Maybe the Tonys aren't a total sham after all.
That was my first thought when I got home Sunday night and saw the results of the 66th Annual Tony Awards. I didn't watch the show live, because I was attending a concert that night, but when I fired up my iPad and saw who won, I got a sort of warm feeling in my heart, as a result of years of cynicism and outright disdain for the Tony Awards suddenly melting.
I'm certainly not the only one to feel cynical about the Tonys, but it's gotten to the point where I'd just as soon go to a concert on the night of the Tony Awards as stay home and watch them live. I won't recount all the various charges against the Tonys over the past few years, but suffice it to say that Tony Awards don't always go to the shows and the people who genuinely deserve them, but rather to the shows that people have a vested interest in promoting. For instance, the show that wins Best Musical is usually not the best musical per se, but rather the one that simply has the best chance of making money on the road. Notable exceptions occurred last year with The Book of Mormon and in 2004 with Avenue Q, and, thankfully, this year.
What follows is my take on a number of the major awards of the evening. But before I get to that, just a note about the one glaring blemish on Tony's otherwise recovering complexion this year: that ridiculous number from the Royal Caribbean production of Hairspray. Why was it there? Because Royal Caribbean was a sponsor of the TV broadcast. As Vanity Fair put it, this only served to prove that "the Tonys have descended bow first into product-placement hell." Never mind that the performers were non-Equity, and that Equity itself was getting a special award on the same broadcast. (Cue: face-palm) But the fact that the Theater Wing is bending over to accommodate an advertiser is frankly appalling. What's worse is that, because the Hairspray segment took up valuable air-time, something had to go. And you know what went? The "In Memoriam" segment paying tribute to the members of the theater community who passed away during the past year. Yeah, I know. Sort of adds egregious insult to embarrassing injury, doesn't it?
Now let's take things award by award. Not every award, mind you, just the ones about which I have something to say. Click through the links on each show name to read my reviews.
Leap of Faith
Nice Work If You Can Get It
MY TAKE: The biggest upset since Avenue Q beat out Wicked, and in both situations the better show won. I'm so genuinely gratified that Once came out the big winner this year, garnering 8 awards in total. I think lots of people, myself included, were expecting a Newsies sweep. And, don't get me wrong, Newsies is a ton of fun, but Once is tender, honest, real, moving, and a ton of other warm and fuzzy adjectives. Perhaps the Tony voters have been listening to the feedback over the years and decided that they needed to do something to restore credibility.
Best Actress in a Musical
Jan Maxwell, Follies
*Audra McDonald, Porgy and Bess
Cristin Milioti, Once
Kelli O’Hara, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Laura Osnes, Bonnie & Clyde
MY TAKE: I would love to have seen this one go to Jan Maxwell in Follies. Audra is terrific in Porgy and Bess, but she already had four Tonys. Yeah, awards shouldn't really be about the past, only the present, but Jan Maxwell rocks in everything she's in, and I'd love to see her get some love one of these seasons.
Best Actress in a Play
*Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur
Tracie Bennett, End of the Rainbow
Stockard Channing, Other Desert Cities
Linda Lavin, The Lyons
Cynthia Nixon, Wit
MY TAKE: I'm so glad this went to Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur. She one of the most appealing, animated, layered, and energetic actresses I've ever seen, and she's simply a force of nature in Venus in Fur. Word on the street had this award possibly going to Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow, and make no mistake Bennett is terrific. But I would have been disappointed if the Tony voters had gone for Bennett's flashy Judy Garland impersonation over Arianda's equally flashy but far more nuanced performance.
Best Actor in a Play
*James Corden, One Man, Two Guvnors
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Death of a Salesman
James Earl Jones, The Best Man
Frank Langella, Man and Boy
John Lithgow, The Columnist
MY TAKE: Another upset. The smart money had this one going to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a known Hollywood and stage quantity, but thankfully the Tony voters were more impressed by James Corden's virtuosic hamminess in One Man, Two Guvnors. I saw the play twice, and I will forever treasure the sheer joy that Corden was able to impart through this farcical, physical work of unadulterated silliness.
