Monday, June 8, 2009

Tony telecast 2009

As I mentioned, I was less than enthusiastic about this year's Tony Award contenders. I haven't even seen any of the Best Musical nominees -- and worse, I don't particularly want to, even now. But I still watched, of course, and I found the telecast more enjoyable than I expected. This year it seemed to have a split personality: more pandering and embarrassing than ever when it came to musicals (and musical numbers), but at the same time rather dignified and not as desperate to impress as it has seemed in the past. Maybe that's because there were so many widely-known screen actors on Broadway this year, or maybe they just committed to not apologizing for honoring theatre as an art in its own right. But if it weren't for the fact that I turned off the television feeling thoroughly depressed about the state of the modern musical, I would have to give this year's Tony broadcast high marks. Since we couldn't watch together, I offer my traditional Restricted View recap.

That opening number -- talk about shooting your wad. Let's just throw all the shows and celebrities at the cameras right up front! Of course, it wasn't clear from the beginning that they were going for the full-on celebrity fireworks, but it was immediately clear that we were off to a technically shaky start. When they rehearse the Tony broadcast, does the sound designer attend? Because major microphone issues are pretty much standard. Did you notice, while the Jets and the Sharks were singing "Tonight" onstage, that their female costars were backstage warming up and getting ready to enter... and wearing live microphones? Too bad it wasn't noticed by anyone who might have been able to fix it. I couldn't believe how long that went on. And then... Poison? Really? You got Poison to appear at the Tonys -- and they had to be prerecorded? I was appalled by Bret Michaels's completely half-assed lip-synch job (loved how he coughed just when the camera came in for a closeup). But the pratfall at the end made it all worth it. Looks like somebody should have spent more time rehearsing!

Every Tony telecast seems to have one moment I rewind and watch over and over. This year's came about two minutes in. (Special bonus: weirdest Tony Red Carpet photo ever?)

But the opening wasn't over yet! We still had to deal with Stockard Channing and the guy from Next to Normal, bellowing at each other! Dolly Parton! Hair and Shrek and Liza Minnelli! It was like some kind of terrifying musical-theatre dream sequence. By the end I didn't know whether I was impressed or just confused and overwhelmed.

Now, Neil Patrick Harris: I have to admit, he was a very good host. Funny, efficient, knowledgeable, and not too hammy. I still don't understand or accept his success in musical theatre (and Sondheim in particular), but as long as he promises not to sing too much, he can have the Tony-hosting gig in perpetuity.

Jane Fonda presented the first award, for Featured Actor in a Play. I haven't seen 33 Variations, but I will say Zach Grenier was far and away the best thing about the Roundabout revival of A Man for All Seasons, so I'm happy he didn't get overlooked this year. And Roger Robinson is the best thing about Joe Turner's Come and Gone, so hooray, I'm glad he got the Tony. But he seems to think he has a lot more acceptance-speech time than he's going to get. Sorry, Rodge, but the theme of tonight's broadcast is "famous faces." You don't have one.

When I saw poor Brian D'Arcy James in full makeup during the opening number, I guessed that meant Shrek's performance would be up next. And here it is. In fact, the song doesn't feature Shrek, or Fiona, or the Donkey, at all, which I guess is why they kicked it off with a short dialogue scene. The charming penis joke reminds me why I stay away from DreamWorks projects as a rule. (There was an "ass" joke too!) Facial-expression-wise, Brian D'Arcy James manages to be funny under all that makeup. You have to give the man credit for that. But that song -- was that really the best thing they could think of to highlight from the show? It was punishing.

Now on to Featured Actress in a Play -- otherwise known as Angela Lansbury's Lifetime Achievement Award. Standing O! Everybody be sure to applaud enthusiastically, so you don't get caught not clapping and get tarred as an Angela-hater for the rest of your lives like a certain Ethan Hawke. (Would you believe I'm still getting hits from people digging for dirt on that whole non-incident?)

