It was both very smart—and a little bit not—for this year’s Tony Awards to open with a song from last year’s Best Musical The Book Of Mormon. That show has such a boffo score, and “Hello” is such a fun, funny way to start any piece of entertainment. But kicking things off with “Hello” also set a standard that was hard for the rest of the telecast to meet, because let’s face it: There’s not another Book Of Mormon in this year’s crop of new musicals.

Of course I’m basing that opinion almost exclusively on what aired on CBS. I want to be very clear about that. I am by no means an expert on contemporary Broadway theater. In fact, one of the main reasons I love the Tonys is that as a captive Arkansan, this awards show is my only exposure to most of these productions, and a yearly cue to what cast albums are worth buying, and what touring productions to watch for. I’d wager that’s true for the overwhelming majority of the people who watch the Tonys every year. It’s why so much of the show is set up as an advertisement for the very idea of live theater—complete with what amounts to a stockholders’ report. Winners? Losers? Who cares? I have nothing invested in who takes home a Tony. As with the Grammys—my other favorite awards show, and another show where the actual awards mean nothing to me—I tune in for performances that I’m not going to see anywhere else.

One of those performances is that of the host, Neil Patrick Harris, whose wit and gumption have been largely responsible for bringing renewed attention to the Tonys in recent years. I can’t say that Harris was seamless tonight. Some of his jokes were clunkers—I’m thinking in particular of his “mash-up” bit, which just combined titles of famous movies and famous musicals, with no further development of the gag—and Harris seemed to miss more marks and flub more lines than usual. (Though he wasn’t alone in that; the teleprompter operator appeared to be slow on the draw all night.)

But then, Harris always works with a higher degree of difficulty than most awards show hosts. He sings, he dances, he cracks wise—and he has to do all three in original numbers that comment on theater itself. Harris followed the Book of Mormon opening in tonight’s show with a funny little song about how it would be if life were like a Broadway show, complete with quick costume changes and intermissions and understudies. (In this case, the understudy in question was Jesse Tyler Ferguson, walking in front of Harris and singing, “The role of him will now be played by meeeeeee….”) Later, Harris did a mega-medley of classic Broadway songs, and then ended the show with his usual clever summing-up song, this one called “If I Had Time,” mentioning all that he could sing about were it not for “certain people’s speeches running loooong!”

As for the performances from the nominees, aside from some sloppy direction that failed to capture all the action—and aside from the apparent overall weakness of the new musicals—the numbers were mostly strong, if not, y’know, Book Of Mormon strong. The obvious standout to me was the eventual winner, Once, and not just because I’m a fan of the original movie and the soundtrack. The way the number from that show was staged, with the musicians and cast all gathered in a bar, was both riveting and uplifting, and it’s my understanding that the entire show is much the same. So while I remain skeptical about the whole “movies becoming musicals” phenomenon—Ghost? really?—obviously this doesn’t always have to be a crass commercial move. Anyway, the Once number far outpaced the woeful snippet of Leap Of Faith (and I say this as someone who usually likes Raúl Esparza), and the merely serviceable-looking Nice Work If You Can Get It. I did, however, like the “hyper-acrobatic 35-year-old 15-year-olds” (as Harris dubbed them) of Newsies, as they ripped off a old Gene Kelly newspaper dance and sang one of the few songs I remember from the movie.

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I also thought that Newsies songwriters Alan Menken and Jack Feldman gave one of the most heartfelt speeches in an evening full of moving thank-yous. (The Tonys speeches always tend to be the best of any awards show, because theater folk know how to be witty for a beat or two and then switch the sincerity on.) Other fine speeches included: the one by the creative team behind Best Play winner Clybourne Park, which I now really want to see, based on the short clip; the half-bleeped speech by legendary director Mike Nichols, who won for the revival of Death Of A Salesman; Best Leading Actress In A Play winner Nina Arianda of Venus In Fur, another production which looked very strong from what the program showed of it; and Best Featured Actor In A Play winner Christian Borle of Peter And The Starcatcher, who somehow failed to thank his writing partner Julia Houston. (Sorry. Little Smash humor there.)

