Philly's big three Tony nominees are feeling that hometown hug

DEAR EVAN HANSEN, the Tony-nominated Broadway play with songs by Ardmore's Benj Pasek.

The 2017 Tony Award nominations were announced Tuesday morning, and three Broadway shows with strong Philly connections came up big.

Dear Evan Hansen, a musical with a score by Ardmore's La La Land Oscar winner Benj Pasek and his writing partner Justin Paul, received nine Tony nominations, including best musical and best score.

The musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 led the Tony field with 12 nominations — including one for University of the Arts grad Lucas Steele for best featured actor.

Among nonmusicals, the play Oslo, developed by Philadelphia's PlayPenn workshop on the Avenue of the Arts, had seven nominations, including best play for author J.T. Rogers.

So it's fair to say Philadelphians won't just be watching the Tony Awards ceremony June 11. They'll be infiltrating.

Pasek and Paul received their Oscar this year for the lyrics to "City of Stars" from La La Land. But Dear Evan Hansen is much more their creation, with a scenario based on the death of a student at Friends' Central School when Pasek (Class of '03) was a student there, and with songs written entirely by them.

"This show has been part of our lives for almost eight years," the duo said in a statement via their publicist, "so it’s wonderful to get to be a part of this season and celebrate these nominations."

A large, complicated play about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Oslo was considered such an award magnet that Paul Meshejian, founder and artistic director of PlayPenn, wrote author Rogers a prenomination email, saying, "Congratulations, brother, you're going to be famous."

Though founded in 2005 and having developed more than 100 plays, PlayPenn is having its first big Broadway success."To have had a hand in its development is an affirmation of the work we and our playwrights do," Meshejian said.

UArts grad Steele's nomination is for the supporting role of Anatole in Great Comet. He's been with the show – a loose, rock-music version of War and Peace  – through four versions since 2012.

Steele won a Lucille Lortel Award (best featured actor in a musical) for the Off-Broadway version and gained something of a Boston following when the show played at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. A 2001 graduate of UArts in musical theater, he also shared the stage with Alan Cumming in a 2006 revival of The Threepenny Opera at Studio 54 in New York.

Charles Gilbert, one of Steele's UArts professors, saw his former student perform in an early version of Great Comet when it played in a temporary tent structure in New York's Theater District. “I’m really delighted for him,” Gilbert said. "He is very fine in the show ... a very unique talent, with a high, distinctive tenor voice.”

On the personal level, the Tony nominations arrived on a day when at least one of the Philly-connected nominees needed them. Rogers has been laboring with a sinus infection.

On the Evan Hansen front, Pasek's niece Ellie (the daughter of his brother Josh) had a nice birthday present: She turned 2 on Tuesday.

The timing was good for Friends' Central School, too. A field trip of 17 drama students led by Terry Guerin (who worked closely with Pasek) make a long-planned visit to Dear Evan Hansen on Wednesday. They may also get a meet-and-greet with Pasek, now working with Paul on the forthcoming Hugh Jackman film musical The Greatest Showman.

The Tony Awards ceremony is 8 p.m. June 11 at Radio City Music Hall, hosted by Kevin Spacey and televised live by CBS --  which is a new world for the academic Pasek family.

Pasek's mother, noted Temple University psychology professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, was her son's date for the Oscars and the touching subject of his acceptance speech. At the time, she told the Inquirer  she'd bought her Oscar dress at Neiman Marcus in King of Prussia. And for the Tonys? "Let's hope the sale rack has something," she said.

"I've felt an enormous hug from from Philadelphia," she added. "People are just rooting for Benj and Justin."