Neil Patrick Harris comes out to talk about the Broadway League. I didn't always live in Manhattan, so I'm all in favor of touring shows. But, I think to myself, if this turns into another excuse to include some damn Jersey Boys number, I will be way pissed. The Mamma Mia number that follows is bad enough. I mean, all snobbery aside, the problem with this being showcased on the Tonys is that it doesn't make any kind of case for live theatre. You'd hear better singing of ABBA songs at an ABBA tribute concert. Even what's supposedly good about Mamma Mia -- it's goofy! It's fun! -- isn't really coming across. It just looks amateurish and pathetic, which is precisely what we ought to be trying to convince the folks at home that musicals are not.

My flagging attention is revived by a quick audience shot of Brian Stokes Mitchell and John Stamos, seated on the aisle. So much dreamy in one place!

Will Ferrell comes out to present, which I am excited about, but -- as usual -- he's not nearly as funny as I expect him to be. He presents the Tony for Best Score to the Next to Normal team. I know that's the show I was supposed to be rooting for this year, considering the competition was Shrek and Elton John. But based on the ten-second snippets I've heard over the past few weeks, the music from Next to Normal doesn't sound all that much better. So I don't know how to feel about this. I'm hoping I will find something to admire once I hear a full song, because the "IIIIIIIIIIIIIII miss the mountaaaaaains!" clip they keep playing on NY1 and the "I'm alive! I'm alive! Alive! Alive! (etc.)" bit we heard during the opening number didn't exactly do it for me. I will have to just wish these songwriters well in the abstract.

Next, our pal Lin-Manuel Miranda comes out to set up the number from West Side Story. "In this bilingual production..." he says, and you can't really blame him for clinging to the notion that the production is "bilingual," since he was enlisted to make it that way. But one of the big disappointments of this revival -- and there are so many -- is that the Spanish-language element is pretty inconsequential. I still haven't gotten around to giving you my review of the show, but here's the short version: This West Side Story is West Side CRAPPY. And the number we're about to see gives some evidence of why. In fairness, the dance part looks a lot better in person, since dance numbers are always shot really badly on television. Hey, the stage is full of people executing complicated choreography in a group! Wouldn't this be a great time to do a lot of random closeups? But as you watch those closeups, I know you're thinking, What decade is this supposed to be set in? Why do the Jets' girls look like Drapes from Cry-Baby? (I don't know! Isn't it weird?!) Why does Matt Cavenaugh look like he's wearing his own street clothes? (I don't know! But guess who didn't get a Tony nomination for costume design?)

So, Susan Sarandon comes out to present some awards, and jokingly references her own not-so-great reviews in Exit the King. A bold move. For the record, I didn't think she was bad, but she probably isn't right for the part -- She's a presence, but perhaps not the presence that show needed. And honestly, that production isn't about anything but Geoffrey Rush, is it? She's always so low-energy when she does these appearances, though, and I wonder about that. And about how she botched her presenting gig here. Does she get nervous? Does she just totally not care? I don't know. I can't figure it out.

Matthew Warchus gets Best Director of a Play for God of Carnage. I assumed he'd get it for The Norman Conquests, but since I saw the former and not the latter I'm pleased with how this turned out.

Best Director in a Musical: so that's what Stephen Daldry looks like! Not what I was picturing at all. When I was in London in 2001 I saw the movie Billy Elliot and the play Far Away within weeks of each other, and ever since then I've been a fan. Which is not to say I've been interested in or fond of anything he's done since then, but still: Woo, Stephen Daldry!

Now it's time for a number from Rock of Ages, and all I can think is, This is what American Idol has wrought. Not just the stardom of Constantine Maroulis, but this whole let's-take-old-popular-songs-and-Broadway-them-up thing. I do not endorse this. Also, the interaction with Liza Minnelli was totally odd -- I enjoy anything that makes Liza chuckle, but shouldn't you have more of a plan if you're just going to start talking to a random celebrity? Especially one as unsteady as Liza? As the number ends, I do have to give them grudging credit for the blue glowsticks or whatever they are out there in the audience. It makes the whole spectacle look "fun." Still, no thank you.

