Tony Awards Recap: We Ponder The Highs And Lows Of A Show About Shows

Jun 11, 2012
Originally published on June 12, 2012 5:44 pm

The Tonys, like all awards shows, are about successful people dressing pretty to congratulate each other for being successful. Can't get past that.

But the Tonys, to me, always seem just a little less gross than the Oscars or the Grammys or the Xtreme Video Music Firewalking Awards or what have you.

Maybe that's because so few people watch them. (Last night's audience was down 9 percent from the year before.) Or maybe it's because theater people, bless their scrappy hearts, buy into the illusion a little less; deep down, they know they're at a costume party, and they're just riding out the ceremony waiting for the open bar.

More likely, it's because theater is such an evanescent thing. Each performance is a one-off thing; each show ends its run. You can film it, but the magic isn't there. (Viz: that awkward Salute to the Year in Plays segment last night.) You try to remember it, but the details fade — or they take on the amber glow we wrap the very best memories in, which is a different kind of misremembering.

That said, I couldn't be happier about the triumph of Once, the scrappy little musical that shouldn't have swept the ceremony. It's a bittersweet story about a thing that can't last, as it happens, and it took home eight awards out of 11 nominations, including the critical Best Musical trophy. I asked the producers, jokingly, how many cities they'd been planning on touring it to yesterday morning, and how many they're planning on touring it to now. They replied, with a laugh but quite seriously, that they're going on retreat with their booking agents this week to sort out exactly that.

Was it Linda Holmes on last night's live-blog, or somebody on Twitter — I forget — who pointed out that James Corden's surprise win in the Best Actor/Play slot was particularly gratifying, in that it's a recognition that comedy is hard? (Not that playing Willy Loman isn't; no offense, Philip Seymour Hoffman, though heaven knows you don't need any more prizes.) But Corden's win — like the one for Christian Borle, the uproarious Captain Hook-in-training in Peter and the Starcatcher — were welcome acknowledgments of a reality that this rich profile of one of America's great classical actors digs deeply into: Even the best dramatic actors can be downright terrified of the risks comedy requires.

I'm always pleased when Audra McDonald does good work — she rarely does any other kind — but I do harbor a little regret about five-time bridesmaid Jan Maxwell being left at the altar again. At least they're both in exclusive clubs: McDonald has won five performance Tonys, which puts her up there with Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris, while Lansbury and Maxwell are the only actresses to have been nominated in all of the acting categories.

Oh, and the fizzy, amusingly uncomposed Nina Arianda,who won Best Actress in a play and then nattered charmingly on at the microphone? We said this last year, but I just want to reiterate: You'll be seeing more of her. She's just been officially crowned theater royalty.

Last night's show probably spelled the end of the line for shows that have been living on the bubble — our buddy Jeff Lunden points out that The Lyons and maybe End of the Rainbow could post their closing notices soon, without Tony wins for stars Linda Lavin and Tracie Bennett. The former is an especial shame; playwright Nicky Silver is one of the American theater's oddest, most irascible voices, and it's always good to hear from him.

Conversely, the win for McDonald — and for Porgy and Bess itself, in the Best Revival of a Musical category — may spark an uptick in attendance at that show, which has seen soft numbers lately.

Other winners: Judith Light, whose chops are sometimes obscured by the context she's working in. And the nonprofit theater, which, as the director Michael Kahn pointed out while accepting the Regional Theater Tony, developed every last one of the Best Play nominees before Broadway got its commercial hands on them.

As a show? Well, that's another way the Tonys are unlike other trophy-fests. The vast majority of the TV audience hasn't seen the plays and musicals being celebrated; that's why you get production numbers from The Book of Mormon, which wasn't in contention this year, and Hairspray, which isn't even running in New York anymore. (And Ghost, which is running but wasn't nominated for much, and good God did you see that terrible song?) More than other awards shows, the Tonys are about selling the product they're celebrating, which can make for a certain degree of ick.

Thank god for theaterfolk, then. Imagine anyone but Harvey Fierstein introducing that tacky cruise-ship Hairspray clip-job; he brought just the right amount of eye-roll to the job.

And imagine anyone but Neil Patrick Harris, with his aerial Spider-Man gags and his song-and-dance suavity, in the host's spotlight. Remember when we had to make do with the likes of Hugh Jackman?

Come to think of it, that guy wasn't too shabby either. Curiosities and all, this year's Tonys were more evidence that if there's one thing Broadway performers know how to do, it's put on a live show.

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