In the week that has passed since the Tony Awards, an internet outage in my apartment building has held me back from summarizing the big night – the Stanley Cup of theatre – until today. Unfortunately, that means much of what’s to come in this piece will be old news to those of us stateside who watched the ceremony with rapt attention on Sunday, but it also means that we can now take a look at the Tonys with the advantage of a week’s worth of hindsight and attendant news and commentary.
The telecast began with a burst of nostalgia factor. Neil Patrick Harris, who hosted last year’s Book of Mormon sweep, was again back to host (for his third time; he also hosted in 2009), and the proceedings began with that show’s opening number, “Hello,” featuring various Mormon elders knocking on the dressing room doors of nominees, including Cynthia Nixon and James Earl Jones. It was an odd (if funny) choice to give such early, prominent attention to last year’s big winner on a show that really ought to focus on the year’s big shows.
Neil Patrick Harris again proved he’s the Tonys host for our generation. Hugh Jackman may win out in the categories of sex appeal and singing chops, Patrick Harris, whose nevertheless an above-average singer, has the kind of charming wink-wink-nudge-nudge comic chops that, in theory, ought to bring in the kind of younger viewers that the Tony Awards so desperately needs (more on that later). Following the Mormon opener, he took center stage with a number entitled “If Life Were More Like Theatre,” which, among a number of other inside jokes, featured Patti LuPone pushing a lawnmower and Amanda Seyfried milking her Mamma Mia mini-fame to the last drop in anticipation of her role in Les Miserables this holiday season.
In terms of the big awards, Once took home the most – eight awards in all – including Best Musical, Best Direction for John Tiffany, Best Book for Irish playwright Enda Walsh (heretofore known mostly for brilliant small-scale plays), and Best Actor in a Musical for Steve Kazee, as well as design awards for Best Scenic Design, Lighting Design, Sound Design, and Best Orchestrations.
Newsies, which, in a different season may have swept the awards with its particular brand of optimism in hard-luck times and flashy dance numbers, took home two big prizes nonetheless, for Christopher Gattelli’s mind-boggling choreography and for Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s score. Because Newsies featured a significant percentage of songs written for the stage production it was eligible for the score award though Once was not. In presenting the score award, Neil Patrick Harris sang a whip-smart, rapidfire mash-up of snippets from all the previous category winners.
In a noteworthy twist, two plays were up for the award for Best Score (One Man, Two Guvnors; Peter and the Starcatcher), as has happened only sporadically in the past, mostly because the voters chose to snub a number of scores of musicals, including Bono and the Edge’s work for Spider-Man, as well as Ghost, Lysistrata Jones, and Alan Menken’s other musical this season, the short-lived Leap of Faith (which made some critics and audience members want to take their own life-ending leaps, though others stood and cheered the gospel-flavored tuner).
In one of the night’s biggest upsets, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess took home the prize for Best Revival of a Musical over Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, which took home only one award, for Gregg Barnes’s costumes. Though the New York Post asserted that the Follies snub may have been a kind of “fuck you” to Stephen Sondheim because of a widely-read disparaging letter to the New York Times expressing criticisms of this newly shortened, revised version, more realistically voters may have simply selected the show that’s still running in New York and which has the most potential, logistically, for a national tour following its Broadway run. Audra McDonald also took home her fifth Tony (her first in a leading category) for Best Actress in a Musical (more on that later), solidifying support for a production that came back like the little engine that could this year after early criticisms and a possible cancellation of its Broadway run due to backers’ ambivalence about the impact of the production’s naysayers.
Recognition for the Gershwins in the Best Revival of a Musical, who are also planning a Craig Lucas-penned stage adaptation of An American in Paris (an announcement they made in the runoff to their Tony victory), didn’t extend to their Best Musical nominee, Nice Work If You Can Get It, a new musical penned by Joe DiPietro using the Gershwins’ musical catalogue. Though the show stars Matthew Broderick (who was snubbed in the Best Actor category) and Kelli O’Hara (who wasn’t, but still lost), its supporting players, Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye, nevertheless took home awards for Best Actor and Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for their performances.
Even in another year where the top musical nominees were based on movies (Once, Newsies, Leap of Faith) or the Gershwins’ catalogue of songs (Nice Work If You Can Get It), it still felt like an upswing for musicals over years like 2009, when the original (but possibly even more derivative) Memphis took home top honors. Once in particular shone this season as a new musical based on a film that possesses subtlety and theatrical craftsmanship (Steven Hoggett’s choreography, though less showy than Gattelli’s for Newsies, is graceful and effective) even despite its screen roots.
