Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Tonys on TV

Once, during an interview on his fictional chat show, the Martin Short character Jiminy Glick interrupted his guest (whoever it was) to announce, apropos of nothing, "Marvin Hamlisch: I don't think he should wear jeans anymore." I am afraid that this is what comes to my mind when I turn on CBS to watch the 61st Annual Tony Awards and see Mr. Hamlisch perched atop the Radio City marquee, playing the vamp from "One" on a piano that has equally improbably been placed atop said marquee. He is not wearing jeans, at least as far as I can tell, but after a few moments I stop thinking about him and start thinking about how well the number is working. It's professional, it's inviting, it's appropriate -- even the headshots gimmick works (although, Sam Waterston, who are you kidding with that headshot? Your hair hasn't been all-black since I'll Fly Away). I haven't seen an opening number that worked this well since the year 42nd Street was on Broadway, and I wonder now, as I did then, why they don't just do it this way every year. Why not always have one of the nominated musicals perform right at the top of the show? It saves time, it saves trouble, it saves embarrassment. We are off to a very good start.

Angela Lansbury is introduced, and I'm a little disappointed when she actually comes out. Not that I don't love Angela, but hearing her name announced makes me think of that 1992 Carnegie Hall Sondheim tribute concert where Bill Irwin pretended to go on in her place ("Good evening... My name is...Angela Lansbury..."), and I'd love to see Bill Irwin now. The audience applauds enthusiastically for the real Angela -- all except for Ethan Hawke, so of course the camera cuts to him. Whatcha got against Angela, Hawke? Ms. Lansbury reminds us that she hosted the Tony Awards 39 years ago, and reprised "Bosom Buddies" with Bea Arthur. I remember them re-reprising that song, or at least a few bars of it, much more recently, and I'm afraid it didn't go so well -- in fact, it was a disaster, and I have nightmare visions of it every time I see an ad for Deuce. But Angela is doing a better job with the teleprompter tonight, even though she's saddled with the obligatory dialogue about how "many of your favorite stars were once in the theatre, back before they got real jobs!" Of course, she's been dealing with that for years; how many people my age know her only as Jessica Fletcher and/or Mrs. Potts?

Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Applegate, the first presenters, actually make their prewritten dialogue sound... well, I won't say spontaneous, but at least sincere. I am impressed. They introduce the nominees for Featured Actor in a Play, and John Earl Jelks is the evening's first "I brought my kid as my date!" nominee. I'm rooting for Anthony Chisholm -- kind of arbitrarily, since I didn't even see Radio Golf yet, but I've read it and I saw him in Gem of the Ocean, so I figure the picture in my head is pretty accurate. Anyway, The winner is Billy Crudup, who immediately turns me off with his crack about "I want to thank [the presenters] for pronouncing my name correctly!" Gosh, sorry, Billy Croo-dup, I won't ever talk about you again, if it bothers you so much.

Robert Sean Leonard and Vanessa Williams make another fine pair, and remind me why it's so hard to watch other awards shows after being spoiled by the Tonys. Stage actors are good at being onstage, and even when they're reading canned nonsense like this, they find a way to sell it. Whereas film actors have an embarrassing tendency to stiffen when hauled onstage, so that you might as well have the award presented by a bucket of dead fish. Anyway, these two present Featured Actor in a Musical, the award about which I am most conflicted. I expect John Gallagher Jr. to win, because his performance in Spring Awakening is so committed and energetic. But I was nagged throughout the show by the sense that the choices to which he was so committed were bad choices, and so, while I'd like to see his talent recognized, I'm not sure I want this performance to be rewarded. But I can stop worrying about it, because when he wins, his gratitude is palpable, his speech is prepared and eloquent, and the audience is psyched.

Then it's a sharp cut to David Hyde Pierce, who tells us the number from Curtains is coming up. The whole thing looks so professional, I can't help but be impressed -- although I am disappointed when I realize he's not actually beginning the number, he's just teasing us. I'm not sure how I feel about having to hear Heidi Klum's thoughts on whether there is indeed "a little bit of Broadway in everyone" (she says yes, for the record) when we come back from the commercial, but whatever. I'm DVR-ing this, so eventually I'll fall behind and be able to fast-forward through all this end-of-ad-break silliness.

