“I want to thank Broadway for welcoming me. This city … I’ve never been a stranger to hard work, but your hard work inspires me.” Cyndi Lauper’s words while accepting her Tony Award for Best Original Score represent something about the Tony Awards that separate it from other award shows. And I love an award show, believe me. But between the high-pressure Oscars and the repeat-business of the Emmys, it’s only the Tonys that manage to properly convey the essential truth of any award show: a community of artists (and people in the business of artists) honoring their own. When Cyndi Lauper thanks the Broadway community for welcoming her, the sentiment has a truth to it that I never quite buy from people working in the movies or TV. It’s that quality that makes the Tonys, year-in and year-out, the one award show for which I will cut endless slack. Every poorly chosen performance (The Rascals, let’s say) or technical shortcoming (how is the sound design so spotty every single year?) ends up being pretty easily forgiven when the awards themselves feel like such a genuine celebration of good work. (That the Tonys can manage to put this feeling across while being, at a voting-level, at least, the most business-minded and mercenary of all awards endeavors makes the accomplishment even bigger.)
Lauper’s Kinky Boots proved to be biggest winner of the night, taking home seven awards, including Best Musical and Best Lead Actor for Billy Porter, whose acceptance speech represented the best (what a genuinely sweet shout out to co-star and fellow nominee Stark Sands!) and must frustrating (hey, where’s that cutaway to Stark Sands?) aspects of the telecast. It can’t be an easy prospect to put on a dazzling Tonys when there haven’t been any truly indelible musicals all year. The Pippin revival comes closest, and certainly the telecast made the best of the showmanship and acrobatics therein. But Kinky Boots and Matilda, while quality shows with great admirers, haven’t really put their stamp on the American theater this year. It did end up being a pretty great year for plays, from Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy to the requisite white-people-arguing-at-dinner drama (The Assembled Parties), to the Best Play winner Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the Tonys have still not managed to crack the code on how to better incorporate the plays into the telecast. I know they’re inherently not as easily digestible in short form, nor (usually) as visually arresting as the musicals, but you can’t tell me that a few minutes of Tracy Letts and Amy Morton letting fly with some of Edward Albee’s choicest verbal savagery from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? wouldn’t have spiced things up a bit. Hell, we could have finally found a purpose for that on-stage vulture in The Testament Of Mary.
No, in these past few years, the heavy lifting of the entertainment portion of the Tonys has fallen to host Neil Patrick Harris. In this, his fourth time around, things have begun to calcify some. It’s hard to see bits like mashing up titles of musicals and plays together (a carbon copy of a bit from last year) or even the end-of-show wrap-up song and not think there’s a formula at work. There are only so many times you can go to the “white non-rapper rapping” well before it gets weird. Which isn’t to take anything away from the on-the-fly writing aspect of the song. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work on the writing side of these shows has been an unsung treasure, and I think the Tonys would be smart to let him take a crack at hosting one of these years. And still, just when I think I’m on the edge of NPH-fatigue, he knocks the opening production number out of the park. Or he takes the stage with Andrew Rannels, Laura Benanti, and recent Tony-winner Ivy Lynn to perform a grousing little number about how television can be a fickle mistress for stars of the stage. Those performances play like gangbusters to the live audience because they’re smart, knowing, and speak to a general sense of rallying around the community. TV may have rejected you, Laura Benanti, but there’s a whole community back here to whom you are an actual goddess.
The business side of the Tonys—the side that knows that Job 1 for the show is to sell tickets—was fed by the recurring presence of Broadway’s longer-running shows. So we get cast members from Chicago and Newsies and The Lion King and Jersey Boys out to introduce various production numbers from the new shows and generally remind us that, yes, Mamma Mia! is still playing, if you’d like to make the trip. I did end up feeling bad that they all got introduced by their characters’ names. These replacement cast members never get to bask in any Tonys glory as nominees, so why not just say their names on very, very low-rated national television? (Though maybe our Velma Kelly from Chicago is glad for a little anonymity after speaking her entire introduction into the wrong camera.)
Oh, hey, there were awards given out at this awards show! Aside from Kinky Boots, the big musical winner was Pippin, which was revived in an imaginative circus setting to great acclaim. It won Best Revival of a Musical, Best Actress for Patina Miller, and Best Featured Actress for Andrea Martin. The 66-year-old Martin thanked her French acrobat co-star for (literally) supporting her through the show, referring to their show-stopping aerial routine that surely cinched her the Tony win.
On the play side, Cicely Tyson won Best Actress for The Trip To Bountiful and gave a very deliberate, very moving, very theatrical speech (she managed to incorporate the “wrap it up” prompter command into a lovely statement on her career) that was nonetheless upstaged by her freaking fantastic dress that resembled a particularly angry bunch of grapes. Tom Hanks was largely (and somewhat resentfully, depending on which theater queens you asked) expected to win Best Actor for Lucky Guy, but Mr. Hollywood ended up losing out to Mr. Chicago, as playwright and Steppenwolf member Tracy Letts prevailed for his turn as George in Virginia Woolf. Hanks’s co-star Courtney B. Vance won Featured Actor and thanked his wife, Angela Bassett, subconsciously reminding everybody to look forward to Bassett’s ultimate Emmy triumph for American Horror Story next year. And in Featured Actress, Judith Light managed to repeat last year’s win in the same category, for arguably the same role, the substance-abusing aunt who tells harsh truths and keeps family secrets in equal measure. (I fear I’m being too glib—Light is fantastic in The Assembled Parties and more than worthy of an award for it.)
So, in terms of a production, the show has begun to flatten ever so slightly into The Usual NPH-Hosted Tonys Experience. But as a moment to share in the sense of inclusiveness that Cyndi Lauper says she felt when entering the Broadway community, it’s hard to top Tony night.
- SOLID shot across the movie-musicals bow as Harris calls for his “Tom Hooper Les Mis closeup” and then says Broadway doesn’t need to trumpet their live singing, as they do it eight times a week…
- … and then mere hours later, we get a fully lip-synched performance from The Phantom Of The Opera. Speaking of which, were we not promised a “celebration” of Phantom’s 25th anniversary? Whither Sarah Brightman? Michael Crawford? Minnie Driver???
- Special shout-out to the performance of “It’s All Happening” from Bring It On, my favorite musical of the season. The sound-design boogeyman was at play at Radio City, but the burst of energy in that number is impossible to mess with too badly.
- Vine-able moment to cherish: Alan Cumming and Scarlett Johansson playing pattycake backstage.
- Vine-able moment to erase from your memories forever: Neil Patrick Harris frenching Sandy the dog from Annie. No link. Ever.
- The performance from Cinderella highlighted why sometimes the increased intimacy of the television cameras is not always the best friend of the stage performer, as the costume flourishes that were so breathtaking for a Broadway audience looked effortful when you were placed right up in Laura Osnes and Victoria Clark’s faces.
- Big ups to Best Directors Diane Paulus (Pippin) and Pam MacKinnon (Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?), only the second time both awards were given to women in the same year, all with quite a bit less of the self-conscious, back-patting fanfare that the Oscars went through when they awarded Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. [CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review said this was the first year that two women won Best Director. In 1998, Julie Taymor won for The Lion King, while Garry Hynes won for The Beauty Queen of Leenane.]
- Boy are you ever setting a kid up for failure when you tell him to go out there and BE Michael Jackson. All due credit to young Raymond Luke Jr. from Motown: The Musical, but that’s a tall order.
- Help me figure out what felt off about Jane Lynch’s Annie performance, will you? My initial theory is that Jane may be concentrating so hard on getting the singing right that she’s not being as funny as she needs to be to make “Little Girls” really work.