Monday, June 8, 2015

69th Annual Tony Awards (American Theatre Wing/Broadway League/CBS, June 7, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I settled in and watched the 69th annual Tony Awards on CBS, a tightly knit three-hour extravaganza whose main appeal is getting to see songs from Broadway musicals and scenes from Broadway plays I wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to experience — and the long-term documentary value of the Tonys is that it preserves at least shards of theatrical performances that would otherwise have been lost. (Katharine Hepburn appeared on the Tonys during the run of her musical Coco and the one number from it she performed on the show is the only audio-visual evidence we have of her as a musical star — and though she really didn’t have a singing voice she was a good enough performer to act as if she had.) What was most interesting about this year’s Tonys was they provided yet more evidence of how much Broadway is sucking off its past glories —the nominees for Best Revival of a Musical included such cultural icons as The King and I (which won) — though I disagreed with the comment of one of the people involved that The King and I is the most iconic of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals (it’s really The Sound of Music, though that’s more due to the enduring popularity of the movie than any memories or later productions of the stage version) and Gigi, as well as On the Twentieth Century — the musicalized version of the 1930’s play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur called simply Twentieth Century, but the words “On the … ” were added so modern-day audiences would know the title referred to a train — which was produced recently enough I was surprised that it was being “revived.” Meanwhile, one of the leading nominees for Best Revival of a Play was another 1930’s work, You Can’t Take It With You by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and one of the “original” musical nominees was An American in Paris, which apparently qualified because it hasn’t been done on stage before even though it was based on the legendary 1951 film, which was itself based on the song hits by George and Ira Gershwin from the 1920’s and 1930’s and the George Gershwin tone poem that gave the film its title.

The people performing these shows now suffer from the unfair but inevitable comparisons with the people who either created or preserved these roles on film — when I saw Kristen Chenoweth, who also co-hosted the show and whose relentless perkiness really puts me off (if Shirley Temple had continued her career as an adult but insisted on playing the same kinds of parts she did as a kid, she’d have been Kristen Chenoweth), in On the Twentieth Century I found myself channeling my late roommate John (“There are no stars anymore”) and saying, “Kristen Chenoweth as Carole Lombard? I don’t think so.” At least Robert Fairchild, cast in the leading role of An American in Paris and doing a tiny bit of the fabled ballet that ended the movie as well as a couple of the pop songs that came earlier, looked enough like Gene Kelly to make the concept work, and while hardly as spectacular or acrobatic he is a good enough dancer to pull it off. But as nice as it is to see the role of King Mongkut in The King and I played by a real Asian, Ken Watanabe, Yul Brynner he’s not, and though she won the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical Kelli O’Hara hardly seemed a match either for Gertrude Lawrence on the original cast album or the bionic combination of Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon in the movie. The highlight of the telecast was an unexpected performance of “Ring of Keys” by Sydney Lucas in a show called Fun Home, the one musical showcased all night that was neither a revival nor a recycling of a movie or a nonmusical play. (One of the nominees was Something Rotten, a weird fantasy in which Nostradamus predicts to William Shakespeare that someday there’s going to be a genre of theatre called a “musical,” in which the characters will occasionally stop talking and start singing and dancing. He even predicts that there will someday be a form of dramas in which people won’t talk at all, just sing, which is ironic because the Florentine Camarata, the group that invented opera as a genre, was formed in 1600, when Shakespeare was alive, working and indeed at the height of his career.) Fun Home is based on Lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir of her growing up and her suspicions — later confirmed — that her dad was Gay and committed suicide over it. That’s not the stuff of which Broadway musicals are commonly made, and the song — in which a girl just about to enter puberty confesses a crush on a butch female delivery person who’s just dropped a package at their home — isn’t exactly typical Broadway either, especially since it means confronting the fact that people well below the “age of consent” already have sexual stirrings and desires, and quite often they’re made aware of them when they’re attracted to adults.

So it was nice to see Fun Home win the Tony Award for Best Musical, while the award for Best Play went to something called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Any Sherlock Holmes mavens like Charles and I will immediately recognize the title — it’s from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “Silver Blaze” and refers to the fact that the dog in Silver Blaze’s stable did nothing in the night-time — it didn’t bark or growl or bite anyone — and Holmes adding, “That was the curious incident” (it indicates to him that the intruder in the stable was someone well known to the dog and therefore a member of the household, not an outsider) —though the play has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes and instead deals with an autistic boy (played by Alex Sharp, who won Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Play) of 15 who has to prove his father not guilty of a murder of which the old man is accused. Another weird aspect of the Tonys is that, for a show that was the trail-blazer among awards programs in acknowledging the existence of same-sex relationships (I’ll never forget the electrifying moment in 1983 when one of the male producers of Torch Song Trilogy thanked a number of people including “my lover, Lawrence Lane” — indicating that it wasn’t just a play about Gay men but one largely created and brought to the stage by them), virtually all the winners this year had opposite-sex partners they thanked. Awards shows tend to be lumbering vehicles, and this one was no exception — the co-hosts were Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, who came out in an outfit of pink shorts and a matching shirt, and the jokes were pretty lame and only slowed down the proceedings — but it certainly piqued my curiosity about Fun Home even though it seems unlikely this show is going to make it to San Diego any time soon!