And while I said earlier that I don’t care who wins, I confess to being thrilled to see James Corden—an actor and writer whose work on the British sitcom Gavin & Stacey I dearly love—win Best Actor In A Play for his role in One Man, Two Guvnors, and I was touched as well by his tribute to his girlfriend, whom he said has taught him to “say ‘us’ instead of ‘I.’” In fact, there was a theme tonight of winners giving especially warm thanks to their significant others, whether it be Audra McDonald praising her husband-to-be or Hugh Jackman looking genuinely delighted when his wife came out to present him with an honorary award. And then there was Nice Work If You Can Get It’s Judy Kaye and Once’s Steve Kazee, both of whom lost parents while working on these musicals, and both of whom were reduced to tears while describing the experience of working through their grief on-stage among friends every night.

So, overall, this was another enjoyable Tonys telecast, even without very many (apparent) new classics to hail. And while some of the revivals looked a little dicey too—the audience in the theater didn’t seem to know what to make of Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar—there was still Follies and Porgy & Bess to carry the flag for the true best of Broadway. Which is why I’m glad that CBS sticks by the Tonys every year, even though the ratings aren’t Grammy- or Oscar-level. This is a major part of our American entertainment heritage, and it’s practically a public service for the network to remind people of the actors and plays that endure, and for the Tonys to keep adding new names to that list while calling back to the past.

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Stray observations:

  • I kinda want to take a Royal Caribbean cruise now. I mean, like, right now.
  • I know Josh Gad just left The Book Of Mormon, but it was still surprising to see his replacement as Elder Cunningham on-stage in the opening number.
  • Hey Neil Patrick Harris, I know you said, “I had to, I had to” after your “50 Shades Of Gay” joke, but you really didn’t. Maybe it’s a heartening sign of progress, but whereas the “let’s openly acknowledge the gayness of the American theater” jokes used to be refreshingly bold, they’re now starting to seem a little forced.
  • That said, can someone bankroll a gay-themed Broadway musical comedy featuring Neil Patrick Harris, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jim Parsons and David Hyde Pierce? Because that would be a delight.
  • A strange but sweet moment during one of the nominee roll calls, as Don’t Dress For Dinner’s Spencer Kayden looked into the camera and mouthed the words, “I love you so much.”
  • Whenever I review Fringe, I make Sweeney Todd jokes about Michael Cerveris. I guess I should make an Observer joke in this space, given his nomination for Evita. Ahem… You know who can tell you about the art of the possible? September, that Observer guy on Fringe. (Okay, so I didn’t promise it would be a good joke.)
  • Nick Jonas, fresh from bankrolling Bombshell, introduced the number from Newsies, and read his copy super-fast.
  • Warning to people in the front row: You will have paper thrown at you.
  • So. Jessica Chastain’s dress. Um. Did I see…? Was that…? Yeah, I think it was.
  • Just when I started getting used to tiny little headset microphones, the theater community has switched to mikes that extend out of the hair and onto the forehead, making everyone on stage look like they have a little pimple above their eyes.
  • Always some interesting commercials during the Tonys, like the ad tonight for the Gore Vidal play The Best Man, which isn’t something you’d ordinarily see on TV. Also of interest: the film version of Les Misérables, which looked pretty good, and Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, which continues his European tour, via Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight In Paris. (Suggested title for next Woody Allen film: I Dunno, Maybe Frankfurt?)
  • There was an odd motif in this show of inserting background gags during otherwise boilerplate transitions: There was a woman planking and body-surfing while Harris threw to commercial, for example, and a man stuck behind a guy in one of those oversized Lion King masks. But the grandest example of this bit happened on-stage, where Harris hung upside down like Spider-Man—despite “the searing pain in my junk”—while Angela Lansbury helped run down some of the usual Tony-related business.
  • One fairly innovative piece of award show staging at these Tonys: having the significant cast and crew members of the big award-winners gather in a vestibule near the stage while the producers gave their thanks. It reduced the on-stage crush that usually happens with these major awards, while allowing some people important to the success of the shows to get some camera-time.
  • One of the things I enjoy about the Tonys is that the Hollywood actors who try their hand on Broadway are rarely the real stars of the evening; they have to defer to folks like Ben Vereen, or Mandy Patinkin and Patti Lupone (who gave the house a thrill by singing songs from the Revival nominees). Then there are those people with feet firmly planted in both worlds, such as Tyler Perry, who probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves for starting his career on stage and building his fanbase through theater, and super-producer Scott Rudin, one of the rare non-performers on the EGOT list.
  • Nevertheless, the best nominee-introducer of the night was Paul Rudd, who delivered a goofy little made up tidbit about how the component syllables of “featured” translate to “audiences will pay to see these passionate performances that are sweet as a Tibetan cake.”

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