Monday, June 11, 2012

The Tony Wrap-Up: Lackluster Was the Name of the Game

How do you solve a problem like the Tonys?

Theater people love them. They live for this one night. But the pool that is "theater people" seems to be shrinking, if the Tony Awards ratings on TV, the fact that they've now cut half the awards and don't show them to us on our screens, and all the hoops they're jumping through to try to make the evening work for the film and TV world are any indications. (The way "Smash" has been treated is also evidence that the people at the top of the TV pyramid do not respect Broadway, but that's a discussion for another day.)

My first problem: They keep giving us Neil Patrick Harris. Lots and lots of Neil Patrick Harris. Don't get me wrong -- I like NPH. I was there with everybody else lauding him in the past for bringing pizzazz, good spirits and what is presumably a high Q score to an event which sometimes plays as too much of an insider game for Middle America.

Still, with Broadway performers like Christian Borle, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Audra McDonald, Matthew Morrison, Cynthia Nixon, Denis O'Hare, Mary Louise Parker, Sara Ramirez  and Vanessa Williams playing high-profile roles on high-profile TV shows, it's not like Broadway isn't already on Middle America's TV sets. (And Sutton Foster, more Broadway royalty, will be joining that group tonight, in her own starring role on TV in ABC Family's "Bunheads." More about "Bunheads" tomorrow...)

Meanwhile, so many TV and film stars have gone the other direction, putting themselves on stage to keep the box office going, that Harry Potter, a kid from "Glee" and a Jonas Brother all played J. Pierrepoint Finch in Broadway's "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" within the space of a month, hitting the film/TV/pop music trifecta.

All of that is my way of saying that Neil Patrick Harris may be charming, but he isn't necessary to bridge the TV/Broadway gap anymore. And what once played as fresh and funny from NPH came off more tired and self-serving for me in this year's Tony broadcast. So the show opened with the fresh-faced Mormon boys from "The Book of Mormon," last year's winner for Best Musical, knocking on stars' doors, only to be followed up by a second opening number with Harris lamenting the fact that life isn't more like a musical. It was okay, but who needs two opening numbers?

Then he had another musical number at the mid-point, and a third to wrap up the show. And he got to hang from the rafters as a scene-stealer while Angela Lansbury and Ted Chapin sped through the American Theatre Wing explanation we hear every year. Angela Lansbury does not need Neil Patrick Harris to steal her focus or spice up her appearance, no matter what she's delivering.

Amanda Seyfried at the Tonys
My second problem: Half the presenters were people with minimal connection to Broadway. Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Josh Groban, Tyler Perry, Jessica Chastain, James Marsden, Sheryl Crow, I'm looking at you. If the only people watching are real Broadway enthusiasts, then why not give them presenters like Tommy Tune (who owns the record for most individual Tony awards), Julie Harris (who owns the record for most nominations), Harvey Fierstein, Barbara Cook, Boyd Gaines, Sutton Foster, Bobby Cannavale, Joe Mantello, Kathleen Chalfant, Joel Grey, Donna Murphy, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Victoria Clark, Robert Sean Leonard, Laura Benanti, Howard McGillin... And I could go on all night. Angela Lansbury, Mandy Patinkin, Patti Lupone and Bernadette Peters were a step in the right direction, but... More Broadway stars, please.

My third problem: They didn't give "Follies," my favorite musical ever, the Best Revival of a Musical award, instead handing it over to what is being called "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," even though it is the least Gershwin (or DuBose and Dorothy Heyward) version of "Porgy and Bess" ever. The orchestrations were changed, the book was diced and spliced, the recitatives were excised in favor of new dialogue from Suzan-Lori Parks, Porgy's goat-cart was taken so he could have a limp and a new, more self-actualized storyline... And no matter whether the Gershwin estate approved it, that's not "Porgy and Bess." Everyone I know who has seen it has said that Audra McDonald, the one-woman Tony machine, was spectacular, and deserved her award for Leading Actress in a Musical. But... That's still not "Porgy and Bess" and it shouldn't be winning awards for being a revival when it's not a revival, it's a whole new show.

Of course there's no way to stop the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League and their voters from giving their awards to whoever they feel like. That's part of the game in any awards show, where disgruntled fans of other shows or other performers swear and throw things at the TV when their faves are bypassed. So you can regard my third problem as my chance to vent about my beloved "Follies" being overlooked again and leave it at that, if you really want to.

