Monday, June 8, 2009

Commentary: Messy Tonys show misrepresented Broadway's good year

The cast of Hair in the Tony Awards' opening number Sunday.
(Photo by Anita and Steve Shevett)

By Hap Erstein

You would never know it from the overstuffed, frantic Tony Awards ceremony, but it was actually a pretty good year on Broadway.

Any year that includes a powerhouse heart-tugger of a musical like Billy Elliot and a cutting edge show about a bipolar manic-depressive suburban mom (Next to Normal) has got to be deemed a good year for the commercial theater.

Neither one put its best material on national exposure during the rushed, badly photographed musical segments, but Billy Elliot’s 10 Tonys -- tying Hello, Dolly! for the second-highest statuette total in Tony history -- and Next to Normal’s three wins, an unexpectedly strong showing for this foregone conclusion also-ran, should help both at the box office. Next to Normal obviously needed the assistance more and the awards boost may give the show the marketing sizzle that could turn into a substantial hit. Trust me, the show is better than it looked in its musical segment.

As to the Tonys ceremony itself, its fate was clear from the busily cluttered opening number. The broadcast, like the melange of snippets from this season’s musicals -- new shows, revivals, nominees, also-rans -- was a hodgepodge in which none of the shows was well showcased.

Ostensibly the point of the whole show was to sell Broadway to the uninitiated, because the giving out of awards certainly took a back seat. After all, more than a third of the Tony envelopes were opened and winners announced before the show began. In his early gushing patter, emcee Neil Patrick Harris promised us “more music than ever before,” and how did that get managed? With less time devoted to the awards than ever before.

The Tonys have been under pressure from CBS because of their perennially low ratings. The answer -- and I’ll bet it will be shown to be a wrong answer when the ratings numbers are released -- is to feature movie and TV stars who are only marginally related to Broadway. Names like Anne Hathaway, Jessica Lange, John Stamos and Carrie Fisher. (OK, Fisher was pretty funny introducing a number from Next to Normal and making it sound like her own life story, but still…)

It has been reported elsewhere that this year’s Tony Awards had a hard time finding an emcee for the broadcast, perhaps because of fear of comparison to the charismatic singing-dancing Hugh Jackman. Anyway, James Gandolfini turned down the gig, as did Angela Lansbury -- both nominees this year. I have no idea who came up with the idea of Harris, but I’ll bet that person is out of a job by the end of the week. Harris uncomfortably told a few jokes, often based in gay humor, and as the evening went on he gradually became more and more invisible.

At least until the end, when he did sing a wrapup song that included some clever lyrics with references to the evening’s Tony winners. Presumably the TelePrompter was loaded with multiple choice material and the song was assembled in its final form at the last minute. However it was done, it was the most interesting assignment Harris had in three hours’ time, and too little, too late.

The Tonys have long been stumped as to how to convey the non-musical plays in a minimum of airtime. This year, cast members of the four best play nominees read a couple of cryptic lines of plot and theme summary, followed by a very brief pre-recorded excerpt from the production. Suffice it to say they should still be searching for an effective way to present each play.

As generally expected, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage walked off with the Tony for best play, winning also for its director (Matthew Warchus) and female lead (Marcia Gay Harden). That represents a big win for a non-musical, which was already doing strong business thanks to its box office name cast -- Harden, Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. The wins probably mean that the production will be re-cast after these four go back to Hollywood, the play could get an increasingly rare national tour and two years from now, every resident theater company will be trying to get the rights to perform it.

Neil La Bute’s reasons to be pretty desperately needed a Tony win to stay alive. I’m guessing by the time you read this, it will have posted its closing notice. The same would go for the other best play nominees -- Dividing the Estate and 33 Variations -- except they have already closed.

Kiril Kulish, Trent Kowalik and David Alvarez of Billy Elliot.

It was hardly a level playing field for the best play revival, since the three plays of The Norman Conquests were considered as one, so it emerged victorious. Similarly, the three youngsters (David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish) who share the role of Billy Elliot were nominated jointly and they won for best leading actor in a musical. (It was so evident that they were going to win, but none of the three seemed to have given any thought to an acceptance speech. This was the only time in the evening I found myself rooting for the orchestra to drown out a speaker.)

The new production of 1967’s Hair won for best musical revival and looked like a lot of fun, as the cast went out into the Radio City Music Hall audience and freaked out the formally attired attendees. It beat the revival of West Side Story which is controversial for its bilingual revisions, with In the Heights’ Lin-Manuel Miranda rewriting some of Stephen Sondheim’s original lyrics. But when it came to representing the production on the air, the Tonys showed The Dance at the Gym, a great number, but without any of the revival’s Spanish. Puzzling.

Bowing to the reality that touring productions of Broadway shows bring in a lot more money than the shows actually on Broadway, the Tonys featured brief bits of Mamma Mia!, Legally Blonde and Jersey Boys on the telecast, further elbowing the awards out of the way. They looked pretty good too, giving evidence that road shows are no longer the cheap cousins of the original shows.

Well, some of them looked good. No amount of savvy television camera work can actually make Legally Blonde look like anything but the annoying mess it is.

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