The 63rd Tony Awards

As I’ve written before on this site, The Tony Awards are my absolute favorite televised awards show. Due largely the inherent showmanship of theater-folk, nearly every aspect of The Tonys—the presenters, the speeches, the musical numbers—outshine other awards shows like a supernova outshines a Lite-Brite. Plus, since I don’t live in New York—and have never even visited—The Tonys are my one chance each year to catch a glimpse of what’s going on at the heart of live theater, a medium that I love far more than I get to enjoy.

That said, the problem with The Tonys is that they have a longstanding relationship with CBS, a network that’s always seemed a little disgruntled about having to air three full hours of a program with limited audience appeal, when they could be running one of those shows about 30-year-old missing persons cases solved by Naval officers using the latest techniques in forensic science and mind-reading. There’s constantly a tension between The Tonys at its most hardcore—which involves handing out prizes to the obscure vets and no-name up-and-comers who are currently dazzling audiences of hundreds every night—and CBS’s “Is there any way we can get Will Smith involved with this?” commercial demands.

Tonight, I have to say, the CBS-ification of The Tonys seemed more prevalent (and obnoxious) than usual, though I still found a lot to enjoy. For example:

The Host.

Neil Patrick Harris didn’t get to do quite as much as I would’ve liked—which is the way things go with these hosting gigs—but he was charming and funny when he did get the spotlight, whether that involved “going off-prompter” so that he could say what The Tonys meant to him growing up in New Mexico, or whether it involved him urging everyone involved with the show to move as quickly as possible so that James Gandolfini, Anne Hathaway and Will Ferrell could get to their after-parties. (“They’re in the movies,” he whispered.) A lot of NPH’s jokes weren’t so great, but he delivered them with panache, even getting a laugh out of the dopey idea of introducing scratch-and-sniff to Broadway. (“Let’s see what Mary Poppins smells like….”) And Harris had two clear highlights: Mocking Jeremy Piven’s Speed-The-Plow sushi-excuse, and summing-up the show to the tune of “Tonight,” as seen in the clip below.

The Presenters and Speeches.

Sometimes I think I tune into The Tonys every year so I can get my annual dose of Bebe Neuwirth, Harvey Fierstein, David Hyde Pierce, Kristin Chenoweth, Audra McDonald, Angela Lansbury, Liza Minnelli and Frank Langella.

Langella delivered one of the night’s best moments when he took a moment before introducing the nominees to pull out a full-page FYC ad for his Broadway run of A Man For All Seasons, and to wonder how The Tony voters could’ve missed it. “Although I did think Geoffrey Rush was nice in that play,” Langella said, referring to Rush’s win earlier that night for Exit The King. (And speaking of Rush, he had arguably the night’s best acceptance speech, which included the line, “French existential absurdist tragicomedy rocks!”)

Lansbury and Minnelli were both winners tonight—the former as Best Featured Actress in Blithe Spirit, and the latter for Best Special Theatrical Event for Liza’s At The Palace…!—though only Lansbury seemed in full grasp of her faculties. Minnelli started to give a short “thank you” and then launched into a digressive speech that actually got her played-off by the orchestra. (Some were appalled by this, but I think the show’s director realized that if you don’t stop Liza early, she’s liable to launch into “Ring Them Bells” before she’s through.)

Other noteworthy winners included the three kids who shared an award for taking turns playing the lead in Billy Elliot (David Alvarez, Kiril Kulish, and Trent Kowalik), and Gregory Jbara, who won for Featured Actor in Billy Elliot and brought his wife on stage with him, ostensibly to thank her for her support but more likely to show off her prodigious rack.

Meanwhile, on the presenter side, Will Ferrell was reasonably funny but looked a little out-of-place, while Carrie Fisher appeared more notably puffed-up since her stint as a judge on On The Lot, and James Gandolfini got off an amusing line when he noted, “For the record, Shrek and I are no relation.” (Incidentally, when the Tonys aired two years ago, it was up against the final episode of The Sopranos, in which Gandolfini played a character named Tony. Coincidence?)

The Performances.