So now it's time for the Special Theatrical Event award, which goes to... Liza! Liza! Liza! And Liza gets up on stage, and then the award is accepted by...the producer, who is identified as "Acceptor: John Scher." Like we want to hear the producer talk! Liza freaking Minelli is onstage! As he talks, I think to myself, she looks more like a drag queen all the time. I am endlessly fascinated by her Kermit-the-Frog legs, too. They just don't look like they could hold her up, and yet: she dances! Anyway, Liza finally takes the microphone herself, and you can feel everyone in Radio City Music Hall holding their breath. Please don't say anything too crazy, Ms. Minnelli... But please do say something a little crazy! And please do it fast, because nobody wants to see them have to play you off! She manages to make it through, and although the speech is odd, it's not public-breakdown odd, so everyone exhales and goes back to breathing normally. Phew.

Now we hear from Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden, both of whom are looking really, really uncomfortable in their gowns. It looks almost like they traded dresses as a prank just before they came out.

After they talk about God of Carnage, Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham come out to introduce the number from Guys and Dolls. Which means -- good news -- Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham will not be performing in the number from Guys and Dolls! Lucky us! So "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" falls victim to more catastrophic microphone problems. But once Tituss Burgess gets his handheld mike, it all goes fine. I still don't care to see the show, but I like this staging of this number. And it's the song I end up singing all day on Monday. Thank God there was at least one good old fashioned showtune representing Broadway tonight.

Now we're flashing back to before the telecast started, when Stokes and Laura Benanti presented the "creative" Tonys. I'm a little sorry I wasn't watching this live in Times Square. And I am sad that I missed a chance to see more of my man Stokes in his royal blue tuxedo vest and tie. And speaking of ties... There's a tie for Best Orchestrations! I guess we know what the headlines will say tomorrow!

Lucie Arnaz enters, wearing a gown with a very, very large shoulder bow. It is an unfortunate look.

Best Featured Actor in a Musical: I am sad that I didn't even realize this category included yet another young boy from Billy Elliot. I feel bad that his costars are getting all the attention. And of course his other costar is getting the award. It's sweet how Gregory Jbarra gets all teary.

Featured Actress in a Musical: I came out of West Side Story with only one good thing to say, and that was praise for Karen Olivo. She was amazing in In the Heights, too -- I wanted to see a nomination for her last year -- so this is richly deserved. And what a moving speech.

Carrie Fisher... Oh, dear, Carrie Fisher. That blouse is not doing you any favors.

We have yet more sound problems with the number from Next to Normal. In this case it isn't microphones, but rather sound balance, and tempo. Alice Ripley doesn't seem to be able to find the rhythm. Finally the song seems to straighten itself out, and I'm afraid I'm not any more enthusiastic than I was before. I blame Rent for shows that sound like this.

Leading Actor in a Play is the first category in which I've seen 4 out of 5 nominees -- in fact, except for Best Director of a Play, it's the first category in which I've seen more than one of the nominees. And, for what it's worth, I'm happy to see Geoffrey Rush win. Especially since he gives the acceptance speech of the night! Gracious, classy, funny, not too boring -- and at least the first line was plainly off-the-cuff. Very nice indeed.

It's time for the necrology. I love these. And this is a particularly good one -- even if the camerawork is trying to ruin it. I especially like the shot of the theatre marquee lights going out at the end.

Frank Langella's riff about how he was overlooked for a nomination would probably be funnier to me if I hadn't actually seen his hammy performance in A Man for All Seasons. He seemed like he was campaigning for a nomination right there on the stage, and I'm so glad he didn't get one. Still, heh. I laugh when he describes Geoffrey Rush's performance as "nice."

I am happy to see Marcia Gay Harden win, especially since she has such a well-prepared speech (she knew she was the favorite). And how nice of her to notice that Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer had been mixed up and to correct the record for folks at home!

With the number from Billy Elliot, the camera operators get another chance to ruin the effect of the choreography by doing lots of stupid closeups. And they do a great job. The one thing that makes me want to see that show is the thought of seeing those very talented kids dancing... But I still think I'd be happier if I just stayed home and watched the movie, you know?

