Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's Rather Gaudy, But It's Also Rather Grand

This year's Tony Awards have come and gone, with my having seen none of the nominated shows (not even the Ragtime revival which originated at the Kennedy Center in DC). But of course, not having seen any of the shows is no reason for me to lack opinions on the awards, right?

I'll start right up front by commending Sean Hayes, whom I thought was a charming and self-effacing host. I've heard from other quarters that some folks thought he was subdued (he was) and thus boring, but I did not think that was the case. This guy has matured a bit since his uncontrolled performance on Will and Grace, and he allowed his humor on the Tonys to be, well, a little less flamboyant. He was still willing to go all out for a laugh; I particularly enjoyed his sight gags dressed as Little Orphan Annie and Spiderman, both of whom are headed to Broadway in the next few years.

I really appreciated the classy, subtle way he addressed the recent controversy of which he was the center. I wrote about that Newsweek article here, the one which claimed gay actors can never portray heterosexual characters convincingly; the writer used Sean Hayes as exhibit A. Hayes and his Promises, Promises cohort Kristin Chenoweth pricked that elephant in the room with a French kiss that would be worthy of Al and Tipper Gore, before that hooker entered the picture.

While on the topic of Chenoweth, I loved the fact that the Tony writers had some fun with the high-profile NON- nominees. Kristin beautifully executed a dead faint (all the way to the floor, in a 60s style miniskirt which paid tribute to her current role), after being informed she received no nomination for her work in Promises, Promises. Even more hilariously, Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane were enlisted to present the awards in the categories in which they were completely overlooked. Their show, The Addams Family, received wretched reviews, but appears to be one of those unusual, bullet-proof shows which can withstand potshots from the critics; like Mama Mia and Wicked before it, their show is a smash, despite the critics' rotten reception.

As for the performances in the Tonys show, well, I am showing my lack of interest in pop culture by admitting that I have never even heard of Green Day, the musical group which was given such a buttload of airtime. The show based on their music, American Idiot, was excerpted, and then the actual group was also given a concert section. This was part of the producers' attempt to attract, and retain, a younger audience to the broadcast; the entire opening sequence of this year's Tonys consisted of pop tunes which are currently finding a home on Broadway. (It seems their efforts were in vain, as ratings were down from last year, by about half a million viewers.)

In another effort to attract younger viewers, the producers presented two musical performers who weren't anywhere near Broadway this season, Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele from Glee. I am not a slavish fan of that very uneven show, but the producers were very smart to present performances by the only two of the show's players who have legitimate Broadway cred. Michele was in the original Spring Awakening, and Morrison was a chorus boy and leading man for years before his big break on the small screen. They each sang a number from Broadway's glory days, and both gave show-stopping performances (interestingly, though it was not mentioned on the program, both actors chose songs composed by Broadway legend Jule Styne. I wonder how many of Green Day's songs will be reprised on the Tony broadcast 50 years from now...?).

Morrison displayed his gypsy roots with an active rendition of "All I Need is the Girl" (so active that he could be heard panting a bit during the strenuous choreography. But when he had to hold the note, even in the midst of an showy dance move, he did so. He gets points from me for declining to lip sync, and performing the number live). His song was directly followed by Lea Michele's belting of the classic "Don't Rain on My Parade." She also did a fab job, and there are those who consider her performance to be an ad-hoc audition for the revival of Funny Girl being planned for Broadway's 2012 season. (I hope Lea considers the fact that any major revival of that marginal work will be competing with Barbra Streisand's Oscar winning portrayal of 40 years ago, a performance so iconic that no major revival of Funny Girl has been successful.)

As long as I am chattering on about the performances on this year's Tony broadcast, I have to mention the laconic rendition of "Send in the Clowns" delivered by Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose performance has elicited universal derision.

I didn't much like it either, but I give Ms. Z-J the benefit of the doubt, and chalk the performance up to some unwise character choices. "Send in the Clowns" is Stephen Sondheim's best known song, and has appeared on over 900 recordings. Both Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins had huge hits with the tune, so it is often forgotten that, originally, Sondheim wrote the thing for an actress who could not sustain notes, Glynis Johns.

Z-J's performance in the A Little Night Music revival received lukewarm praise from the critics, but her star power, along with that of Angela Lansbury, has sustained the box office. But even Catherine herself was clearly shocked when she won the Best Actress Tony the other night. The award which did not shock anybody, was the one given to the Best Actor in a Musical. Douglas Hodge, the Brit who is at the center of the La Cage Aux Folles revival, has apparently downplayed the flamboyant aspects of his role, and discovered an actual human being underneath. This quieter interpretation was very much on display in the song presented on the Tony Awards. Rather than presenting one of the flashier nightclub numbers, producers chose to let Hodge, dressed rather dowdily in a business suit, reveal his terrific musical acumen by underplaying the flair. I absolutely loved it.

I know I've blathered on enough, but I have to point out two more Tony moments which were highlights for me. Denzel Washington was one of half a dozen superstars to grace the Broadway boards this season (Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, and Scarlett Johansson were also in residence for a while), and he won a Tony for his efforts. He apparently deserved his award, but his acceptance speech left a bit to be desired. He could not name the organization which was bestowing his award; I wonder if he was a bit thrown by the fact that his costar, Viola Davis, had won her own award only moments before. During her heartfelt speech, she mentioned everybody from God to her parents to the backstage crew, but failed to mention her famous costar.

Finally, I was a bit disappointed that Angela Lansbury did not win the award which would have put her in the history books. She is currently tied with Julie Harris as the performer to have won the most Tonys; it's possible this was her last chance to break that tie. Ah well, the woman who won in her place, Katie Finneran of the Promises, Promises revival, is clearly well-respected, and from all accounts, gave a brief but hilarious performance in her show.

And her tearful acceptance speech really struck a chord with me. She encouraged any kid who was watching, and who wanted to make a career in the theatre, to ignore protestations from the outside, and to follow their dream. I heard a similar speech from the Tony stage when I was a kid, delivered by a young Tommy Tune, who was winning the first of his 9 Tonys, for Seesaw. I took Tommy's advice, and pursued a career in the theatre. Now, where's my Tony?