trip to Bountiful"
SHOULD WIN: Bertie Carvel, "Matilda"
WILL WIN: Carvel
SHOULD WIN" Carolee Carmello, "Scandalous"
WILL WIN: Patina Miller, "Pippin"
-FEATURED ACTOR, PLAY
SHOULD WIN: Richard Kind, "The Big Knife"
WILL WIN: Tony Shalhoub, "Golden Boy"
-FEATURED ACTRESS, PLAY
SHOULD WIN: Carrie Coon, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
WILL WIN: Judith Light, "The Assembled Parties"
-FEATURED ACTOR, MUSICAL
SHOULD WIN: Gabriel Ebert, "Matilda"
WILL WIN: Terrence Mann, "Pippin"
-FEATURED ACTRESS, MUSICAL
SHOULD WIN: Andrea Martin, "Pippin"
WILL WIN: Martin
SHOULD WIN: George C. Wolfe, "Lucky Guy"
WILL WIN: Nicholas Martin, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"
SHOULD WIN: Diane Paulus, "Pippin"
WILL WIN: Paulus
SHOULD WIN: Andy Blankenbuehler, "Bring It On: The Musical"
WILL WIN: Chet Walker, "Pippin"
SHOULD WIN: Cyndi Lauper, "Kinky Boots"
WILL WIN: Lauper
SHOULD WIN: Dennis Kelly, "Matilda"
WILL WIN: Kelly
-BEST SETS, PLAY
SHOULD WIN: John Lee Beatty, "The Nance"
WILL WIN: Beatty
-BEST SETS, MUSICAL
SHOULD WIN: Scott Pask, "Pippin"
WILL WIN: Pask
-BEST COSTUMES, PLAY
SHOULD WIN: Catherine Zuber, "Golden Boy"
WILL WIN: Ann Roth, "The Nance"
-BEST COSTUMES, MUSICAL
SHOULD WIN: Rob Howell, "Matilda"
WILL WIN: Howell
"THE 67TH ANNUAL TONY AWARDS"
Airs at 7 p.m. on CBS.
Something else: Neil Patrick Harris again hosts, with festivities back at Radio City after several years at the Beacon Theatre. Presenters include Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jesse Eisenberg, John Cryer and Martha Plimpton.