Thoughts on Tony Awards 2015

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 3.07.09 PMThis is by no means a comprehensive review of the Tonys, but rather some impressions about specific bits that stuck with me. Maybe some will resonate with you. One quick note: because I’ve already written about Fun Home, I don’t say much about it here – but I was certainly delighted that it (deservedly!) won in a number of categories.

On and Off Camera
What we didn’t see and should have: Major awards, including best book and score for a musical (Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who gave what I’m told were among the best speeches in recent years); best choreography (Christopher Wheeldon); and an honorary Tony to Tommy Tune.

What we did see and shouldn’t have: A lame dance break, dedicated to Tune. An unnecessary closing number from a 10-year-old musical, The Jersey Boys. Lots of unfunny camping between our hosts (see below), including Kristin Chenoweth in a bald cap and a rubber E. T. costume. Someone named Ashley Tisdale introducing her bestie, someone named Vanessa Hudgens, who then appeared in a number from Gigi, which could not have looked more effortful or less effervescent. (There’s plenty more, but that’s enough.)

Off-camera Tony winners Lisa Kron and  Jeanine Tesori

Off-camera only Tony winners Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori.

The Award Presenters
It’s a lost cause to point out what’s been obvious for years now – that, apart from nominees, no actor will be asked to appear on the Tonys unless she has a recognizable TV or movie profile. Major artists who have spent their careers in the theatre apparently have no role to play in an evening dedicated to celebrating the art form they have served honorably for decades.

Broadway great Christine Eberole (left) did not present a Tony Award; non-entity Ashley Tisdale (right) did.

Broadway great Christine Eberole (left) did not present a Tony Award; nonentity Ashley Tisdale (right) did.

The Emcees
Former Tony host Neil Patrick Harris was seen as a tough act to follow (not by me, but apparently by others), and last year’s replacement – hopping Hugh Jackman – was an ineffective substitute.

So, all eyes were on the much-promoted novelty pairing of Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming.  Both are greatly talented performers with a proven Broadway track record – but both should come with a warning label.  Not long ago, she had genuine charm, but her persona is increasingly shrill and plastic. He reeks of smug self-regard, and is most effective in small doses.

Seen here, they were a grotesque pair of naughty, middle-aged children – Struwwulpeter at Radio City Music Hall. (I was sure there was gag built into Cumming’s itty bitty suit-with-shorts – that Angela Lansbury would emerge as Mame, to give him his first pair of long pants – but it didn’t happen.)

Almost 50 years ago, the marvelous if irascible writer, William Goldman, opined in his book, The Season, that there’s a kind of theatre star, greatly beloved by critics, who is pretty much a walking freak show.  I commend you to his essay, “Critics’ Darlings,” which is as good an explanation of KC & AC as I can imagine.

Come back, Neil Patrick Harris! You, at least, behave like a functioning adult, and we need you more than I thought!

Grotesque middle-aged children — 2015 Tony hosts Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming.

Plays Versus Musicals
It was clearer than ever that the Tonys don’t have an effective way to talk about and present plays (as opposed to musicals). At most, we get a one-sentence synopsis and a quick sound bite of dialogue. Faced with having to showcase a convoluted “medley” of best play nominees, even the normally poised and classy Bryan Cranston seemed flummoxed.

The key problem is what appears to be a fundamental fear on the part of Tony producers – that if there’s even a moment not filled with action, audiences will be bored.

It’s an impossible paradox. As any true theatre lover understands, some of the greatest moments on stage are quiet ones. (No one knows this better than one of last night’s winners, Helen Mirren, who can do more with a tilt of her head than many actresses can in a whole performance.) But theatre as-seen-at-the-Tonys is all noise, all the time – “Color and movement,” as Dame Edna would say.

So musicals are much more Tony-friendly than plays – and even here, the emphasis is on big and loud and busy. Personally, though, I much preferred the too-short moment we had of Kelli O’Hara in The King and I – her authenticity and quiet charm were sheer magic.

The Tonys love to showcase musicals (Lisa Howard in It Should Have Been You, left); plays (Helen Mirren in The Audience, right, not so much.

The Tonys love to showcase musicals (Lisa Howard in It Should Have Been You, left); plays (Helen Mirren in The Audience, right), not so much.

The Winners
Though I saw quite a bit of theatre in New York this year, I don’t think there’s a major category where I saw every nominee, so I shouldn’t judge. I’ll just say that I was happy to see Annaleigh Ashford win for You Can’t Take It With You – she was captivating in the show, making something special of a role that doesn’t look like much on the page.

And I was thrilled to see Kelli O’Hara finally get a Tony. I haven’t seen The King & I, but I’m fortunate to have seen her often – South Pacific, Pajama Game, Follies, Dracula, Light in the Piazza. Each of these performances was luminous, detailed, authentic, and ravishingly sung.

Luminous -- Tony winner Kelli O'Hara.

Luminous — Tony winner Kelli O’Hara

Categories: Criticism, Television, Theater

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4 replies »

  1. Thank you for these observations, David. An additional category comes to mind: “How Not to Do the In Memorium Segment.” “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a perfect song, but why that freakishly odd key, Josh Groban? D-flat major or something? I also question the director’s choices. It was impossible for me to see some of the (tacky) slide show-esque projections above the heads of those backup Broadway Hallelujah choristers. I would much rather have had Ms. Ebersole standing at a microphone, reading a list of names while the orchestra played sad and low.

    • I felt bad for Groban, whom I often like, especially when he doesn’t over-sing. But the song obviously doesn’t lie well for him — I think it’s better suited to a legit mezzo/alto voice, as it was written. Mostly, the camera seemed glued to him, which I assume was in the hope that some channel-surfer at home would see Josh Groban’s face and decide to watch. More generally, I agree that the whole thing was tacky — I don’t ordinarily think of the Oscars as a source of good taste, but it’s been done much better there.

  2. Groban proved himself to be all hype, as usual, and no talent. Perhaps he is a good recording artist, but I have never heard a live (taped) performance where I felt he deserved his reputation. I agree, I could not read those names either, if you are going to show the names of the dearly departed, we ought to be able to read them.

    I’m not sure how Broadway could be having such a record breaking season. It must be ticket pricing, not the shows. Ken Watenabe (great in some films) just pales against Yul Bryner (of course). Fun House does look interesting (and I loved your review David), but the rest put me to sleep for the most part. I would not want to be paying top dollar for those shows. I am a fan of “Curious Incident” (for obvious reasons) from the book through the National Production. (Benjamin saw it there last summer and was wowed.) Have not heard how it translated to Broadway. When the kid got up to accept his leading actor award, he just happened NOT to mention anything about autism, or the rights of the disabled. A little too politically correct, or not enough. And if Kristin plugged CBS one more time . . . . .

  3. Sage observations. Why send out Mary Louise Wilson or Harriet Harris when Marg Helgenberger is available?

    It sucked that Larry David got more TV time to whinge ( albeit entertainingly, it was brilliantly funny to allege anti-Semitsm in re this particular milieu) about not having been nominated than Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori did for winning best book and score of a musical

    At least we can content ourselves that the name “Lauren Bacall” may never be mentioned again at a Tony Award ceremony.

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