Monday, June 12, 2017

71st Annual Tony Awards (American Theatre Wing/CBS-TV, aired June 11, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I set aside the evening to watch the 71st annual Tony Awards, hoping that the official start time of 8 p.m. would be inaccurate and they would actually begin earlier than that, like at 5 p.m. when the awards show actually started (8 p.m. New York time). Apparently the mavens at CBS decided that, even though the Oscar and Grammy telecasts are now conducted in real time because the ubiquity of social media has made it impossible to sustain the suspense over who won during the three hours between the live telecast to the East Coast and the tape-delayed one we West Coasters got, for such a New York-centric event as the Tony Awards, which specifically honor Broadway theatre, they could palm us off with a tape-delayed telecast and remind us once again that to the East Coast-centric mavens in charge of the American media, the West Coast still sucks hind tit. I’ve always been amused by the whole division of the New York theatre scene between “Broadway,” “Off-Broadway” and “Off-Off-Broadway” (wouldn’t going off Off-Broadway put you back on Broadway again?), which theoretically at least means that as you go from Broadway to “Off” to “Off-Off” you encounter descending theatre sizes and production budgets, but ascending levels of experimentalism and artistic (as opposed to commercial) qualities. 

The full name of the Tony Awards is the “Antoinette Perry Awards” and the show included a brief historical segment that told me something I hadn’t known: the American Theatre Wing, the group that gives out the awards, was originally founded during the First World War and it was then exclusively female: the Wikipedia page on the American Theatre Wing explains, “In 1917, seven ladies of theater — Rachel Crothers, Louise Closser Hale, Dorothy Donnelly, Josephine Hull, Minnie Dupree, Elizabeth Tyree and Louise Drew — converged to discuss the possibility of forming an organization to aid in war relief. All were active in Broadway theater as patrons, actors, or both (and Donnelly was known to me primarily as a writer whose most famous work is the libretto for Sigmund Romberg’s operetta The Student Prince). These seven, when they formed the said organization, initially called it ‘The Stage Women's War Relief.’ It established workrooms for sewing uniforms and other garments, with total output totaling 1,863,645 articles; clothing and food collection centers; a canteen on Broadway for servicemen; and began sending troupes of entertainers to perform wherever needed. In total, the group raised nearly $7,000,000 for the war effort.” Antoinette Perry herself wasn’t part of the original group but took part when Crothers reorganized the group at the outset of the Second World War in 1939, when it adopted the name “American Theatre Wing” and organized the famous Stage Door Canteen in New York to entertain American servicemembers. (Interestingly the entrance sign on the Stage Door Canteen made it clear that both male and female servicemembers were welcome, while the later Hollywood Canteen organized by Bette Davis and John Garfield said over its door it was “For Service Men Only.” I’ve often wondered what they would have done at the Hollywood Canteen if a WAC or WAVE member had shown up in full uniform.) 

Like most awards shows these days, the 71st annual Tony Awards was a rather lumbering spectacle, distinguished mainly in the fact that very few Americans have actually seen any of the shows being honored (it’s not like you can go to the multiplex or buy a CD — though almost nobody but oldsters like me still buys, or even downloads, CD’s anymore: the big thing now is “streaming,” which I can’t stand not only because I hate the technology but because it pays the artists far less than they get from actual purchases of copies of the material) and for a lot of us in the hinterlands out here the Tony Awards, and in particular the performances of numbers from the nominated musicals, are the only chances we’ll ever get to see many of these shows, or parts thereof. Interestingly, I just found out from the New York Times Web site that the night’s big winner, the musical Dear Evan Hansen, actually opened “Off-Broadway” at the Second Stage Theatre, though it must have “crossed over” to a Broadway house later to be eligible for a Tony Award. It’s a story about terminally alienated high-school students (stop me if you’ve heard that before!), including the title character, who writes himself pep notes — only one of them is stolen by an even more alienated kid, Connor, who signs Evan’s cast (Evan had broken his arm before the play begins) and subsequently commits suicide. The moral dilemma is Evan’s — pretend he was Connor’s bosom buddy and join his classmates in the “Connor Project,” an organized attempt to honor him and help Connor’s parents through their grief process, or admit the truth and acknowledge he didn’t know Connor from Adam. I suspect one reason it won is that musically, judging from Ben Platt’s performance of the opening song last night, it’s closer to the old-fashioned Broadway norm than the other shows that were up, which drew extensively on rock, pop, folk and other styles. 

