First-Time Tony Award Nominees Enjoy New Fame, But Keep Day Jobs
It's a quiet afternoon at the Tex-Mex restaurant in Brooklyn where playwright Robert Askins works the day shift twice a week. Even though his play, Hand to God, is on Broadway and he's got a Tony nomination, Askins says he enjoys interacting with the regulars, most of whom know about his other job.
"When you day bar during the weekdays, you're the only one in the restaurant," he says. "So, you run the food and make the drinks and put it on the tables and it's good."
Hand to God is nominated for best play at the 69th Annual Tony Awards, which will be handed out Sunday night. The ceremony is the culmination of a record-breaking season on Broadway, in terms of audiences and box office. And no matter who wins the Tony for best play, it will be a writer making his Broadway debut.
Hand to God takes place in a church basement in suburban Texas, where a recently widowed mother and her troubled son are involved in a Christian puppet ministry. The shy boy has created a sock puppet who seems to have a life of his own. Askins grew up in Texas and says it took him a long time to write about home. He finally realized it didn't have to be the stereotypical West.
"Now, Texas is less cowboys and more Wal-Mart, right? It's no longer about selling the farm; it's about the weird things that we're doing at the end of the cul-de-sac." he says. "And that's what's fascinating; you don't have to be pulled into the past, but you have to acknowledge the tradition that you exist in."
Now that Askins has tasted Broadway success, most people might think he'd give up his day job. But, having lived in New York for 10 years and having barely made a penny from his plays until very recently, he says he's still going to tend the bar. He knows not every play he writes will have the success of Hand to God.
"They're not all going to be out-of-the park home runs. Some are gonna be singles," he says. "And that's just it. It's a marathon, not a sprint. It's the arc of a career."
Askins speaks from experience; he's had numerous plays done at smaller theaters. But the writers of the Tony-nominated musical Something Rotten! are making their professional theatrical debuts.
Louisiana-born brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick have had successful careers in other fields. Karey has written screenplays for Disney and Wayne has composed songs for Amy Grant and Garth Brooks. Wayne says they've had their eyes on Broadway ever since they did musicals in high school.
"Even back then we always talked about wanting to write a musical and we'd always say just our other careers got in the way," he says.
What the Kirkpatrick brothers, along with English screenwriter John O'Farrell, have come up with is a comic, meta-musical set in Shakespeare's time. Two struggling playwrights, who are brothers, are looking for that one good idea, which will make them as popular as the Bard. Karey Kirkpatrick says he and his brother thought it would be funny to play with theater history.
"We always had this idea that someone went to a soothsayer to predict the future of theater and the soothsayer said 'musicals'," he says.
Something Rotten!'s third collaborator, O'Farrell, is also a veteran outside Broadway. He co-authored the film Chicken Run with Karey Kirkpatrick. But he says it's a thrill to be on Broadway.
"Even though we're debutantes, we're gray-haired, balding debutantes," he laughs.
This is not the first Tony nomination for 88-year-old composer, John Kander. The score for The Visit is his 12th nomination with his writing partner, the late Fred Ebb. They wrote Tony-award-winning shows Cabaret and Chicago. But their first was a flop. Kander says anyone writing for Broadway needs to take the long view.
"I really love the theater, I truly do. I love everything about it," he says. "I love writing. I love the rehearsal room. I love working with audiences and to make sure they understand."
The part he hates, however, is "the idea that suddenly we're all put in a little sandbox where we're supposed to be very competitive with each other. And these are your friends!"
From his experiences, Kander says the possibility of an award doesn't make most writers want it more. He cautions new Tony nominees that the nomination will affect their business, but not the art itself.
"I guess I'm an outsider when it comes to giving advice on this, except to try as hard as you can not to think about it and to really write what you want to write," he says.
And each of the Tony-nominated writers, including John Kander, have future projects already in the works.
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