Here’s where my love affair with The Tonys begins to break down a little, because while everyone who crossed the stage made reference to Broadway’s “glorious season”—and while the headlines these past few weeks have been about the resurgence at the Broadway box office—based on the excerpts I saw tonight, Broadway kind of stunk it up in ’08-’09. The non-singing/non-dancing productions—the plays, in other words—looked reasonably entertaining and provocative based on the 10-second snippets CBS allowed the Tony producers to air, though they also all seemed more like aftershow dinnertime conversation-starters than real soulful, life-changing experiences. (But again, CBS didn’t give me much to go on.)

On the musical end, compared to last year’s show—which introduced me to Passing Strange and In The Heights—this year’s Tonys spotlighted musicals I think I’d like to spend the rest of my life avoiding. The revivals of Guys & Dolls and Hair looked bland and irrelevant (though the number from the revamped West Side Story had some kick, especially for fans of upskirt shots), while Shrek The Musical reminded me once again why I’ve never liked any of those movies. When the heroes are as obnoxious and annoying as the villains, you’re in for a long night of entertainment. I will say though that the makeup and effect in Shrek appeared pretty impressive, and I was mildly amused by the moment during the Hair performance when the cast came into the audience and the lead actor nearly sat on James Gandolfini’s lap. (A note to the Hair producers, though: You just gave millions of Social Anxiety Disorder sufferers a reason not to come to your play.)

I could tell nothing about Billy Elliot from the song-free number performed on the Tony stage, and while Rock Of Ages looked like it might be a fun night out, the “let’s come up with an excuse to Broadway-fy a bunch of ‘80s arena-rock songs” concept seemed to me especially crass. Also, Mr. Tony-director, if someone’s going to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” on your stage, that’s when you want to cut to James Gandolfini.

The musical that came off the best tonight was Next To Normal, which has an off-putting premise—it’s about a suburban family torn apart by a mother's bipolar disorder—but which in its performance excerpt looked tuneful and electrifying. I wasn’t moved enough to want to order the Original Cast Album, but I do hope the show has some afterlife once its Broadway run is done.

The Staging.

Sadly, I don’t have a whole lot positive to say about the actual production of tonight’s Tonys. The opening medley was a mess, marred by sound problems and a lack of proper context for what we were seeing on the screen. There were technical snafus all night, including shots of cameramen and stagehands, and moments where the audience was more audible than the performers, and a complete microphone breakdown during Guys & Dolls’ big number. After Next To Normal won Best Original Score, the director inexplicably cut to one of the category’s losers, Dolly Parton, as she milled around backstage. After Roger Robinson won Best Featured Actor In A Play for Joe Turner’s Come And Gone, we could hear him onstage talking with presenter Jane Fonda about whether she’d seen the show well before he stepped to the microphone to accept. It was a rough night all around.

I’d chalk it up to theater people not knowing how to produce TV, but since I’ve seen plenty of great Tony broadcasts in the past, that doesn’t really fly. Instead, I blame the emphasis on razzle-dazzle and hurry-up—two concepts that don’t usually co-exist peacefully. CBS wants The Tonys to wow us and then to get the hell off the air, but as Broadway producers know, you can’t effectively knock ‘em dead unless you take the time to set ‘em up.

Grade: B-

Stray Observations:

-The “highlights from touring companies” segments were controversial before tonight's Tonys aired, and for good reason. While it makes sense from a commercial perspective to promise the viewing audience performances from popular shows like Mamma Mia, Legally Blonde and Jersey Boys, the performances weren’t exactly showstoppers, and they stole time that could’ve been better given over to fresher productions.

-Stephen Daldry—who has never not been nominated for an Oscar for a feature film he’s directed—won his second Tony tonight. He’s becoming the most celebrated artist of our time. And yet he gave a terrible acceptance speech when he won Best Direction for Billy Elliot, blanking on the names of his cast, and saying “Oh I want to thank the crew, actually,” as though such a sentiment were surprising and possibly unwarranted.

-God Of Carnage playwright Yasmina Reza is, how you say, French.

-From now on I will never say “Marcia Gay Harden” again, but will only say “Marcia Gay Harden: God Of Carnage.”

-The full list of winners is available here

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