Before presenting the Best Book of a Musical award, Jeff Daniels name-checks the Circle Rep, and the audience applauds... and the writers don't make him follow it up with any nonsense about how now he's a movie star! I am beginning to think I was too hard on CBS; this broadcast actually seems to have been crafted by and for theatre lovers. As for the award, I'm not sure Steven Sater's book for Spring Awakening is as good an adaptation as it might have been, and on a purely structural level, it's less than solid. But I wasn't so thrilled with Doug Wright's work on Grey Gardens, either, so Sater squeaks by with extra points for invention. The best part of his acceptance speech is the reaction shot of Jonathan Groff, who looks like he just got what he most wanted for Christmas. That right there is why Spring Awakening is a thrilling show -- those kids in the cast clearly love it so very much, it's hard not to get swept up in their excitement.

Somebody (forgive me, I forget who) introduces John Kander, who introduces "Show People," a number from Curtains. This means the number has a total of three introductions, which is a lot of buildup for a song that's nothing special. But I'm glad they found a way to work John Kander into the proceedings. As usual, the cutting back and forth from camera to camera blunts the impact of the staging -- when the camera cuts to Debra Monk just in time for her line, and then cuts away as soon as she finishes, I'm so busy trying to follow what's going on I don't even notice that her line is supposed to be funny. What a relief it is when they finally pull back and show the whole stage: that dancing really looks like it's worth the price of admission.

As soon as that ends, a spotlight finds Audra McDonald and John Cullum, in costume and in character, reciting (what sounds like) a few lines of dialogue from 110 in the Shade. Are they going to start their number right away? ...No; the voice-over lady tells us they'll be coming up later. The audience is confused, and I'm confused, but at least they're keeping us on our toes!

Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs, though still passable, are the roughest presenter pair so far -- guess they weren't practicing at home. I wouldn't mind terribly if the award they're presenting, Best Score, went to Grey Gardens -- those songs didn't add up to much in the end, but number for number, they were excellent. Spring Awakening gets it, though, and on the way to the stage Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater both stop to give a smooch to -- Michael Cerveris? Huh? Sater gets to give a chunk of this speech, too, and by now I feel like I've heard just about enough of him and his coy referencing of the show's song titles. It was cute the first time, Sater.

Next up, Anika Noni Rose races through her cue-card dialogue, and I wonder: is she nervous? Has the stage manager urged her to make it quick? Donny Osmond seems to be in a hurry, too, so I'm guessing it's the latter. Seems a little early to be watching the clock, but I guess a stitch in time saves us from having to cut a number at the end of the show. Anika rattles off the Featured Actress in a Musical nominees without reducing speed, although she finds time to slip in a "my friend" when she gets to Orfeh. The Tony goes to Mary Louise "no relation" Wilson -- hooray! I'm thrilled to see her recognized for her immense contribution to Grey Gardens, and she's not at all sentimental about it. Smart pantsuit; gleeful howl; admission that she thinks she deserves it, which makes the audience laugh, but of course she's right. (Harvey Fierstein laughs, too, but not the two tremendously bored-looking little girls sitting behind him. They'd rather be watching Hannah Montana.) Mary Louise's work here is done; she thanks her stylist and heads offstage.

On comes Phylicia Rashad, who has outdone herself with the Earth Mother muumuu look this year. She glides onstage looking as wide as a barn door in what seems to be a tie-dyed white undershirt, size XXXXL, and I make a note to check out what they have to say about this at Go Fug Yourself tomorrow. (Please tell me they'll get some pics from the Tonys eventually -- it would make my day!)

As I watch "Raunchy," the number from 110 in the Shade, I reflect that everything I've heard about this revival boils down to: it's worth seeing for Audra McDonald, and pretty much only for Audra McDonald. But, of course, what isn't worth seeing when Audra is involved? Based on the evidence here, I can't say the critics have overlooked any other strong points in this production... but still, that Audra. Man. I think I need to get my ticket now.