I have trouble accepting that we're about to see a number from the touring production of Legally Blonde. This show wasn't even good enough to get a performance slot on the telecast the year it was actually on Broadway! Are you kidding me? For this people will have their speeches cut short. For this the next four awards will be rushed. I am ashamed.

I can't work up a sweat about The Norman Conquests, which wins Best Revival of a Play... I find Alan Ayckbourn fascinating in theory and a bore in practice. Not that I've had so much practice with Ayckbourn, but I'm not sure this three-play cycle is the right way for me to test whether my presumptions still hold. I'm glad Joe Turner didn't win, though.

When God of Carnage wins Best Play, I recall her win in 1998 (I was in the audience!) and say to the husband, "Now we'll get to hear a cute French-accented speech from Yasmina Reza." And then Reza steps up to the microphone and says, "Maybe you missed my accent? You wanted to hear it again?" How did she know?!

I will skip ahead to the performance from Hair. If there's a musical on Broadway this season that I'm predisposed to like, this is it. And yet... I don't know much about Hair, but it just looks so... stupid. Doesn't this look irritatingly brainless? I like the interaction with Anne Hathaway (who is a very good sport), but remember that Onion article I linked to a few posts back? I think whoever wrote it had just come from a performance of this revival. Also, as I watch the performers sing about how great "hair" is, it occurs to me that Forbidden Broadway, if not on hiatus, could do a very funny spoof called Wigs.

So, Hair wins the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, which pleases me because West Side Story didn't win. I'm amused that Hair is produced by the very hairy Oskar Eustis. And the Tony for most ecstatic facial expression goes to...the guy over Eustis's left shoulder. Maybe nobody told him they were going to win?

Leading Actress in a Musical goes to Alice Ripley. So perhaps the shame of Side Show was worth it! Alice is wearing a fabulous gown, but her acceptance speech makes me wonder if she might be having mental-illness issues of her own. It's "prepared," in a bad way, and the delivery is sort of unhinged. She doesn't actually say anything crazy, but she seems very likely to. Who knew Alice Ripley would make people more nervous than Liza Minnelli did?

When the nominees for Leading Actor in a Musical are announced, one of the Billy Elliot kids is ready to get up onstage as soon as he hears his name. Kid, we know you won, but try to act surprised, okay? Their speech is adorably awkward -- I'm kind of surprised no one thought to rehearse them a little more. But of course it's totally cute, so who cares.

Remember what I said about not wanting to see a number from Jersey Boys? I meant it. And yet, here we are. This makes the third time in four years we've had to listen to a number from Jersey Boys, and I call a moratorium, okay? Plus: five Frankie Vallis belting in unison -- I'm sure I've had that nightmare before!

So, having Liza present the award for Best Musical was probably not a great idea, since the presenter always needs to rush, and she doesn't seem up to that. However, having Liza announce that Billy Elliot wins makes for a great clip for tomorrow's news. I love that there is a cluster of small girls screeching with excitement onstage -- and isn't it a trip to see Liza and Elton John standing next to each other, in the middle of that crowd? Don't you expect them to start singing "Feed the World"?

I was hoping we'd get away without any singing from Neil Patrick Harris, but hey, at least it's a joke song. And he actually sounds better than I've ever heard him sound. And that's all she wrote -- the end of another exciting year of Broadway. If I was rooting against more nominees than I was rooting for, I can at least say that the broadcast itself was not a total bust. Here's to next year!


Anonymous said...

Constantine had done at least 20 stage productions prior to American Idol, like Macbeth, West Side Story, Hedwig and The Angry Inch, Rent, and he was a Boston Conservatory alum, majoring in Musical Theater (BA).

Anonymous said...

The interaction with Liza was rehearsed. I have the rehearsal video. She was part of the joke. No one was disrespecting her. It was the funniest moment of the night.

Mollie said...

