(Above: This scene from Suffs depicts the day in March 1913 when 5,000 women marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to demand the right to vote. The seven decades-long Women’s Suffrage Movement culminated in 1920 in ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote. The play has been nominated for six Tony awards: Best Musical; Best C0stume Design in a Musical; Best Featured Actress in a Musical; Best Direction in a Musical; Best Original Score; and Best Book (script and song lyrics) in a Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus)

By Janelle Hartman

(Native Eugenean and former Register-Guard reporter Janelle Hartman has been making regular trips to New York City since moving to the Washington, D.C. area more than 20 years ago. Broadway is her hobby.)

For years as the Tony Awards drew near each spring, I’d scroll the Broadway listings in the back of a Playbill with a gleeful chorus of “Saw it, saw it, saw it!” running through my head.

By the pricey standards of New York City, those were the days of relative sanity. Save for the pandemic, I took full and frequent advantage over my first two decades on the East Coast, honing a bang-for-the-buck strategy for theater tickets, hotel rooms and my Amtrak ride from Washington, D.C.

My strategy hasn’t changed, but the sticker shock has. Indulging my Broadway habit these days means making the most of fewer trips up and back. Which is why I crammed six nominated plays and musicals into the span of four days at the end of May.

Also, and this is key, because it would have killed me to watch the 77th annual Tonys on Sunday night having seen only a paltry three of the 2023-24 productions up for awards.

My speed round ranged from a musical nominated for a single Tony to a play vying for 13. It was such a diverse assortment that if six people asked, “What should I see?” I might recommend six different shows.

My least favorite was still entertaining. It is Broadway, after all. Even a so-so show can delight you along the way:  a stellar supporting actor, creative sets, a memorable song.

Whatever surprises and disappointments the Tonys deliver each June, the awards themselves don’t guarantee you’ll like a show, any more than negative reviews mean you won’t.

I’m happy to leave questions of quality and best/worst lists to the critics. For me, it’s all about connecting with a show. Was it biting satire with nonstop laughs? A story of struggle and triumph that brought on tears? A musical with showstoppers that swallowed me whole? A one-person play that left me gaping at the actor’s talent? Did I learn something, gain perspective? Bottom line: How did it make me think and feel?

The trouble with seeing four musicals and two plays back to back — three matinees, three evenings — was that it left me little time and bandwidth in between to reflect on each one. But as I mulled them over for days afterwards, I hit on a way to put them in order: standing ovations. Not if I rose to my feet for the curtain call, but how quickly. And I do stand, almost always, as harshly as the theater police on the Broadway message boards condemn people like me for it.

So, in order of standing Os, with a tally of nominations:

  • Suffs (6): Instantly! As in the script’s last syllable still hanging in the air.
  • Enemy of the People (5): Almost instantly; well deserved, and the intimate Circle-in-the-Square setting lends itself to it.
  • Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club (9): Swiftly, but with a heavy heart; London/Broadway’s darkest Cabaret yet.
  • The Outsiders (12): A beat behind the audience to salute the superb production even if it fell into the “like-not-love” category for me.
  • Stereophonic (13): Same, but with an extra moment to recover from three-plus hours in the theater.
  • The Great Gatsby (1): Tagged along with the middle wave of the audience, recognizing effort and eye candy more than execution.

Ironically, Suffs, at the top of the list, was the only ticket I hadn’t bought weeks earlier. I was sold on the idea of a musical history of the Suffragist movement but wavered between now or later as I considered various Tony nominees for my remaining Thursday night slot.

There’s a battle-plan aspect to my ticket-buying, a flurry of research and calculations for each trip involving a crazy number of windows open on Safari and Chrome. I study the available seating for each performance of each show for the days I’ll be in the city, identifying the best seats for the least money. Besides ticket sites, I hop off and on A View from My Seat and, if it’s a close call between shows, agonize over Broadway message boards, inserting random opinions into the price/view equation.

I hunt for discounts that once were plentiful and virtually unrestricted. Also, largely unknown. My reporter DNA made me an evangelist about spreading the word. I hated to see people paying full price when a simple code could save them 20-40% on all but the hottest shows — and without standing in long lines at the TKTS booth.

Nothing is simple anymore on Broadway but there are still deals to be had. Snagging one of few remaining $69 balcony seats for Suffs that Thursday night was one of them. From the second-to-last row, I had a perfect view of an arguably perfect show.

It wasn’t just me. The audience, feeling like a sisterhood, was in rapture. Everything worked, from the cast to the sets to the music and dialogue that told the riveting story of the final seven years of the decades-long battle for women’s voting rights.

I was chagrined to realize — as I heard other women say — how much I didn’t know about the long and eventually brutal fight. The depth of their sacrifice as the Suffragists marched toward the 19th Amendment was gut-wrenching.

I’m confident that every performance is empowering. But the timing of mine was unique, as my chat with a hotel manager at breakfast the next morning affirmed. Telling me how much he and his wife loved Suffs, he added, “I bet the audience was even more on fire last night.” I smiled. ”100 percent,” I responded instinctively.

From the start, the theater was abuzz in a way that suggested I wasn’t the only one whose spirits were buoyed by the breaking news out of a Lower Manhattan courthouse two hours earlier. And the collective mood only got better, bursting into contagious joy by the time the cast took its bows.

It was the reverse of what I’d experienced that afternoon at Cabaret, a journey that began with delight and ended in despair, as is inevitable. The sublime parody of The Producers notwithstanding, watching hate, cruelty and the rise of Nazism unfold on stage is going to put knots in the stomachs of anyone with a conscience.