I've never seen that cute little Mark Indelicato on Ugly Betty, but I sure hope he's more comfortable on a television set than he is on that little platform with the stars of Mary Poppins. The fidgeting, the unnaturally bright smile, the eagerness to please, it all makes me nervous, and reminds me why I was so glad they didn't cast actual children in Coram Boy.

After the commercial, Bebe Neuwirth and David Hyde Pierce present the Choreography award together -- a nice way to make the TV fans happy without condescending to theatre snobs like me! I even laugh at their silly "choreographer" joke, mostly because Bebe looks so pleased with its success. And then, the award: Bill T. Jones brings home another for Spring Awakening. He does not do that silly "Vogue" routine on his way up to the stage, but he comes close.

Rainn Wilson (again, alas, no relation), presenting with Claire Danes, makes me wish he were in character as Dwight, but I suppose the person receiving the award (Featured Actress in a Play) might not appreciate being upstaged. When Danes calls the names, Xanthe Elbrick gives the camera a cute wave, then claps, then stops clapping and says to her date, "I'm not supposed to clap!" I've often wonder whether the nominees decide on a strategy beforehand -- I mean, to clap for themselves or not during their 2 seconds on-camera -- and it's fun to watch that decision playing out in real time. Jennifer Ehle wins, and whoever dressed her in that two-piece, mermaid-skirt outfit ought to get a trophy as well. (She does thank her dressers, but I don't think she means for tonight.)

Mark Indelicato is back, and he's just as awkward this time, but at least his bit is mercifully short. The Mary Poppins number only makes me want to watch the movie, which has a lot more to offer in the way of inspiration than "Anything can happen if you let it." Sell a lot of T-shirts with that lyric on them, do you? And the "Step in Time" sequence is, unfortunately, a textbook study in how good choreography loses its impact if you try too hard to make it look exciting on TV.

Time for "A Look Back at the Year in Plays," a reasonably snappy montage, after which the camera finds Claire Danes in her seat, looking around, confused about something. What was that about? Who knows. Did I rewind and watch it again, twice? Yes I did. Sometimes we have to make our own fun.

As for Best Direction of a Play, well, I didn't see Coast of Utopia (I know, I know, I'm not proud of it), so I can't say Jack O'Brien didn't deserve to win. But can say that I walked out of Journey's End thinking, "That was so well directed," and that doesn't happen often, so the winner in my heart was David Grindley. I'm not sure about O'Brien's "Now let's have no more nonsense about the state of the American theatre!" sendoff, since The Coast of Utopia is by a British playwright and all. But he meant well.

I love that the orchestra's playing "Comedy Tonight" as Eddie Izzard takes the stage (though I kind of wish he'd glammed up for the occasion). It's nice that they've decided to let him come out on his own and be funny, although at first it looks like he'll be anything but -- I rewatched that first joke at least seven times, and I never did decipher the punch line. (Please fill me in if you figured it out.) He warms up, though, and offers a mental image of Jay Johnson knifing Kiki and/or Herb that cracks me up (ditto Bebe Neuwirth). His demonstration of how the presenter's binder squeaks if you blow into it like a harmonica was also kind of awesome. And then, finally, he read the nominees for Best Theatrical Event, and the audience discovered that -- how awkward -- Kiki and Herb were seated right behind Jay Johnson! "Kiki" was definitely dressed for the occasion, and I was sorry not to have a chance to see that acceptance speech. I think Jay Johnson won the Restricted View award for most boring speech of the night, mostly because it did not involve ventriloquism at all. I know you're not a trick pony, Jay, but throw us a bone and make your Tony Award talk, just once!

Speaking of boring speeches, it's time for the American Theatre Wing people to describe all their benevolent activities, which means it's time for me to refill my beverage... But wait a minute, what's this? Why, this skit with Jane Krakowski and John Mahoney is actually funny! Of course, it would be nice if the camera would pull back, so we could see all of what the audience members are laughing at, but I guess you can't have everything. Anyway, I enjoy this immensely, and I think everyone involved (except for the Theatre Wing people) should be nominated for the Special Theatrical Event Tony next year. If only the skit had ended with Jane Krakowski and John Mahoney walking offstage, instead of with the reappearance of the not-funny Theatre Wing personnel -- we know they're not really crushed beneath that chandelier, folks, you don't have to prove it. I am left with two questions: was it a sound glitch, or did they intentionally bleep out what Mahoney said about his gift basket (possibly a belated reaction to his not-bleeped "goddamn")? And, should Sondra Gilman be concerned that Jane Krakowski's gag wig looked better than her (Gilman's) actual hair?

