Best Director of a Musical deja vu: Is Scott Ellis (‘Tootsie’) steering this Tony race towards another shocking upset?

Most pundits agree that the race for Best Director of a Musical is coming down to Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) vs. Daniel Fish (“Oklahoma!”). But the inclusion of Scott Ellis (“Tootsie”) is giving me a major flashback to the crazy race of 2017.

Both Chavkin and Fish make perfect best director winners. Chavkin has been directly involved with the development of “Hadestown.” She’s even credited as a co-developer. Her vision has helped guide the musical from Off-Broadway, to Canada, to London, as the show evolved from an immersive song cycle into a visceral experience under a Broadway proscenium. Her use of movement and style sweeps the audience into an intoxicating love story and drags them down to an industrial take on hell.

Fish took one of Rodger and Hammerstein’s beloved classics and ripped it apart. Gone are legit soprano voices and sweeping orchestrals. In their place are voices with twang and grit, singing along to a bluegrass band. He set his version of “Oklahoma!” in a bare bones meeting hall, with the audience surrounding the performers. In pulling apart the narrative and bringing viewers close to the action, Fish forces the audience to take heed of the text, and all the horrifying implications that lay under the sunny surface.

These are the most “obvious” instances of direction in a musical this year. Our history with awards shows tells us that the most direction wins, and therefore Chavkin and Fish will be in an epic fight to the finish. But not so fast.

We’ve seen this scenario upended before in 2017. There were two obvious choices for Director of a Musical then as well. Coincidentally, it also involved Rachel Chavkin. She was up for her immersive staging “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.” Her challenger was Broadway vet Michael Greif with Best Musical frontrunner “Dear Evan Hansen.” Chavkin tore apart the house of the Imperial Theatre, creating runways and playing spaces so her actors could cavort among the audience. Greif sent his actors through a dazzling world of technological addiction and overload (and he surely retained sympathy for losing his Best Director bid for “Rent”).

Awards watchers agonized over which of the two directors would take home the Tony. But when the envelope was opened, neither of their names were called. Christopher Ashley was the surprise winner for “Come From Away.” His concept for that musical focused on creating a strong ensemble actors and charting their subtle shifts as they bounced between multiple roles.

Ashley likely prevailed for two reasons. First, voters loved “Come From Away” but had few places to reward it. Many pundits thought the reward would be Book of a Musical, but we picked the wrong category. Second, Ashley is a longstanding fixture of the New York theater scene as director and producer. His two previous nominations (including one for his direction of Best Musical winner “Memphis”) made him overdue for recognition.

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This year, Scott Ellis is in a similar position. He has long been a sought after director and his bid for “Tootsie” marks his ninth nomination. With eight previous losses, he is certainly overdue for some Tony love. After all, this is the man who gave us celebrated revivals of “She Loves Me” (1994 and 2016), “1776,”  and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” “Tootsie” garnered an impressive 11 nominations but if voters are caught up with the originality behind “Hadestown,” they will start ticking boxes and have few spaces to throw a bone to “Tootsie.” That sounds an awful lot like the scenario for “Come From Away.”

Ellis also directed the revival of “Kiss Me, Kate” this season. He was not nominated for that show, but his lack of dueling nominations means that his supporters won’t be splitting votes between his two projects. The direction, of course, is worthy of praise. In the wake of #metoo, an adaptation of “Tootsie” could have ended up horribly tone deaf. But Ellis steers the ship in the right direction, with a sense of cultural awareness and a cast of likable characters. Also: it’s fun! “Tootsie” is crafted like a classic broad musical comedy. It puts a smile on everyone’s face. That tone lies in drastic contrast from the underworld of “Hadestown” or the disturbing blood-soaked finale of “Oklahoma!” If voters are looking for a place to reward the feel-good “Tootsie,” precedent says Scott Ellis may be the beneficiary of that good-will.

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