When I learned that Noel Murray, who usually takes Tony duty here at the AVC, was going to be otherwise indisposed this evening, I jumped at the chance to cover the awards. Like Noel, I started watching the awards as a young lad, though I actually sought them out, looking for a way to grasp some of the theatricality there was so little of in my small Midwestern town. And I've watched most years since, particularly taking interest in the years in college when I was able to travel to New York and see some of the shows (including the original cast of Urinetown! which remains one of the best nights of entertainment I've ever had) with a college group I was a member of. I love the stage, even as it sort of fades into the background of American entertainment pursuits, and the Tonys are often the only real lifeline I get to that stage.
But in recent years, as Noel wrote last year, the Tonys have become seemingly less essential, particularly as CBS seems intent on turning them into a gala for movie and TV stars who have very little to do with the stage. Indeed, the opening narration from the standard CBS' Ms. Voice this year went out of its way to avoid explicitly pointing out the fact that the awards were for stage works in New York City. Sure, it's a limited audience, but the limited audience you have really wants to see this thing. It's not like someone's going to stumble across this and wonder what the hell it is and you can somehow fool them into watching. Sure, it was fun to see the stars of Glee return to their Broadway roots, and it's always amusing to see the various movie and TV stars with Broadway ties that CBS can dredge up to hand out awards, but I still have no idea why, say, Will Smith was there (though this is turning into a perpetual question with the Tonys).
On the other hand, the last few years, the Tonys have had a problem with putting on a show that wasn't plagued by production problems. Given that these people are known for putting on professional live shows on a nightly basis, this is always a surprise to me, but it seemed like the 2010 awards were particularly bad in this regard. And we'll get to that in a bit. But first …
(Before we get started, CBS' YouTube channel has a lot of the highlights of tonight's show, but most of it is not embeddable.)
Neil Patrick Harris was a lot of fun last year, and Sean Hayes, who wouldn't be anyone's natural choice for this role, had pretty big shoes to fill. Fortunately, he was a lot of fun, delivering some pretty well-written jokes with aplomb. He did that thing where he dressed up in a bunch of different costumes, appearing as Billy Elliott, Annie and Spider-Man (in an amusing gag where he wondered just how anyone is going to sing in that costume), and he mostly carried it off. The awards show host is a pretty thankless job, and it essentially requires someone who's incredibly game for just about anything. Whether it was playing straight man to Kristin Chenoweth, making fun of that article who said he was unbelievable as a straight guy, or watching as Uncle Fester from The Addams Family (which is apparently a musical now) lit up the lightbulbs on the marquee, Hayes was ready for anything. Also, he played the piano a lot, which I found more impressive than I probably should have. He wasn't the best host ever, and there was room for improvement (particularly in the material he had to deliver), but I'd say Hayes deserves a nice B+.
The Presenters and Speeches:
It's always fun to see all of the people whom Broadway deems luminaries turn up year after year to talk about how much the stage means to them. This year, that was best highlighted by Angela Lansbury, who gave a very moving speech about what the stage meant to her, having moved from the United Kingdom to the States during World War II and having to find dramatic training in New York, which she was able to do with the help of the American Theatre Wing. Lansbury is pretty much a national treasure at this point (even if she was born overseas), and the show always gives her time to say her piece. It's almost always terrific, too.
Normally, I look at the Tonys as a way to get to meet a bunch of people who are going to turn up in thankless parts on TV shows in the years to come, but this year, a bunch of honest to God movie stars won Tonys. Catherine Zeta Jones won somehow (we'll get to this in a minute). Denzel Washington won. Scarlett Johansson won for a role I wouldn't have been sure she could pull off based on her film work. And some of the people who went down to defeat - like Christopher Walken and Laura Linney - are similar stars. Hell, even Viola Davis, who's a former Tony winner, returned from a successful film career to win again (as Washington's wife in Fences).
There's a bad side to this, though. The nice thing about the Tonys is that the acceptance speeches rarely turn into laundry lists of people to thank, since the theatre community is so cohesive that everyone knows who deserves the thanks anyway. This has led to some pretty moving and wonderful little speeches on the part of various theatre stalwarts in the past, but too many of the speeches crept into laundry list territory tonight, and when Jones talked about husband Michael Douglas as a movie star she got to sleep with every night, the cut to his face made everything feel that much eerier. On the flipside, Johansson somehow got off a very nice speech about how nice it was to be a part of the community (and thanked husband Ryan Reynolds as "my Canadian who I get to live with"), and Washington did a nice little riff on "award" vs. "reward." Both of their speeches inevitably became laundry lists too, but they had some personal material in there, which is all I ask. Some of the less famous luminaries offered up great speeches, too, with Bill T. Jones (winning for choreography of Fela!) and Douglas Hodge (winning for leading actor in a musical for La Cage Aux Folles) taking the cake. Hodge's joke about watching a Republican kissing a Democrat (as he and GOP standard-bearer Kelsey Grammer play a couple in the musical) was particularly funny.
The presenters, however, were even better. It was great fun to see Chenoweth faint after learning she hadn't been nominated, and Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, once apparently considered shoo-ins for their Addams Family work, did a great deadpan bit about their non-nominations as they suddenly realized they were presenting the leading actor and actress in a musical award. And even the movie stars the show wedged in there weren't too obtrusive, with Smith and wife Jada Pinkett Smith doing yeoman's work of introducing the performance from Fela! All in all, I'd give this aspect of the production a B.
