From ‘Illinoise’ to ‘Stereophonic,’, Broadway Is Celebrating Artists

 “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Nine,” “Red”: Stories about artists and the process of making art have long fascinated theater audiences. This season’s Tony nominations add new tales of creativity and collaboration to the canon — and conversations with the creators of these shows offer insights into the universal appeal of the subject, even for those who might not consider themselves artistic.

Take “Hell’s Kitchen,” the new musical nominated for 13 Tony Awards, including best musical. Creator Alicia Keys says she chose the setting — the real-life Manhattan Plaza, an artist housing complex near Times Square — as a way of honoring the “diverse community of opera singers, composers, actors, writers and percussion players,” where she grew up. The show’s main character is a 17-year-old girl discovering the piano and beginning her journey to becoming a musician.

“Creativity is surely an undercurrent to the story, but it’s really about the everydayness of this life that is so difficult to manage and maneuver and the relationship between a mother and daughter,” Keys says. “That family element and that sense of individual discovery is what I think is really the story, and I think that’s what everybody can relate to.”

Daniel Radcliffe, nominated for his featured role in “Merrily We Roll Along” (seven noms) finds universality in aspiration. “Having a career as an artist is one of the most hopeful, optimistic, idealistic things one can set out to do,” he says. “I think there’s a real link between that and telling stories about youth and lost youth, which are things everyone can relate to, even if your own idealism doesn’t relate to art specifically.”

Radcliffe stars in a production of “Merrily” that levels up the reputation of the 1981 Stephen Sondheim flop about three friends and artists, who drift apart as their lives and careers pull them in different directions. “It feels more about collaboration than it does about literally making art,” says Radcliffe’s castmate Jonathan Groff, who’s nominated for lead actor. “The rifts and joy and elation and challenges and tension between collaborators — everybody can understand that, because even if you’re a teacher or a doctor or any other profession, you don’t do it alone; you’re in a collaboration.”

Adds Lindsay Mendez, Groff and Radcliffe’s nominated co-star: “Whether you’re an artist or not, we all dream and have goals and wants.” 

The dance-musical “Illinoise” (four noms), meanwhile, isn’t specifically about artists, but its story (by director-choreographer Justin Peck and writer Jackie Sibblies Drury) spotlights the creative impulse to tell stories and the human need for expression. “The storytelling that happens onstage leaves room for interpretation and for audiences to put their own stories on top of it,” says producer Greg Nobile.

For all these Tony nominees, working on tales about artists has given them reason to reconsider their own processes as creators. 

“Playing Tamara has given me permission to fail and try things and shape-shift,” says Eden Espinosa, nominated for her leading role in “Lempicka” (three noms), the musical about the art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka. “Tamara wanted people to walk into a room of 100 paintings and be able to pick out, ‘That one is a Lempicka.’ It’s encouraged me to embrace my unique, singular perspective as an artist.”

In the case of “Stereophonic,” the play-with-music about a 1970s rock band struggling to record a new album, playwright David Adjmi drew on his own creative experiences. “I had come off a very different, very difficult collaboration before I started this, and so this play was a chance for me to really interrogate my own collaborations and think about what it means to work in tandem with others.”

Among the play’s 13 nominations (including one for best play) are five in the acting categories, and several of those actors say the process of playing creative characters in “Stereophonic” has made them rethink their own artistic approach. “I feel like it’s distilled for me the importance of both relaxation and precision,” says nominee Juliana Canfield. “Those are like the two North Stars of my creative life going forward.”

A show like “Stereophonic” also gives viewers glimpses into the inspiration and drudgery of the often-enigmatic work of artists. “There’s a mystery behind so much of the creative process, and this lifts the veil on it a little bit,” says producer John Johnson. “People love that.”

As is the case for all these nominated shows, there’s no shortage of themes with which audiences can connect.

“‘Stereophonic’ is really an existential epic,” says Canfield’s nominated co-star, Eli Gelb. “It’s about being alive and being an artist, and how those things are sort of the same thing.” — Gordon Cox

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