Thanks for the bio on Mr. Maroulis, Anonymous. I can't say I ever gave it much thought one way or the other. I didn't say the Liza interaction was "disrespectful" -- I just thought it played out awkwardly. I assumed she was at the very least aware that it would happen, since you probably don't want to sneak up on someone like Liza on national TV. But considering the advance preparation, they might have come up with something more interesting to say or do. It came off as an empty space where a joke should have gone.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved the ROA performance. The Tonys never rocked that way before. I hope there's another performance like ROA next year.

Too bad that Billy performance was chosen, it didn't translate.

Michelle said...

Wow, Constantine Maroulis has actual theatre credits? Then why does he suck so much? Also, why did he look so sour grapes to be at the Tony's at all?

Anyway, even though I thought that Neil Patrick Harris was a bit of an obvious choice by CBS (because of course they're going to pick a star from one of their hit shows with a bit of theatre experience to host) he did really well. He sounded really natural and he didn't try to steal the spotlight from the larger performers (coughWhoopicough). I'm just glad they didn't go with Hugh Jackman.

floretbroccoli said...

Who would have thought that Rock of Ages fans are the largest part of your readership?

Perhaps Next to Normal sounds kinda sorta like Rent because they have the same director?

I stand by my love of NPH, in or out of Sondheim, but not so much in the pleather-or-something tuxedo. (So much Sondheim? A concert version of Sweeney Todd, Assassins, and a recording of Evening Primrose. Is there more that I'm forgetting?) I actually thought of you when he sang the closing song so well.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the Rock of Ages segment. I would have loved to have seen Rock of Ages and/or Constantine win. They were so much more entertaining than Billy Elliott. Watching little boys twirl chairs and basically have a fit or tantrum, if you will, is not something I would pay to see again. I see enough of that at home with my own kids.

Of course Liza knew that was going to happen. Didn't you listen to what she said when he forgot why he was there and she said "love" and he said oh yeah "love".

Mollie said...

FloretB -- I know, who knew!

Don't you think that's a lot of Sondheim? He was talked about during that time as a new masterful interpreter of SS's work, which was particularly irksome to me given the emphasis on the singing in each of those cases. But I will never understand casting actors who can only sort-of sing in recordings and/or concerts, where the singing is the whole point.

floretbroccoli said...

Toby is a minor part and Evening Primrose is a minor work. So we're left with his performance as the Balladeer in Assassins. I'd put him up against Patrick Cassidy as an interpreter of Sondheim any time.

I'm seeing reasons to be pretty on Sunday. Must remember to go to 45th Street and not to The Public, which seems to be the right venue.

Mollie said...

But Toby sings my favorite song in Sweeney Todd! And NPH destroys it. Of course, Patti has her own pitch problems singing live, so there's more than one reason I keep that recording on the shelf. But I say, if they could get Audra McDonald to sing the Beggar Woman's part, they could certainly have found a better singer for a character with as many songs as Toby has.

The minor status of Evening Primrose is part of the point -- at last, a recording of this score! I can put up with less-than-masterful singing on a cast album if I think someone was right for a part, but when there's no production to worry about, why not cast for the voice? I love "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here," and yet I can hardly stand to listen to it. It makes me crazy.

And the Balladeer... all he does is sing! I mean, come on now. We live in a world full of Gavin Creels. (And Constantine Maroulises, obviously.)

floretbroccoli said...

I saw the original Sweeney Todd and, much as I generally love George Hearn, it's only Len Cariou (and Angela Lansbury) for me. But the original Toby never made much of an impression on me.

As for Evening Primrose, there's always Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, if that's more your cup of tea.

I'm getting pretty tired of Gavin Creel. Maybe because I saw James Rado as Claude, and grew up on the original recording?

CJ/Rick said...

I liked your inside take in your review. The show didn't leave me wishing I had lived in NYC and seen these productions though.
I liked Jessica Lange's lil dig at NPH saying she had never met the A touch of Joan Crawford coming through.
Thanks for sharing you pov.

Alexandretta said...

Can anyone tell me where I can find the clip of Eustis' speech? I found the guy over his shoulder hilarious and I want to show it to my boyfriend.