I love the Tony Awards for a lot of reasons, but I think I most love them for the fact that they think having Paul Shaffer introduce one of the original Weather Girls performing “It’s Rainin’ Men” with the cast of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (the musical) will be somehow the big, cool musical climax of the whole show. It’s such a charmingly naïve notion that the whole number—which is, let’s face it, almost unspeakably bizarre (again, particularly as the climax of this whole damn thing)—becomes somehow at once terrible and amazing, the very definition of camp. And that number capped off three hours that were clean, efficient, and remarkably unconcerned with appealing to people who don’t give a shit about Broadway. Yes, these were the best damn Tonys in years, even if it seemed like they only gave out two awards in the whole show.
I kid, of course, since the bulk of the Tonys were given out during the show, but, honestly, they seemed unusually clustered toward the beginning and end of the program. (Five Tonys were given out in the last 20 minutes, for some reason, after something like a half hour of no Tonys.) To a degree, the program was oddly designed—the montage of all of the seasons great plays played after the awards for Best Play and Best Revival Of A Play, for instance, presumably because the producers wanted to save the mega star wattage of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones for the latter part of the show—but everything about it ran so smoothly and worked so well that the little quibbles didn’t add up as they have in years past. And it all started with the host, Neil Patrick Harris.
Go up and have a look at the guy. There, he’s telling a truly awful joke about the play War Horse—“Ironically, those horse puppets are held together with glue”—and reveling both in the joke’s corniness and its weird darkness. His facial expressions tell you everything you need to know about his desire to put on a show. The production didn’t overuse Harris, but, crucially, it didn’t underuse him either. He started out the show with a bang, with a giant, entertaining production number about how Broadway “isn’t just for gays anymore” that was filled with great jokes and fun song-and-dance man moments. Then, he got out of the way for most of the night, popping back in every time the show needed a bit of juice. He came out to do 30 seconds worth of Spider-man musical jokes (with a big timer). He sang a duet/host-off with Hugh Jackman. He performed the role of Bobby in Company. He did a fine job with the Tonys two years ago, but this hosting job was an A across the board and an indication that, yeah, Harris is the guy you get if you want to combine cheeky humor with old-school hosting skills. He increasingly seems like he’s about the only guy who could save the Oscars from themselves and appeal to all demographics.
In another nice step up over last year’s show, the vast majority of the awards went to long-time theatre pros, which meant that very few of the awards speeches turned into lengthy laundry lists. The very first one—from Ellen Barkin, winning for the acclaimed revival of Larry Kramer’s A Normal Heart—quickly turned into such a laundry list (with the appropriate break to honor Kramer), but most of the speeches afterward were rock solid salutes to the Broadway community or long-lost sisters or parents or, uh, Sutton Foster’s dresser. (Foster's entire speech was effortlessly appealing, even in the "and thank you to... and thank you to..." bits, and the only thing keeping her from being the next Mary Tyler Moore is the fact that she seems damn devoted to Broadway, rather than film or TV.)
Noel Murray talked in this space a few years ago about how the Tonys are a nice way to check in on the New York theatre community every year, to see what, say, Angela Lansbury is up to (she’s clapping to Memphis and reading from index cards!), and watching Norbert Leo Butz and Sutton Foster win again and give charming speeches (again, the appeal of Foster here cannot be overestimated) or seeing Mark Rylance launch into yet another bizarre speech that’s actually a poem of some sort was a treat. Also, Frances McDormand accepted the “T” in her EGOT in a jean jacket over a dress, then talked about how the play she’s in will join the works of Chekhov someday. (I like David Lindsay-Abaire, too, Frances, but Jesus.) And the constant stream of Book Of Mormon folks—including Trey Parker and Matt Stone both getting out shout-outs to South Park fans—somehow never got tiring, either because they were so excited (Nikki James, winning best featured actress in a musical) or so taken aback by how far this experience had gone (Parker, Stone, and co-writer Robert Lopez, formerly of Avenue Q).
So the host was great, and the speeches were solid. But what makes the Tonys more entertaining than other awards shows are the production numbers. These are folks who put on a live show every single night, and this is a chance for them to bring that show to the entire nation. A great Tony performance can make or break a marginal show, and the people behind these little numbers know that, which means even more pressure than normal. For the most part, the production numbers this year were great. The two revival performances were of such solid songs—“Brotherhood Of Man” from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and “Anything Goes” from the musical of the same name—that it would have been hard to do wrong by them (though “Brotherhood” seemed to go on for forever and featured very stiff dancing in spots). But it was the new musicals that really provided the big kicks the show needed, with only the number from Sister Act (“Raise Your Voice”) being a total wash. (Weirdly, the show’s book is by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, who used to write for Cheers.)