In terms of musical performances, “Gold” from Once, led by Steve Kazee, was a standout, as was “Seize the Day” from Newsies, featuring the show’s incredible newspaper-ripping dance interlude, a gorgeous medley from Porgy and Bess that showed of the talents of Audra McDonald and her leading man, Norm Lewis, as well as David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life.
As evinced by the presence of two plays in the category of Best Score, the plays that were part of this year’s Broadway season were particularly musical and performative. End of the Rainbow, which features songs made famous by Judy Garland, was given a chance for its leading lady, Tracie Bennett, to take center stage, singing snippets from “You Made Me Love You” and “The Trolley Song.” Peter and the Starcatcher had a brief chance to show off its starstuff, and James Corden of One Man, Two Guvnors did a bit from the show that had him rolling on the stage (and the live audience rolling in the aisles; too corny?).
This year, perhaps in an attempt to turn the focus toward new drama in the States, there were only American nominees – Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris (the winner), Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice, and Venus in Fur by David Ives – each of which began its life off-Broadway as part of New York’s vibrant not-for-profit theatre community. Clybourne‘s big win, which was accompanied by an impassioned speech by producer Jordan Roth, who saved the show’s Broadway production from extinction when its original producer, Scott Rudin, pulled out due to creative differences, was a welcome antidote to last year’s War Horse victory, which unfairly rewarded a subpar text on the merit of its inventive puppet-filled staging.
As the names of the Best Play nominees were read, they were accompanied by strange slow-motion shadow tableaus that did the productions no justice. Though Clybourne, which is set in the same fictional neighborhood as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (Norris thanked Hansberry in his speech), took home the big prize (its only award), Peter and the Starcatcher took home the most overall statues of any play, sweeping the design categories for plays (Scenic Design, Costume Design, Lighting Design, and Sound Design), and taking home the prize for featured actor Christian Borle (Smash), who plays the character of Black Stache, who would become Captain Hook, in the show, which is a prequel to Peter Pan.
The other awards for plays were split nicely. James Corden, the central comic presence of One Man, Two Guvnors, pulled the biggest upset of the night in terms of performance awards, winning Best Actor in a Play over Philip Seymour Hoffman (widely predicted the winner for his turn as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman).
Nina Arianda, the youngest acting winner at 27, took home the prize for Best Actress for her sexy breakout turn as Vanda in Venus in Fur, Judith Light won for Other Desert Cities, the early favorite for Best Play), for her portrayal of boozy Aunt Silda. Though Seymour Hoffman lost out, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman nevertheless too home the award for Best Revival of a Play, and Mike Nichols took home his ninth Tony for his direction of Salesman.
Though there were no major kerfuffles the likes of Bret Michael’s recently-settled lawsuit following his 2009 injury on the ceremony, there were at least two minor points of controversy. Foremost in the minds of theatre folk going into the telecast was a live performance from the cast of the Royal Caribbean cruise line’s production of Hairspray (featuring a curiously underweight, overaged Tracy) featuring non-Actor’s Equity performers on the same night the Special Tony Award went to AEA in celebration of its 100th Anniversary this year. Needless to say, despite theatre queens’ pronouncements, the rather tepid performance came and went without incidence.
Also notable was Audra McDonald’s acceptance speech, in which she proclaimed, “I am so grateful to be a part of this company, Porgy and Bess, to be in love with Norm Lewis every night, to get raped by Phillip Boykin ever night, to snot drugs with David Alan Grier every night.” Broadway message boards were alight with comments denouncing and supporting McDonald’s flippant mention of rape, which echoed her remarks at the Drama Desk Awards, where she also won. Some defended her as speaking off-the-cuff and letting loose about a heavy character, while others stood their ground in support of the view that rape jokes are never OK, especially on a national platform.
Aside from this minor snag, the night was ultimately about rewarding McDonald for an excellent performance, and that was the sentiment that won out. No major articles seemed to pick up on McDonald’s gaffe in a big way, and her denouncers were none so loud as to warrant an apology tweet from Audra, whose aptly inclusive handle is @AudraEqualityMc.
All in all, it was a refreshing night at the Tonys. The little musical that could, Once, won out – more than once – and a homegrown American play with refreshingly adult, funny themes, Clybourne Park, had its moment in the sun. Aside from these top winners, the other honors were spread around sufficiently. It was a night about celebrating mostly great theatre, and featuring mostly great performances. Given theatre’s up-and-down nature, it was a mostly up year, and for that we can be grateful until next June rolls along.