The new London transfer, officially Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, was intended to be more disturbing than its predecessors, and it succeeded. But that wasn’t solely due to the wealth of talent on stage and off. Undeniably, this revival’s power to chill its audience is magnified by how much closer to home it hits.

The payoff for moments of distress is Cabaret’s mesmerizing songbook. From the first spine-tingling drumroll of Willkommen, Kander and Ebb’s music and lyrics are as thrilling as ever and spectacularly sung.

While the revival can be dazzling, it is, by design, more squalid than earlier revivals at Studio 54. The Kit Kat girls are seedier, the emcee more sinister, the contortions more sexually explicit. Where it falls on the scale between salacious and debauched is in the eye of the beholder.

What’s changed most dramatically is the performance space.  The magnificent (if infamous) Studio 54 removed front orchestra seats to make room for cabaret tables and chairs, heightening the ambience. The reimagined August Wilson Theatre is wholly transformed.

Gone are the proscenium arch and red velvet curtain, replaced with a circular stage ringed by floor seating with tables and drink service. Traditional seating — more comfortable than most — rises above and around it.

The ticket includes a seductive pre-show, and you’re messaged repeatedly to arrive early and soak up the atmosphere. More cynically, it’s an extra hour to entice you with specialty drinks and food at exorbitant prices. I made do with a free shot of warm cherry liquor.

A scantily dressed woman holding a tray of the burgundy liquid offered a glass as soon as I stepped through a back door into a dark hallway. You get there by way of an alley, evoking guests arriving at underground clubs in early 1930s Berlin.

While the show’s gallery gives you a sense of the setup, producers have managed to keep most images of the unique interior out of the public domain. Theatergoers are almost always banned from taking photos inside Broadway theaters. But the Cabaret team is the most militant I’ve seen, slapping stickers over the cameras of every phone as you enter. “It’ll come right off,” the cheerful young man told me. Well, kinda.

Moving on the other shows, more succinctly:

Enemy of the People, written in Norway in 1882, is as unnerving and relevant as Cabaret. The masterful Jeremy Strong of Succession fame stars as a 19th-century doctor silenced, beaten, and literally branded an enemy of the people when he discovers that his town’s mineral baths are contaminated — just as investors are converting the supposedly healing waters into a profit-making spa. The venom spewed, lies told, and harm done to a good man in a 142-year-old play was so analogous to the pandemic and war on science that it felt surreal. The limited run ends June 23 but any traveling or local production would be worth seeing.

The Outsiders was, in a word, flawless. From the acting and direction to the sets and song and dance, I don’t know how S.E. Hinton’s classic 1967 novel could have been better told in musical form. And I applauded it vigorously. It’s just that the story itself didn’t grab me in a lasting way, maybe because coming-of-age parables land differently when you haven’t been a teenager for, well, a while. Once its rights are available, The Outsiders will undoubtedly thrive as a high school production.

Stereophonic, a play with music and the most-nominated play in Tony history, lets its audience spy on a Bay Area studio where a young band (modeled on Fleetwood Mac) is on the verge of breakout success in 1976. Every detail is meticulous, from the soundboard and glassed-in recording space to the beanbag chairs and bell bottoms. The cast is sensational and there’s not a false note in their characters’ angst, egos, demons and revelations. But, mirroring an argument between the coupled singer/songwriter and lead guitarist about cutting lyrics from a too-long song, the editor in me says Stereophonic could have been just as powerful without running three hours and 10 minutes. Nevertheless, expect it to have a very good night Sunday.

The Great Gatsby is an eyeful — glamorous sets, a vintage Rolls Royce and Pierce Arrow coupe rolling in and out of scenes, and what’s not to like about tap dancers in bejeweled flapper dresses? (Notably, Gatsby’s lone nomination is for costume design.) People who remember the novel better than I do have bitterly complained online about the show’s many liberties. For me, it’s the kind of big, splashy musical I’m primed to love, and I enjoyed a lot about it. But, ultimately, the parts didn’t add up to a whole that works. Still, it’s got the potential for success as a road show.

Of the three other nominees I’ve seen, my favorite was Merrily We Roll Along, a brilliant revival of Stephen Sondheim’s legendary flop. The original ran for 16 performances in 1981; the revival is up for seven Tonys. Demand was so high last fall that the best I could do was a $157 upper balcony seat for the Christmas Eve matinee. Over a couple of trips, I also saw Gutenberg! The Musical! and Sarah Paulson’s bravura performance in Appropriate, two other red-hot tickets for a spell.

The hyperlinks throughout take you to each show’s official website, some with clips. But there’s no better way to get a taste of the season at large than by tuning in to CBS at 8 p.m. Sunday at tonyawards.com or streaming the Tonys any time on Paramount.

If you’re planning a fall visit, Broadway’s calendar includes the new comedy Death Becomes Her, an anticipated musical about Tammy Faye Baker and revivals of Gypsy, Our Town, and Sunset Boulevard.

But it’s an easy bet that Suffs will still be playing. Run, don’t walk.

Looking for guidance on shows, ticket prices, seats or anything else related to Broadway or visiting NYC? Drop Janelle a line at oregonduck86@yahoo.com.

(Above: Playbills from six of the 2023-24 Broadway shows that writer Janelle Hartman saw during the season. Collectively, the four musicals and two plays have been nominated for 46 Tony Awards, which will be presented on Sunday, June 16, 2024.)