NEW YORK — About midway through Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons,’’ the steely Katharine Gerard, portrayed by Tyne Daly, is told by her dead son’s lover that she hasn’t changed. With an air of that’s-that finality, Katharine scornfully replies: “People don’t change. That’s one of the lies we tell ourselves.’’
Maybe so, maybe not. One thing is certain: Katharine’s assertion would not be greeted with much applause at Sunday night’s Tony Awards ceremony, slated for 8 p.m. on CBS. Collectively, the tale told by this year’s Tony-nominated productions and performances is one of transformation, attempted and sometimes attained.
Their fundamental premise is that people do change — or at least learn something important about themselves in the effort to leave old identities behind — so they determinedly set out to explore the possibilities of “Some Other Me,’’ to borrow a song title from “If/Then,’’ whose star, Idina Menzel, is up for a Tony.
In “If/Then’’ and such other Broadway musicals as “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,’’ “Violet,’’ “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’’ “Cabaret,’’ “Rocky,’’ “The Bridges of Madison County,’’ and “Les Miserables,’’ the lead characters go on journeys — literal, imaginary, emotional, psychological — meant to alter not just how they live but who they are.
Nor are the Tony-nominated dramas immune to that itch: Plays as different as “The Cripple of Inishmaan’’ (starring Daniel Radcliffe as the title character), “All the Way’’ (starring Bryan Cranston in a coproduction by the American Repertory Theater and Oregon Shakespeare Festival), “Twelfth Night,’’ “A Raisin in the Sun’’ (starring Denzel Washington), and “Casa Valentina’’ are united by a belief in the power of transformation — an idea that was also central to the ART’s production of “The Glass Menagerie’’ (seven Tony nominations, including best revival of a play), which closed on Broadway in February.
Indeed, so pervasive is transformation as a leitmotif of this year’s Tonys that in the case of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch’’ (eight nominations), it applies not just to the musical’s subject matter but also to its star’s image. Up to now, Neil Patrick Harris has been best known for a certain urbane detachment, exemplified by the womanizing character he played on the TV sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.’’ But then he began delivering a blazing, go-for-broke performance as Hedwig, a transgender rock singer who underwent a botched sex-change operation and now alternates between serpentine wit and raw grief at his abandonment by the love of his life. Thanks to “Hedwig,’’ Harris stands revealed as a shape-shifting Broadway force who is willing to tackle — and appears capable of — anything.
Much the same could be said of Jefferson Mays, a one-man metamorphosis machine. In the frolicsome musical comedy “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,’’ which leads the Tony pack with 10 nominations, Mays transforms himself into all eight members of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family, targeted by an impoverished heir who is determined to murder his way to the top of the clan’s line of succession. Mays creates rapid-fire, vividly entertaining portraits of the doomed octet; they include an addlepated, buck-toothed cleric and the haughty Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, who, in a song titled “I Don’t Understand the Poor,’’ declaims, with the obliviousness of a true one-percenter: “The lives they lead/Of want and need/I should think it would be a bore.’’
For numerous characters in this year’s Tony crop, the sought-after transformation requires a willingness to leave the known world behind, as in “Beautiful’’ (seven Tony nominations, including best musical). After years in the New Jersey suburbs as the quiet half of a successful songwriting team with her philandering husband Gerry Goffin, Carole King (Jessie Mueller) uproots herself, moves to Southern California, gets a hipper hairstyle and funkier attire, literally finds her voice by refashioning herself into a solo recording artist — and bursts through with “Tapestry,’’ one of the best-selling albums of all time.
In Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,’’ matriarch Lena Younger (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) draws on all of her substantial courage, determined to transfigure the family’s circumstances by purchasing a house in a mostly white neighborhood with the life insurance money left behind by her late husband. In Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,’’ the arrival of a Hollywood film crew inspires the young orphan Billy Claven (Radcliffe) — tired of being defined by the narrow-minded denizens of the island community off the coast of Ireland where he lives — to try to defeat their expectations by getting himself cast in the movie. In “Casa Valentina,’’ set in the early 1960s, heterosexual men visit a Catskills resort to embrace the freedom of dressing and acting as women; in “Les Miserables,’’ Jean Valjean transforms himself from an embittered ex-prisoner into the saintlike savior of young Cosette; in “Rocky,’’ the down-on-his-luck fighter Rocky Balboa punches his way out of obscurity.