Best Actor in a Musical
Danny Burstein, Follies
Jeremy Jordan, Newsies
*Steve Kazee, Once
Norm Lewis, Porgy and Bess
Ron Raines, Follies
MY TAKE: Danny Burstein is another Broadway stalwart who, like Jan Maxwell, deserves a Tony one of these days. But Steve Kazee is a understated marvel in Once, a smoldering and sympathetic presence who can also bust out a killer indie-rock wail that sent shivers down my spine both times I saw the show. A genuinely moving and memorable performance.
Best Revival of a Musical
*Porgy and Bess
Jesus Christ Superstar
MY TAKE: Another surprise, given the season-long controversy about Porgy and Bess, and the nearly universal love for Follies. I think this one might come down to the classically short memories that Tony voters often have, as Follies closed at the beginning of the year, and Porgy and Bess is still running. I really enjoyed Porgy and Bess, all three times I saw it, so this upset is by no means distressing to me.
Best Original Score
Bonnie & Clyde
One Man, Two Guvnors
Peter and the Starcatcher
MY TAKE: No surprise, and really no contest, although I'm a huge fan of the songs in One Man, Two Guvnors, and have the cast recording on regular rotation on my iPod. But it is nice to see Alan Menken get his first Tony, especially after the heartbreak of Leap of Faith closing so (IMHO) prematurely.
Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Elizabeth A. Davis, Once
Jayne Houdyshell, Follies
*Judy Kaye, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Jessie Mueller, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Ghost
Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Phillip Boykin, Porgy and Bess
Michael Cerveris, Evita
David Alan Grier, Porgy and Bess
*Michael McGrath, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Josh Young, Jesus Christ Superstar
MY TAKE: I was thrilled to see Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath receive recognition for their hilarious work in Nice Work If You Can Get It. The show is a wonderful piece of throwback fluff, made especially delightful by the presence of these two Broadway pros.
Rob Ashford, Evita
*Christopher Gattelli, Newsies
Steven Hoggett, Once
Kathleen Marshall, Nice Work If You Can Get It
MY TAKE: This one was a bit disappointing to me. Gatelli's work on Newsies is certainly impressive, not to mention omnipresent. But watching the dance numbers in Newsies reminded me too much of the American propensity toward finding things that are bigger, louder, higher, longer, and more expensive impressive simply for the sake of it. I would like to have seen this award go to either Kathleen Marshall, or preferably Steve Hoggett for his simple but wonderfully effective movement in Once.
Best Direction of a Musical - *John Tiffany, Once
Best Book of a Musical - *Enda Walsh, Once
Best Sound Design of a Musical - *Clive Goodwin, Once
Best Orchestrations - *Martin Lowe, Once
Best Lighting Design of a Musical - *Natasha Katz, Once
Best Scenic Design of a Musical - *Bob Crowley, Once
MY TAKE: On the whole, this passel of awards is really what made me happy about the Tonys this year. The Tony voters made smart choices rather than safe ones. They opted for dramatically purposeful work rather than work that was self-consciously labor-intensive and noticeably expensive. John Tiffany's direction was wonderfully heartfelt and evocative. Enda Walsh's book was spare but a marvel of economy. The sound, lighting and set for Once weren't flashy at all, but instead created this marvelous milieu in which the richness of the characterizations could shine. And the orchestrations were ingenious, and not only brought idiomatic sound to the show, but also made an asset of the potential liability of relying exclusively on the actor-musicians in the show's rather small cast.
So, on the whole, a really solid year for the Tonys. Will this usher in a new wave of quality and integrity in Tony voting? Or will the voters simply return to rewarding shows that are obvious crowd-pleasers and/or likely money-makers? Stay tuned.