Next, Marvin Hamlisch, still not wearing jeans, introduces the montage of The Year in Musicals. Who doesn't have fond memories of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? Awkward silence greets the clips of The Times They Are A-Changin'.

Michael Mayer wins the Tony for Direction of a Musical for Spring Awakening, as well he should, and he recognizes a handful of people whose work was not eligible, including the sound designer, which I second. Wrapping up his speech, he takes an unfortunate but not surprising turn into righteous self-congratulation, something about ending sexual repression, which is just a bit overblown. But this is the first pompous gesture we've had tonight, and it was bound to happen eventually.

Patti LuPone looks terrible when she comes out to introduce the number from Company. And about Raul Esparza's performance of "Being Alive," I will say only this: did anyone else find themselves snickering instead of sniffling? There is a thin but distinct line between "intense" and "silly," and I'm afraid he spends too much time on the wrong side of it.

The Best Play presentation, with its not-too-short clips from each show, is as dignified as any I've seen. But why is it that Julie White sounds like she's shouting into a microphone in every clip from The LIttle Dog Laughed? Was this taped Off-Broadway? And if so, why did she sound so bad live when I saw it on Broadway? I can tell you one person who wouldn't be nominated for the nonexistent sound design Tony...

The nominees for Best Revival of a Play are represented by 10-second clips from the show, and it seems they picked the least exciting 10 seconds of Inherit the Wind. Weird. This is the one and only category in which I've seen every nominee, and if anything but Journey's End had won, I'd have... Well, I'd have written a really angry blog post about it, and we all know what trouble I can cause when I do that. Fortunately, the best candidate won, and now I can blog about David Grindley's crazy plaid pants instead. Here I go: those are some crazy plaid pants.

Uh-oh, Tommy Tune is singing... but only for 20 seconds! Did they cut this segment short? Thank heavens for small favors. I like a good necrology as much as the next guy, but... that really wasn't a good necrology.

Back from commercial, it seems nobody told Kevin Spacey and Jane Krakowski to hurry it up -- or maybe they just didn't listen. But aren't they adorable? They're presenting the Revival of a Musical award, which goes to Company; I wasn't so enthusiastic about that show, but I also didn't see any of the others, so I'll just keep quiet. This leads to the evening's first drowned-out acceptance speech, but I didn't really want to hear from another producer anyway.

Audra McDonald and Ned Beatty come out to present the Tony for Leading Actress in a Play, and I think Audra looks a little bit like Phylicia Rashad. Or like Phylicia Rashad would have looked if she hadn't worn an oversized pillowcase instead of a flattering gown. This award goes -- hooray! -- to Julie White, whose reaction is nearly as entertaining as her performance in The Little Dog Laughed. She actually looks kind of angry, shouting "You have GOT to be kidding me!" as she stomps toward the stage. But she also looks like a million bucks -- great gown! Her speech is probably my favorite; it's definitely the most fun to read.

I thought Grey Gardens had many flaws (to go with its many charms), but one of the biggest and most inexplicable flaws was the creators' failure to do anything at all with the film's most enigmatic character, Jerry, the Marble Faun. Introducing the number from Grey Gardens (or rather, threatening to introduce it), Matt Cavenaugh had more to work with than he does in the entire second act of the actual show, and that shouldn't be.

Back from commercial, and now we're seeing, not a number from Grey Gardens, but instead a number from... Jersey Boys? Which wouldn't be so bad if it didn't sound so bad. Things are going all right until Christian Hoff takes over -- yikes -- and then, when all 4 actors sing together, they just sound like four guys shouting into microphones. Ah, the magic of live theatre. They're singing "Oh What a Night," which of course means it's time for the recap of the creative Tonys, distributed earlier this evening! Remember the couple of years when they did a preshow ceremony, broadcast on PBS, that contextualized each award before it was presented? That was so educational, so enjoyable and so quickly eliminated. Now all we have is the recap, and I'm happy to see that Duncan Shiek got the Orchestration award, and Kevin Adams got the Lighting award, both for Spring Awakening. Not that the show needed another couple of trophies, but what can I say? It deserved those too.

