Wednesday, June 11, 2014

68th Annual Tony Awards (American Theatre Wing/CBS, June 8, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve been attempting for the last three days to find time to write about the 68th annual Tony Awards, which Charles and I watched “live” (actually on a three-hour tape delay — the East Coast-based media giants never let us forget that we on the West Coast are sucking hind tit when it comes to the big awards shows, the Oscars excepted) on Sunday night. The show was hosted by Hugh Jackman, an actor I have quite a lot of affection for — his Clark Gable-esque performance as the Drover in Baz Luhrmann’s almost totally neglected near-masterpiece Australia is a great piece of acting that should have established him once and for all as a major star and not just a superhero (I have all the X-Men movies on DVD and even I’ve lost count of how many times he’s played Wolverine!) — but he did a really silly opening number that showed him hopping (literally!) on Broadway as he passed the theatres where the major nominees were playing and more or less introduced them. The winner for Best Musical was A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a ridiculously clunky title for an adaptation of the film Kind Hearts and Coronets (why they felt obliged to change the title is a mystery to me) and the winner for Best Play was All the Way, which one might have thought would be a bio-musical about Frank Sinatra but instead was about President Lyndon Johnson pushing the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress. It helped that Johnson was played by Bryan Cranston, who in his 50’s managed after a decent career as a TV character actor to grab the brass ring on the AMC “original” TV series Breaking Bad. (I’ve never seen an episode of Breaking Bad in my life and I still haven’t forgiven AMC from abandoning its original mission as a classic movies channel — though the advent of TCM in the 1990’s helped soften the blow considerably.)

Cranston won the award for Best Actor in a Play and Best Actress in a Play went to Audra McDonald for one of at least three bio-musicals that actually were nominated, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, in which she played Billie Holiday. (It’s her sixth Tony — a record — and hers is one of the few performances I would actually want to see; McDonald acknowledged Billie’s suffering and early death in her acceptance speech and said she deserved more than the world gave her — true, but didn’t Billie bear some responsibility for her own screw-ups?) Best Featured Actress in a Musical went to Lena Hall for her part in Hedwig and the Angry Inch — Hedwig is a Transgender rock singer in 1980’s East Germany and the “angry inch” is what’s left of her dick after her male-to-female gender reassignment is badly botched — this was originally a movie and one I avoided because the concept bothered me, though the featured number for it, Neil Patrick Harris (winner for Best Leading Actor in a Musical) belting out a credible alt-rock song and sounding like a cross between Wendy O. Williams and Chrissie Hynde, actually came off quite well and was one of the high points of the program. The winner for Best Featured Actor in a Play was Mark Rylance for Twelfth Night by Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford — at least that’s who Rylance believes wrote it, which caused a mini-controversy a few years ago when Rylance was appointed to head the Royal Shakespeare Company and some people in Britain questioned the propriety of picking someone to head the Royal Shakespeare Company who’s publicly on record as believing that Shakespeare didn’t write “Shakespeare.”  Fortunately he ducked any mention of this controversy during his acceptance speech.

There were some good numbers among the 17 total performances in the show — notably the early medley of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” from After Midnight (which looks like one of those mindless but fun celebrations of African-American culture that have been a staple on Broadway since the success of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in the late 1970’s), “One Day More” from the current revival of Les Misérables (the lead singer was African-American and I wondered if there were any real-life Black people on the barricades in France in 1848 — then he opened his mouth and so totally outsang everyone else on stage that it was obvious why he’d been cast), “Friend Like Me” from the musical version of Aladdin (sung by a Black singer named James Monroe Iglehart, who was so outrageously over-the-top he made Robin Williams, who voiced the Genie in the original movie, seem subtle by comparison) and the high point of the evening, a duet on Carole King’s song “I Feel the Earth Move” between King herself and the actress who plays her in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (the third bio-musical up for awards — besides the ones about Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin), Jessie Mueller — who won Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical and, judging from what we saw of her, thoroughly deserved it. Not-so-high points included the feature song from A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder — its creators proved incapable of having upper-class Brits sing on stage without making them sound like Gilbert and Sullivan characters (though there are certainly worse models!) — as well as a dramatization of the last round of the climactic fight from Rocky (the critic from The New Yorker stressed the difficulty of reproducing this on stage eight times a week, but it’s one of those things that happens because it can and not because there’s any good artistic reason for it to); a duet between Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba (in the original Oz stories by L. Frank Baum she was called “Momba,” by the way) the Bad Witch called “For Good” from the score of Wicked (which judging from the two songs I’ve heard of it is an absolutely putrid show; I liked it better when the Wicked Witch was Margaret Hamilton reveling in her wickedness without any redeeming qualities whatsoever) and a lyrically rewritten version of Clarence Williams’ blues classic “’Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do” from a musical adaptation of the Woody Allen film Bullets Over Broadway — yet another project that seems to have happened merely because it could and not because there was any compelling artistic reason to (though one can understand Allen’s jealousy that a fellow Jewish comedian, movie director and alumnus of Sid Caesar’s writing room, Mel Brooks, has had hit musicals based on his films).

There were also songs like “Finding Neverland” from an upcoming musical based on Marc Forster’s marvelous film, and “On My Way/Raise Me Up” from Violet (a show based on an obscure movie about a facially disfigured girl who travels across the country to meet a televangelist she’s convinced can heal her — which sounds to me like yet another off-take on The Wizard of Oz!), that were redeemed by great Black soul voices, and another preview of an upcoming musical, The Last Ship, with Sting (a visibly aged and bald Sting, which really made me feel old) coming out and doing the title song from his show about the closing of the shipyards in his home town and how it affected the people who had defined themselves as shipbuilders for so long (Detroit, take note!). The song didn’t sound as powerful to me as Sting’s earlier treatment of the same material in his concept album The Soul Cages 20-plus years ago but it was still worth hearing — and yet more evidence that the truly great songwriters of the modern era generally don’t work in musical theatre! Overall the 68th annual Tony Awards was a lumbering spectacle which ran 15 minutes overtime (unusual since in previous years the Tonys have been one of the most tightly schedule-policed of the big awards shows) and still didn’t include the “In Memoriam” segment (audiences in the hall got to see it but TV viewers didn’t), and the lead producer of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder sounded so much like the stereotype of a Broadway producer that if Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers is ever revived, he’d be a perfect candidate for the lead role played by Zero Mostel in the movie and Nathan Lane in the original stage production!