LOS ANGELES - "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812" jumped to the head of the pack of the 2017 Tony nominations, taking the lead with an even dozen noms ahead of "Hello, Dolly!," which nabbed ten, and "Dear Evan Hansen," which scored nine.
"Great Comet," the musical that brought sales magnet Josh Groban to Broadway, was expected to do well in the nominations, but many in the industry had predicted the highest tallies would to go to "Dolly!," the mega-seller toplined by Bette Midler, or to "Dear Evan Hansen," the buzzy hit that opened last fall. But "Great Comet" cleaned up with nods for new musical, book and score (both by Dave Malloy), lead actor Groban, lead actress Denee Benton, featured performer Lucas Steele and director Rachel Chavkin, plus design categories.
Prior to the announcement, it had also seemed a strong possibility that the best musical category -- for which "Great Comet" is a contender -- would be expanded from four to five, given the long list of new musicals that opened this season. But the roster remained at its traditional four, with "Dear Evan Hansen," "Come From Away" and "Groundhog Day" also in the race. With no fifth slot, several other titles that looked like they had a chance at a nom -- among them "War Paint" and "Anastasia" -- were left out.
The category for musical revival also surprised, with nominators opting to decrease the list from four down to three. "Dolly!" led the lineup, with "Falsettos" and "Miss Saigon" in the mix. Meanwhile, the new play race shaped up as anticipated, with Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage's "Sweat" in a pack that includes J.T. Rogers' "Oslo," Paula Vogel's "Indecent" and Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2." The latter, the final opening of the busy season, earned acting nominations for its entire four-person cast (including Laurie Metcalf and Chris Cooper) and led the play nominees with a total of eight nods.
Among acting categories, the race for leading lady is a formidable competition that sees old pros Midler, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole (both of "War Paint") battle it out with newcomers Benton ("Great Comet") and Eva Noblezada ("Miss Saigon"). The overall roster of acting nominees includes big names like Midler, Groban, Cate Blanchett ("The Present"), Danny DeVito ("The Price"), Kevin Kline ("Present Laughter"), Nathan Lane ("The Front Page") and Laura Linney ("The Little Foxes").
In a year packed with 13 new musicals all vying for attention, the 2016-17 season had plenty of contenders but no clear juggernaut like "Hamilton," which last year hit a new record high for nominations. The closest equivalent this season has been the recent revival of "Hello, Dolly!," which earned the adoration of critics and has become the top new earner at the box office since, well, "Hamilton."
Among new musicals, "Dear Evan Hansen," the critically praised drama that's connected with younger audiences and become one of the season's big sellers, seemed a sure bet, as did "Come From Away," the sleeper success that deals with 9/11 with an unexpectedly light and uplifting touch.
"Great Comet," an electropop opera based on a short section of "War Peace," took an unusual, circuitous route to Broadway, beginning at Off Broadway's Ars Nova in a space that seated less than 100. Its success there prompted producers to pick it up and experiment with a commercial Off Broadway run in a non-traditional tent space that served food and drink. Following that, the show further developed in a stint at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. and eventually landed on Broadway, with Groban in the lead and a Broadway house that had been significantly reconfigured to accommodate an environmental staging.
"Great Comet" is similar to last season's "Hamilton" in at least one respect: It's the work of a single composer-creator-performer, with Dave Malloy writing the score and the book and, in its earliest productions, playing the title role of Pierre. Newly minted nominee Malloy will return to the part, this time on Broadway, for 10 performances later this month.
The 71st Annual Tony Awards will be handed out in a June 11 ceremony hosted by Kevin Spacey at Radio City Music Hall.