Leading Actor in a Play -- what a category! (And hey, look, that's Naomi Watts!) I was rooting for Boyd Gaines to win this one, but Frank Langella is okay with me, too -- except, now that he's won, will it be more difficult for me to get a (non-full-price) ticket to see Frost/Nixon?

If you read my Grey Gardens review, you've heard what I had to say about "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," so I will just add that the number works a lot better in the theatre than it worked on TV. If the live audience was laughing in the right places, I couldn't hear them, and I really hope it was just a sound problem. Somehow Christine Ebersole came off looking simply good, instead of supernaturally great.

I found it a little bit weird that, after going on about honoring playwrights and their contributions to actors' careers, Christopher Plummer didn't read the playwrights' names along with the titles of the Best Play nominees. Oh, and The Coast of Utopia won, of course.

Time for the Spring Awakening medley! Nicely staged, nicely stitched together, nicely performed... but really badly filmed. Cameramen, show us the whole stage just once! Please! Let us know what we're looking at before you try for the close-ups! And try not to position the camera in such a way that we'll end up looking only at the top half-inch of Jonathan Groff's hair while you fumble to get a better shot! The filming wasn't so terrible that I couldn't appreciate the attention to detail that went into this number -- the adjusted "set list" on the onstage chalkboard; the audience members on the risers. I admired how they handled the censorship issues with creativity, letting it shape their performance instead of just interfere. But I groaned when the cameras tried to join in the onstage chaos by swooping in and out while the cast bounced around. No, you stand still and they move. That's how it works. Otherwise, you ruin the careful showcase effect. Sigh. It figures they'd save their worst camerawork for the best musical number of the evening.

Speaking of musical numbers, I cry bullshit on this link between the Alliance Theatre's special Tony and Fantasia's performance. But since Fantasia, "Broadway's newest star," was going to perform whether they could justify it or not, I suppose the gesture was nice. And since I've never seen American Idol, I am pleasantly surprised to discover, Hey, she's good! Much better than the song (from The Color Purple), for sure. And it beats listening to Jesse L. Martin sing "Razzle Dazzle." (Warning: don't click that link, at least not if your sound is on.)

Bernadette Peters emerges, and I love the color of her gown -- whatever that color is called, it's my favorite. (I think the color of her hair may be my second-favorite.) With her is Harvey Fierstein, and would it really feel like Tony night without his making a mildly off-color, mildly funny joke about how he's gay? (Did you realize that?) And the Leading Actor in a Musical Tony goes to... David Hyde Pierce! I didn't see that coming! I guess I need to see Curtains now. I'm also kind of surprised to hear him thank his "partner, Brian," even though the thanking-your-partner thing is hardly new at the Tonys. For a former sitcom star, it still seems edgy, somehow.

Do you think Ben Vereen and Usher's mutual admiration festival was planned? Because they certainly took their time, and I don't begrudge them the attention, but fellows, we're on a tight schedule here. I want Christine Ebersole to have a chance to give her entire speech, because I expect it will be well planned (just a hunch). They get around to presenting the award eventually, and she wins. Duh.

Finally, the award for Best Musical: Spring Awakening! Hardly a shock, at this point, but the show is all about energy, so you can't blame the audience for being energetic. I enjoyed watching Angela Lansbury try to extract herself from the horde of producers swarming the stage. An interesting group they are, too: Tom Hulce? Tamara Tunie?

As usual, the show ends in a rush, but after 3 hours I'm ready for it. And ready for bed. Overall, as I said, a very well-run show; a few exiting moments, and no embarrassing ones. I'll spend the rest of my week singing "Maaaaama who bo-ore me..." and I'll spend the rest of the summer trying to see the winners I haven't caught yet (and the losers that haven't closed yet). And the Tony countdown starts all over again! What did you think, all you fellow geeks?

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