The big hit, of course, was The Book Of Mormon, which made the gutsy choice to go with a solo number from what appears to be a fairly crucial point in the show. But it was a number that played to all of the show’s purported strengths—wickedly funny humor, a terrific cast, and a surprising earnestness about the benefits of religious faith—while still making the show seem like a must-see and not spoiling any surprises. Performed by Andrew Rannells, “I Believe” features his character going through a crisis of faith after seeing an African warlord do evil, awful things. But instead of indulging his crisis of faith, he digs deeper into his belief system, in a number that somehow makes his all-consuming faith seem kind of amazing and completely ridiculous (neatly twisting from things like God creating the world to Jesus having his own planet). It was a great number, and it was one of the best Tony performances in many, many years.
The other two musical performances were less immediately amazing, but at least one made me greatly curious to check out the show when it comes to San Diego next year. The Scottsboro Boys was nominated for 12 awards, despite closing in December, largely because it’s the last musical from the legendary team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. That many nominations for a closed musical never happens (my beloved Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson only got two), so I was hoping the trophies were due to something more than just residual love for the Kander/Ebb team. And, as it turns out, the number from the show—the opening of the whole show—was terrific, right behind Book Of Mormon in my affections and somehow laying out the entire complicated minstrel show staging of the musical without making too much of it. The final number—something about having to have rules from Catch Me If You Can—wasn’t nearly as great a song (I’m tired of the song stylings of Marc Shaiman), but it WAS a good excuse for Butz to do whatever he wanted, something he does well.
If I have a complaint about the show, it’s that the reliance on musical performances perhaps became too all encompassing. I didn’t mind seeing a brief number from Company, since Company’s awesome, and the concert version of the show is playing in movie theaters later this week, but did we really need to drop in again on Memphis, which inexplicably won best musical last year? (Seriously, is this show a really big hit or something? Or do the Tonys keep propping it up for no discernible reason?) Or what about that awful, awful Spider-man number, which felt like an outtake from the stage version of Footloose? And if we expand that even further to performances from all types of shows, then we’ll have to include that bland, disconnected John Leguizamo thing from early in the show or the usual shtick of Robin Williams (who is increasingly just a man who comes out at awards shows to SHOUT TOPICAL REFERENCES, then wait for laughter that never comes as loudly as he would like).
And my usual complaints about how the show can never figure out a good way to highlight the big plays—especially when you’ve got Chris Rock’s stage debut, something that features Mackenzie Crook as some kind of forest creature, Frances McDormand, and horse puppets to work with—stand. The producers couldn’t have let some sort of scene from War Horse play out? Those horse puppets were mesmerizing to watch, and it’d be cool to see the best-play-winning show that backs them up (which seems like the sort of thing people would weep endlessly at). While we’re discussing long-standing complaints, meanwhile, CBS was better about not hammering home how many BIG STARS were in the audience (perhaps because there weren’t many), but it continued to shoot too many of the musical numbers in difficult to understand close-ups, which robbed the dancing of some of its immediacy. Just pull back and show the fucking stage!
Yet at the same time, this was immensely entertaining, incredibly effective television. When the Tonys work, there’s really no other awards show that can touch them. The Grammys are too scattered, the Oscars too calcified and boring, and the Emmys too weird. The Tonys are so intent on proving to you that they have a right to exist that they largely sideline the awards and go straight to the entertaining stuff. And, hell, the speeches are usually entertaining, too. There were quibbles about this year’s Tonys, but more than any show in years, they made me excited to get back to New York in the fall and take in a show.
- Somebody named “Ultz” was nominated for one of the technical Tonys. I wish they had won.
- I love everything about Sutton Foster. EVERYTHING. And if you don’t, you are un-American.
- One of the better gags of the night came after the CBS announcer introduced Bono and The Edge as being the composers of the score for Spider-man, and Bono remarked that he used to be famous for being in U2.
- Another good gag: Whoopi Goldberg commenting on the weird number of films that starred her and have become musicals (including the upcoming musical of Ghost). Can a musical of Theodore Rex be far behind?
- I will reiterate my support for Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, which I saw on the opening night of previews and was one of the best Broadway experiences I've had. Shoulda been a bigger hit, and if the world is just, it will be a staple of regional theaters for years to come. (Plus Benjamin Walker's non-nomination in the actor category is ridiculous. At least he'll be playing Abraham Lincoln in that vampire movie.) Just thinking about the closing moment still gives me chills.
- Daniel Radcliffe is so desperate for the Broadway community’s acceptance that it’s kind of endearing, really. I also liked the way that he—clearly coached—sped the hell through the lead actress awards.
- For a show that crammed in this much STUFF, it was amazing that it came in mostly on time. I think it went a minute over, and that minute was Trey Parker speaking, which was fun. (Incidentally, his normal speaking voice is distractingly similar to Randy Marsh’s voice.)
- I kind of want Harris to have to host an awards show that comes in way under, like the famous Oscars that concluded with lots of celebrities dancing around on stage for over 10 minutes. (Yes, there was an Oscars that came in under time.) I think he would thrive under pressure.
- If you want to watch the whole show, some enterprising soul has uploaded it to YouTube. Catch it before the copyright police take it down!