Not that tapping modern music is a deal-breaker for the Tony voters: last year’s big winner, Hamilton, told the story of the Founding Fathers in general and Hamilton in particular in rap (and proved once and for all that rap, done right, can be serious, beautiful and even moving — I’ll never forget the Grammy Awards show when the cast of Hamilton, beamed in from New York, performed the show’s opening number and I thought, “Maybe rap isn’t so bad after all” — and then Kendrick Lamar came on and did a piece of utter garbage that showed what rap usually is) — but after the cultural phenomenon of Hamilton, the sort of show that got endlessly talked about even by the millions of people who’d never have a chance to see it (and incidentally kept Alexander Hamilton’s picture on the $10 bill because it made him so much more popular than he’d been before), just about any winner would have seemed like a comedown after that. Indeed, the biggest single public concern the American Theatre Wing and CBS had going into this year’s Tonys was whether anybody would bother watching when none of the four musicals nominated (Dear Evan Hansen, Groundhog Day: The Musical, The Great Comet — a truly weird show about Russia awaiting Napoleon’s attack in 1812, whose number in the Tony Awards was a weird jumble of Broadway, rock and Russian pseudo-folk — and Come Fly Away, about a small town in Newfoundland that suddenly had to take in a lot of refugees from outside who’d been stranded on the Atlantic coast by the 9/11 terror attacks and the subsequent cancellation of virtually all commercial flights for a week) had become the sort of national phenomenon Hamilton had. The Tony Awards performances were generally good, though the show’s biggest disappointment was that Bette Midler appeared only as an awards presenter and we did not get to see her do one of the galvanic numbers she performs as the star of the current revival of Hello, Dolly! Instead we got, as representative of that Best Revival of a Musical winner, David Hyde Pierce (best known as Kelsey Grammer’s prissy brother on the TV show Frasier) came on and did a number called “The Secret of My Success” that was cut from the original score of Hello, Dolly! during out-of-town tryouts but was restored for this revival — and it’s an O.K. song but not an especially funny one, and as far as Broadway spoofs of upward (and downward!) mobility go I’d rather hear the “Capital Gains” song from the 1960’s musical Subways Are for Sleeping

Midler won Best Actress in a Musical for her revival of Dolly Levi — thereby acing out the performers who in my opinion turned in the greatest performance of the night, Broadway veterans Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in a sort-of duet on the song “Face to Face” from the musical War Paint, about the bitter rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein for control of the American cosmetics industry and their shared struggles as women entrepreneurs to make it in a man’s world (and the idea that even something as quintessentially female as women’s cosmetics was a business controlled by men itself says volumes about institutionalized sexism!). LuPone and Ebersole tore into their big duet with a fiery intensity, and the brilliant staging of the number made sure that, despite the song’s title, the two actresses never actually faced each other. That was the high point of an evening that was long on professionalism but short on raw emotion — and if it hadn’t been for Midler’s star turn in Hello, Dolly!, the Tony voters would probably have blown up over having to choose between LuPone and Ebersole (both were nominated) the way those robots on Star Trek blew up when fed too much contradictory information. The imbalance between the Musical and the Play sides of the Tony Awards is always a problem for the show, and it was even worse this year because the producers decided not to present scenes from any of the non-musical plays nominated; instead they simply had the playwrights come out and make brief little speeches about why they had written them and what they hoped the plays would accomplish. The Best Play winner was Oslo,[1] J. T. Rogers’ work about the peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine at Oslo, Norway in 1993, which got Israeli and Palestinian leaders talking to each other for the first time but of course failed to achieve lasting peace between them — one can’t help but think that a play not only about Jews and Muslims talking to each other but a peace-minded U.S. President brokering the deal, or attempting to, is almost science-fictionally outdated in the Trump era —though quite frankly, of the four Best Play nominees, the one I’d be most interested in seeing is Indecent

