Sunday, June 10, 2007

Live from Radio City

It's here at last: Tony Sunday! I spent some time handicapping the races with Josh McAuliffe, a reporter for the Scranton Times-Tribune (my hometown paper), and you can read his story for some of my thoughts. If you want more from me, those shows I've seen (not all of the nominees, regrettably) are reviewed at length here in the archives -- links in the sidebar to the right. And welcome to any new Scranton-area readers! You picked a lively time to stop by (see below for the great New Yorker staff writer vs. blogger dust-up of 2007).

Now for the standard jaded-arts-critic disclaimer: Yes, competition and the arts are an awkward pairing. And yes, the Tony Awards are commercial, often infuriatingly so. But that doesn't mean I'm not excited. In fact, the Tony Awards is the only awards show I do get excited about. Tony night, for me, is what Oscar night is for most people: a chance to see a bunch of celebrities and artists I admire dressed up, mingling and being recognized for their work. To me, the theatre stars are the real stars.

I know I'm not the only one who feels that way, but I also know Broadway geeks like me are in the minority. CBS knows it, too; that's why, every year, they try to produce a Tonys telecast that non-fans will want to watch. And every year, they fail, and what we end up with is a telecast that nobody wants to watch.

This year, I'm told, most of the world will be tuning in to the final episode of The Sopranos while CBS is broadcasting the Tonys. But even if the telecast's strongest competition were reruns of The War at Home, it still wouldn't win its slot, because casual TV viewers aren't going to care whether Jennifer Ehle or Martha Plimpton wins Best Featured Actress in a Play, not even if Paris Hilton is released from prison just to present the award.

I keep hoping, one of these years, CBS will realize it's fighting a losing battle trying to turn the Tonys into the MTV Movie Awards. Someday, I tell myself, they'll give up on ratings and, instead, cultivate the goodwill of theatre fans (that small but discerning interest group) by producing a show that theatre fans will actually enjoy. A ceremony designed to gratify those of us who are actually invested in the proceedings might accidentally manage to impress, even convert, the channel-surfing masses, by showcasing theatre as an art worth caring about. At the very least, it wouldn't leave me feeling insulted and resentful, as I do nearly every year when I watch the Tony Awards.

It starts at the very top of the show; almost invariably, the opening number is so awful I find myself thinking, Man, musicals are lame. Why would anybody spend their money on that? So I ask you, if they can manage to make me forget what I love about theatre in less than a minute, what chance do they have of holding the attention of the uninitiated? Why oh why can't they come up with an opening number that might make people want to see a Broadway show? Why can't they even come up with a number that will make people want to continue watching this show?

Perhaps some of you remember the opening number from 2000, when host Rosie O'Donnell condescendingly informed us that some of our "favorite stars" from TV (Megan Mullally, Jesse L. Martin, Jane Krakowski) got their starts on Broadway! "Betcha didn't know / She did a Broadway show," she sang of Mullally (to the tune of "Jesus Christ Superstar," to make matters worse), obviously addressing the audience "at home," not the audience in front of her at Radio City. Presumably most of them were very aware of said performers' stage credits; in fact, I bet some were thinking, "Oh, that's why Megan Mullally hasn't been onstage in a while." And there I was, watching "at home" and bristling at the suggestion that TV stardom is somehow more valuable than stage stardom (where have I heard that before?), not to mention the implication that I didn't know Jane Krakowski had starred in several musicals before landing on Ally McBeal. The number seemed grounded in the assumption that Broadway stardom is just a step up from obscurity, which might be true for the average TV viewer, but hardly seems appropriate for kicking off the Tony Awards. See for yourself:

This clip also highlights another perennial problem with the Tonys: the musical numbers tend to look and sound terrible on TV. The constant cutting from one camera to another means we can't get any sense of what the choreography looks like onstage (check out how bad this one looks once the chorus enters. Then, marvel at what happens to this excellent staging when you shoot it TV-style; the live audience applauds as the choreography falls into place, and the TV audience has no idea why). And of course, these performances were never meant to be seen in close-up. Meanwhile, the singers often have trouble staying in key (I get the impression they can't hear the band all that well) -- I mean, did you make it to the end of that Jesse L. Martin solo? "Gotta hear him sing," indeed. Yikes.

The bad decisions don't stop with the opening number, obviously. Every year, they find a new stupid way to present the "Best Play" nominees (remember 1999, when they had a bunch of actors stand in a semicircle reading random lines from their shows, like some kind of drama slam? That might have been the worst). Every year, they dig up TV and movie "stars" with no evident connection to the theatre and trot them out as presenters (why watch The Sopranos when you can see... Zach Braff! And Rainn Wilson!). Every year, the audience reaction shots make it painfully obvious that nobody in the control room is really sure who these people are. And every year, they run out of time (something the Oscars broadcast never has to worry about) and end up squeezing in the final award. "And the Tony Award for Best Musical goes to The Lion King good night everyone!" Sorry, Elaine Stritch, we would have let you finish your acceptance speech, but we had to make sure we had time for all of Hugh Jackman's "Wolverine" jokes. You understand.

And so, every year, I find myself scowling at movie actors who yawn their way through their presentations, and watching stuff like this in open-mouthed horror. Meanwhile, the most memorable moments -- graceful acceptance speeches, powerful performances -- are provided by people who have never once appeared in Us Weekly magazine. But, of course, I still watch. And I really do appreciate the fact that CBS airs the awards, and takes the ratings hit, every year, even if I also believe another, more arts-focused network could do a better job. So I guess I'm sorry-grateful. The move to a 3-hour broadcast was a good thing, and the decision not to have a host has been working for me, too. So I'm hoping I'll be pleasantly surprised this year. And in case tonight is business as usual, I direct you to this video gallery at the Tonys' official site. I just finished watching their "Tony Memory" interview with Joanna Gleason, and in that 4 minutes and 50 seconds my theatre-geek self found as much to enjoy as I hope to find in the entire 3 hours of tonight's telecast.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Broadway geeks like me are in the minority. CBS knows it, too; that's why, every year, they try to produce a Tonys telecast that non-fans will want to watch. And every year, they fail, and what we end up with is a telecast that nobody wants to watch."

If you generalize this idea, it is a great rule - it's just so true.

Like, say, for superhero movies - I can't remember a really good example at the moment.