I increasingly feel like the producers of Tony nominated shows have a very poor idea of what's going to play on TV. Now, granted, two of the presentations - for Come Fly With Me and Promises, Promises - got swallowed up in that lengthy choreography segment, which might have been nice had it not presented the dance numbers in a completely context-less way. But most of the numbers either relied in medleys or one-person belters that only suggested the show was about one person belting out a few big ballads. Ragtime, for instance, is a great show, filled with great music, and you reduce it to one woman performing one song? Similarly, tossing Jones out there to sing "Send in the Clowns" in a weird, talk-singy manner made A Little Night Music seem deathly dull (even IF that's the most famous song in the Sondheim catalog) and made it seem all the more bizarre when Jones won her award later. The medley presented from Million Dollar Quartet made the show seem completely inexplicable, even as it features great music, and the opening medley of all of the nominated shows managed to suck the life out of every single one of them.
Better was the performance from Best Musical winner Memphis, which had some pretty crummy lyrics (that line about "people darker than me" made me wince) but just chose a rousing number from the show and went for it. I doubt I'd buy the cast album or see the show based on this performance, but it made me realize just why the show has its huge fans. I also rather liked the performance from La Cage Aux Folles, which similarly picked a big, show-stopping number but had the presence of mind to wrap it in some context. I wouldn't be surprised if that show sees the biggest boost in ticket sales after the Tonys. (It certainly helps that Grammer and Hodge both look like great fun in the roles, and Hodge getting a tip from Matthew Morrison was funny too.)
The performance from Fela!, however, felt a little too chaotic for television. It probably works on stage, where the sensory overload eventually overwhelms you, but on television, where the camera is always trying to pull to a focal point (and, honestly, if ever a production just needed to have some wide shots for context, it was this one), the whole thing felt like a mess. I'm sure it's a sterling production, and the music sounded like a lot of fun, but it just didn't work on TV.
Similarly, American Idiot should have played a lot better than it did. I haven't seen the show, but it seemed like the production was trying to capture some of the energy of Spring Awakening, which was a show where the clash between past mores and present music drove much of the inner tension of the piece. Without having the far-past setting to clash against, the production of American Idiot mostly just revealed how unexpectedly cool it is to hear Green Day songs with a full chorus of Broadway voices (and it WAS cool). That said, it was fun to see Green Day early in the production and watch the Tony Awards crowd seemingly have no idea what to do with the young whippersnappers. From the performances, it was obvious this was a weak year for Broadway musicals, and the show mostly reflected that.
The less said about the Glee number, the better. It was nice to have Morrison and Lea Michele there to draw in some of that show's vocal cult audience, but the show stranded them at the end of the night and gave them two rather flat numbers to perform. At the very least, though, it revealed that Morrison is a hell of a dancer and should get to show off more of that on the show from week to week. Otherwise, we learned that Lea Michele can sing "Don't Rain on My Parade," which we already knew. And she ran headlong into the show's rampant production problems. That said, I'd give the performances a B-.
Ugh. Every year, I think this is going to be a step up from the previous year's error-laden Tonys, and every year, I'm proved wrong, as even more errors slip through. Numerous musical numbers suffered from lackluster mic-ing (where we couldn't hear what the singers were singing). Some suffered from over-mic-ing (like Michele's number), where all of the consonants were suddenly popping all over the place. At least once, the name of the wrong winner was displayed (when Katie Finneran won for Promises, Promises). The camera would cut to odd reaction shots. Microphones wouldn't get cut off in time. It was, frankly, a mess, suggesting no one had a firm hand over the production. Considering the Tonys, as recently as five years ago, were the gold standard of awards shows running smoothly and ending on time, it's clear someone in the Theatre Wing can handle this sort of thing. It's also clear they're not in charge.
But there were curious production decisions throughout. That choreography segment was a bold choice, but it also created a situation where the telecast bogged down to a halt. The choice to have the actors present a brief snippet of description of what the nominated plays were about could have worked, but it's no substitute for a short scene from the play itself or even for a 15-second clip from the play. The show hasn't known what to do with the play nominees for a while, but in a season when it sure seemed like the more interesting work was going on over in the straight play side of the street, it might have been nice to get a longer look at the more acclaimed productions, particularly Fences and Red. Instead, the show just kind of sort of told us what they were about and moved on. There's gotta be a better way (and I say that knowing full well that the "better way" is the show moving to PBS).
In short, a sloppy night, full of bad directorial calls. The staging gets a C-.
Overall grade: B-
- I take back all of the times I complained about Morrison reacting in an over-the-top fashion to the kids singing on Glee. The constant cutaways to him in the audience tonight revealed this is how Matthew Morrison reacts to real life.
- As someone pointed out to Alan Sepinwall, now Denzel Washington is half of the way to an EGOT. Perhaps more importantly, so is Catherine Zeta Jones. Washington could win an Emmy in his sleep, but he's going to have a hard time with the Grammy. I think Jones could release an album of bluegrass covers to wrap that award up. Then she needs to get a role in an HBO miniseries.
- I've been contemplating a swing through New York later in the year. Based on the evening's entertainment, I'm not sure there's a show I'd be just dying to see (though I'll admit I want to see how the hell they made American Idiot a theatre piece), but I guess I'd have to side with La Cage Aux Folles, which is a show I don't really like but one that seems like it's had a rousing production put together for it. Actually, I'd love to see Red, but there's no way that lasts long enough for me to take it in.
- Another weird decision: That mash-up of all of the plays really needed text saying what each play was. Weird, weird choice.
- Broadway may be where Hollywood stars who can act but haven't had a good chance to prove it go to gain legitimacy - see also, Johansson - but it's also a place for actors whose careers have hit the skids to take a chance on seeming great again. Like Lucy Liu, apparently.
- A whole play about vibrators? That's like shrugging and agreeing to conform to every bad stereotype red staters have of blue staters. (Though I'm sure the play is fantastic.)
- Holy hell, the revival of Chicago is still playing?! I saw that thing in 2002, and it seemed tired then.