This is an oddball script by Paula Yates centered around Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance and apparently takes place in three separate time periods: 1907, when Asch wrote the Yiddish-language play in the first place; 1923, when it had its U.S. premiere (in English, at the Apollo Theatre back when its neighborhood was still part of New York’s Jewish ghetto instead of its Black ghetto) and the entire cast was arrested for obscenity, and the show shut down, because it featured a Lesbian kiss between two women in the cast; and 1943, when members of the 1923 cast, having returned to Europe, re-stage the play in the Warsaw Ghetto while awaiting its destruction by the Nazis. Linda Winer’s review for Newsday asked, “Has there ever been anything quite like Indecent, a play that touches — I mean deeply touches — so much rich emotion about history and the theater, anti-Semitism, homophobia, censorship, world wars, red-baiting and, oh, yes, joyful human passion? … It’s a gripping and entertaining show with laughter and tears and a real rainstorm in which two women from the marvelous 10-member cast re-enact what, in 1923, had been the first Lesbian kiss on an American stage.” The other Best Play nominees are A Doll’s House, Part 2 (in which Nora Helmer, now a successful businesswoman and feminist activist, is forced to return to the husband she left at the end of Ibsen’s original after 15 years earlier because her husband never actually divorced her) and Sweat. The Tony Awards this year were hosted by Kevin Spacey, who actually won one years back but isn’t thought of either as a stage actor or the sort of personality who usually gets award-host gigs. He began the show with a lo-o-o-o-ong parody number that wasn’t too much fun for non-cognoscenti who hadn’t seen the original plays he was making fun of, and at a couple of points in the show he came on in heavy makeup impersonating Johnny Carson (acceptably but hardly brilliantly) and Bill Clinton (producing the funniest scripted line of the show, in which Clinton hails Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt’s designation as one of the 100 Most Influential People in America and laments, “You know whom he knocked off that list? My wife!”). Spacey’s most shining moment came at the end, when he led the cast in a musical number written in honor of Broadway by Bobby Darin — whom he played so beautifully in the biopic Beyond the Sea, for which he did his own singing and came so close to the real Darin a number of people thought he was just lip-synching to Darin’s records — and sang well. 

There were a few anti-Trump political gigs, most notably from Cynthia Nixon, who won Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Play for her part in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes and managed to turn in an anti-Trump comment simply by reading a bit of Hellman’s own comment on the play, to the effect that there are evil people in the world who make money tearing it up and other people who stand by and let them do it. (The lifelong Leftist Hellman would no doubt have approved.) Nixon also thanked her “wife” in her acceptance speech — thereby acknowledging herself as part of what will probably be a rapidly growing social category of Bisexuals who at different times in their lives have been legally married to opposite-sex and same-sex partners. (I admire Cynthia Nixon not only for having come out as Bisexual but for challenging flat-out the Queer orthodoxy that we’re “born that way” — in one of my last commentaries for Zenger’s I praised her for saying that for her as a Bisexual, it is a choice between straight and Queer.) Bette Midler’s speech had an entire line that was excised for censorship reasons — I love that woman but she really has a dirty mouth on her sometimes. (I’ll never forget the one time I saw her live, doing a presentation at the 1982 peace benefit concert at the Rose Bowl and telling a horribly unfunny joke about licking the insides of urinals — and then redeeming herself, even though she hadn’t been included on the program as a singer, by delivering a marvelous a cappella performance of one chorus of “The Rose.”) Charles, who came home while the awards were still half an hour from their end (and was surprised to see them continuing because he’d already seen who the winners were on Twitter), was especially moved that among the people Midler thanked for her Hello, Dolly! win were the people who had played the part before her, particularly Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey. The Tony Awards were fun, and they accomplished their purpose (at least for me!) of giving me glimpses of what’s going on on Broadway these days, but like most awards shows they were oppressive, with extended longueurs, as much as they were entertaining.

[1] — After the successes of the plays Copenhagen and Oslo, how soon can we expect to see plays titled Stockholm and Helsinki?