Perhaps the most novel exploration of the theme of transformation occurs in “If/Then,’’ which is built on the age-old tensions of career vs. family. Menzel plays Elizabeth, newly divorced, unemployed, nearing 40, and trying to figure out how to start over as she returns to New York after more than a decade in Phoenix. The solution settled upon by the show’s creators? To split both the character of Elizabeth and the narrative in two. So, Menzel switches back and forth from Liz, who travels a path that leads to love, marriage, and a family, and Beth, who pursues her professional ambitions, which lead to her winning awards as an urban planner and running for city council. In effect, Elizabeth is doubly transformed, experiencing her life on two different tracks.
If only it were that easy for the desperate inhabitants of a St. Louis household in “The Glass Menagerie,’’ the haunting autobiographical 1945 drama by Tennessee Williams. The law of unintended consequences asserts itself in “Menagerie,’’ resulting in a personal transformation that upends the domestic landscape but is decidedly not the change so fervently sought by Amanda Wingfield, the family’s larger-than-life matriarch.
Amanda, played by Cherry Jones, is intent on engineering a romance between Jim, the “Gentleman Caller’’ (Brian J. Smith), and her disabled, pathologically shy daughter, Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger). But when Jim turns out to be engaged to another woman, Amanda erupts in fury, hurling accusations at her son, Tom, (Zachary Quinto) that ignite his resolve to flee the stifling home once and for all and pursue his dream of writing.
Yet Tom’s determination to craft a new chapter in his own story is evident well before that climactic moment. When Jim warns Tom that he’ll lose his job at a warehouse “if you don’t wake up,’’ Tom replies: “I am waking up.’’ Jim, dubiously: “You show no signs.’’ Tom, confidently: “The signs are interior. I’m planning to change. I’m right at the point of committing myself to a future that doesn’t include the warehouse . . .’’ And indeed, by play’s end, Tom has plunged headlong into that future. He has, in effect, become Tennessee Williams — though he remains haunted by memories of the sister he left behind, who is frozen in place, sadly untransformed.
It’s not individual change but a sweeping social transformation that is the unwavering goal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, played by Cranston, in Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way,’’ which was produced at the ART last fall after premiering at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Deploying the political skills he’s spent a lifetime acquiring, Cranston’s LBJ deftly juggles presidential personae as he maneuvers on Capitol Hill to win passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He turns on the charm or the verbal blowtorch, twisting arms or doling out favors depending on whom he is dealing with (segregationist Sen. Richard Russell, ambitious liberal Sen. Hubert Humphrey, rank-and-file lawmakers). “What It Takes’’ could be an alternate title for this study of political legerdemain, had it not already been taken by Richard Ben Cramer for his classic account of the 1988 presidential campaign.
In achieving victory, LBJ’s image undergoes a transformation of sorts, from crude wheeler-dealer to visionary statesman. Yet as we watch LBJ bask in his civil-rights triumph in “All the Way,’’ we know something he does not: that this was the best version of himself he would ever be, that he would not make it all the way to a successful presidency. The Vietnam War would see to that.
That awful war looms in the background in another Tony-nominated production set in 1964: “Violet,’’ starring Sutton Foster as a young woman left with a disfiguring facial scar by an errant ax blade. Hoping for “a brand-new face,’’ she journeys by bus from her small town in North Carolina to the Tulsa, Okla., headquarters of a televangelist/faith healer. What she gets instead is a brand-new life. Violet’s travels across the American South bring her into the orbit of a pair of soldiers, one white, one African-American. It is the latter with whom Violet bonds; though her initial goal was physical metamorphosis, the change she ultimately undergoes is far more than skin-deep.
And what of dogmatic Katharine, of “Mothers and Sons’’? Notwithstanding her assertion about the impossibility of change, by the end of the play there’s a hint on Daly’s expressive face that Katharine just might have undergone a transformation of her own.