My fourth problem: The pieces from nominated shows didn't make me want to hop a plane to Broadway tomorrow. The scenes shown on the Tony Awards show usually get me all fired up to get to New York immediately, before the nominated works close or their stars move on. But the awful, screechy and incomprehensible power trio from "Ghost," the bizarre Matthew Broderick number from "Nice Work If You Can Get It," wherein he looked bloated and uncomfortable as he half-heartedly warbled "Sweet and Lowdown," one of my favorite songs, and flung his hair around with some chorus girls, the muddled bits of "Peter and the Starcatcher," which is from all reports a terrific show but certainly didn't display what's good about it here, the odd choices for numbers from "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Godspell," Ricky Martin and Elena Rogers sounding none-too-good for "Evita," and James Corden, who later won the Best Actor in a Play award for "One Man, Two Guvnors," rolling around on the floor like Mary Lou Retton in the 1984 Olympics... Well, it made me want to stay away, not see those shows.

Unfortunately, there was too little of "Clybourne Park" or the Tony-winning parts of "Nice Work If You Can Get It," (i.e. Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye) to get much idea of whether I want to see them or not. All in all, only Steve Kazee and the "Once" cast, the spiffy dance number from "Newsies" and Nina Arianda's acceptance speech for "Venus in Fur" made Broadway look appealing.

And you wonder why the Tony Awards get so little coverage.

As a side-note, if I were being all Central Illinois-centric, I would've led with the fact that all three of the shows featuring alumni from our area universities had good nights. "Clybourne Park," with U of I's Crystal A. Dickinson and Brandon Dirden in the cast, won Best Play, while "Newsies," featuring IWU's Evan Kasprzak, took home Tonys for its score and choreography. IWU's Bryonha Parham is part of the "Porgy and Bess" I already told you about, and my unhappiness over its award for Best Revival has nothing to do with Parham, who has been singled out for her vocal chops in the role of Serena.

The big winner of the night, however, was "Once," a small, intimate musical about a street performer and a girl he meets one night in Dublin, based on the movie of the same name. "Once" was named Best Musical and took awards for lead actor Steve Kazee and director John Tiffany, as well as for its book, lights, sound, orchestrations, and the warm Irish pub set designed by the fabulous Bob Crowley.


  1. Well said, Julie. I was right in there with the swearing when "Follies" didn't win YET AGAIN. I guess it just never will.

    I adore NPH. But I think it's time for the Tonys to give him a rest and look elsewhere, for a year's sabbatical at least. He and his writers seem to be resting on their laurels a bit now, figuring that anything he does is automatically awesome, whereas he benefits from sharp and careful writing, just like anybody else. Of his 3 songs, the final one (summing up the evening while referring to going overtime) is the only one that landed for me.

    Awards I was happy about (acknowledging that I haven't seen "Once" -- I certainly have nothing against it and may love it when I see it):
    Mike Nichols for directing "Death of a Salesman" (though he is, alas, starting to seem old and frail) and that play itself winning Best Revival.
    Gregg Barnes for the "Follies" costumes.
    Bob Crowley for the set of "Once" (because he's Bob Crowley, for heaven's sake, he makes magic).
    Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye for their featured roles in "Nice Work If You Can Get It."
    Christian Borle, featured role in "Peter and the Starcatcher."
    Nina Arianda, leading role in "Venus in Fur."
    That's it, I think.

  2. I've now read that the ratings were the lowest in 21 years. That makes me sad, but I can't say I don't understand. Broadway and New York are like Mars to a lot of people, and no matter how many Jonases and Grobans they stuff the show with, it just doesn't work. It makes it a show that NOBODY likes, not the people who love Broadway and want to see the ephemeral performances captured for a brief moment (I still remember seeing a snippet of Les Liaisons Dangereuses with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan dressed all in white and thinking, I HAVE TO GET THERE AND SEE THAT!) or the people only there to look at the TV stars who are bored silly by the rest and have no clue what's going on. And the way the musical numbers were structured made it all so unattractive. Especially that Ghost thing. My word, that was tragic!

  3. A few little oddities about the nominations, for those who like such things:

    Jan Maxwell now joins 3 others in having been nominated in all 4 acting categories (Leading/Featured, Play/Musical). The others? Wait for it... Angela Lansbury (easy to surmise), Boyd Gaines (a regular Tony-watcher can probably predict that), Raul Esparza (this surprised me, and I'm a fan so I should have realized).

    "Leap of Faith" has a few melancholy distinctions: first Best Musical nominee to have NO other noms since "Swinging on a Star" (1996). One of the shortest runs for a Best Musical nominee, 19. (But beat out by "Amour," Julie!) One of few to close BETWEEN being nominated and the Tony ceremony (last previous one was "Skyscraper," 1966.)''

  4. I love your bits of trivia, Jon! Tommy Tune has also won in four different categories, but his include two non-acting areas (director, choreographer) with the two acting (leading, featured) and all in musicals, I think, so his achievement is different. But nine Tonys makes him special, still!

    Reminding me of "Amour" makes me sad for Norm Lewis, that that's on his resume when he is so very good and did not deserve that. But then, neither did Melissa Errico or Christopher Fitzgerald or Malcolm Gets or anybody else. Oh well. Betty Buckley didn't let "Carrie" get her down.