Each year at this time if you listen carefully, you can hear the hoots and howls ranging from “We was gypped” to “How can you ignore the brilliantly reviewed originator of a role and give the nomination to her replacement?” And there are a few comments like “They nominated ME? And I only have one scene in the play!” and “I’m so proud to have a nomination, but winning doesn’t matter; I’m just so proud to be part of the theatre community.” So as everyone else is sounding off and submitting opinions, please indulge me if I offer a comment or two of my own.
I don’t care if the Tony Awards Show on CBS has the lowest ratings of all the Awards Shows that are telecast (about 12 of them at my last count). It is to me, and always has been, the most entertaining of them all, the one that clearly gives the greatest bang for the buck. And with Neil Patrick Harris hosting again on June 10th, I’m confident the Tony Show will have every crack at an Emmy Award of its own.
For this year, all 8 nominees for Best Musical and Best Revival of a Musical will join last year’s winner The Book of Mormon in offering a musical sequence with its Broadway cast letting America know that theatre in Gotham is alive and well. Now, come on – can you compare those 9 blockbuster numbers to the previews of coming attractions that are whizzed by us at the movie palaces? Or the 20 second quick cuts alerting you to tomorrow night’s episode of “Hot in Cleveland?” No contest.
These musical numbers do so much to plant the shows they come from in our memories that the backers of poor dear Leap of Faith came up with $150,000 to include a number on the telecast just to remind folks they went down fighting, with only one nomination — for best musical! — before they collapsed from starvation at the box office.
I won’t go through all the categories (there are 21 of those) but a number of them do pose problems for the voters. All four nominees for Best Play are excellent — Clybourne Park, Other Desert Cities, Peter and the Starcatcher and Venus in Fur are all beautiful, bountiful with imagination, imagery, relevance, wit, surprise, craft, all the good things that make a play memorable. Me? I’d have all for of them tie for “Best.”
But the musicals fall far behind the plays in quality, with Newsies leading the pack in terms of potential longevity, but it’s hardly a great musical. Nice Work If You Can Get It is a mish mash of great and not so great old Gershwin tunes attached to a craftily stitched book vaguely based on a very early Gershwin hit called Oh, Kay! but it’s not nearly as good as some other examples of this genre from the past, shows like Crazy for You and My One and Only.
Though Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara are charming stars, neither of them are properly cast in this show, and they don’t light up the sky the way Tommy Tune, Twiggy and Harry Groener did in those earlier compilations. Nice Work is helped enormously by supporting players Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath, and it’s light and breezy, it’s just not ‘the best’.
Once has great quality, but it seemed to me more comfortable in the small off-Broadway house in which it first played New York, and does not offer what a large audience wants from a musical uptown. Lots of charm, but a bit off beat and small for genuine excitement. I admired it, but it did not do for me what I expect a great musical to do.
Which leaves the big flop of the season, Leap of Faith. Based on its almost universal pans from the opening night press, I expected little, and got a lot. Believe it or not, of the four nominees, I found this one, the $14,000,000 flop, the best of the lot.
But it only made clear the sad state of the American musical in this second decade of the 21st Century. We lost a generation of writers to the AIDS epidemic, and rock and roll took care of the next one. We won’t get back to the high standards of the golden age and the 1980s that followed it until we get a grip on what musical theatre was to those who cherished it in our salad days. All we ask is a return of melody, wit and craft, for all three have taken a powder.
The Book of Mormon, which opened about ten musicals ago, is the last to give us that kick that used to send us out into the night feeling younger, or wiser, or more in touch with the big feelings that real life sometimes forces us to keep suppressed.
Part of that loss is due to the over indulgence of electronics. For 2,000 years we did without microphones. OK, they might make a seat in the second balcony seem a little closer to the stage, but the Tony nominations for best sound design at least gave honor to Scott Lehrer for Death of a Salesman, Gareth Owen for End of the Rainbow, Paul Arditti for One Man Two Guvnors and Darron West for Peter and the Starcatcher, all of whom know the difference between “enhancement” and “distortion.”
You will note there isn’t one nomination for the sound design of a big musical, and that has to be because, almost without exception, they destroy the live theatre that feeds them by turning musicals into something akin to a rock concert, and by doing so all nuance, humor, individuality disappear. There have been exceptions – Porgy and Bess (sound design: Acme Sound Partners) comes to mind, but the rule seems to be: “Louder is Better”. Wrong.
I talked with one of the Tony voters recently, who told me he’d lost interest because of some of the most egregious omissions from the list of nominees. His biggest complaint was the non-nomination of Joe Montello as director of Other Desert Cities. “How,” he asked, “can you give a play five nominations, including “Best Play” and not include the director who cast it, staged it, selected the nominated designer, etc.?”
He also noted that James Earl Jones was placed in the “leading actor’ category though he is clearly playing a supporting role in The Best Man and that Angela Lansbury, who received unanimous raves for her work in the same play, was ignored. It’s his opinion that this was strictly a political move, in that Ms. Lansbury has won five Tonys in the past, and had she received a sixth win, she’d have broken all records for winning. I tend to agree with him, but I suppose we are doomed to inconsistencies and maneuvering for position.
The good thing about the bestowing of awards like the Tony is that it brings attention and hoopla to the theatre in general, which is good for all of us whose enjoyment of life would be diminished were the fabulous invalid to fall prey to the current trend to lower the standards.
We’re getting to the point where Broadway’s musicals consist of little more than American Idol Live On Stage and So You Think You Can Dance? and Rock, The Antidote to Musical Theatre, with a couple of revivals from the 1920s through the 1960s thrown in for the diehards over 50.
For the rest of us, get out the cold cuts and beer, put the kids to sleep early (unless you want to give them a real grown up treat) and tune in Sunday night for the Best Show of The Year, the one in which everyone is a winner, starting with you and me.
[Editor's note: Washington, DC will be featured at the Tonys when Michael Kahn receives the Regional Theatre Tony Award , plus we have seen DC productions of Follies, Master Class, Venus in Fur and Clybourne Park.