Monday, June 11, 2018

72nd Annual Tony Awards (Broadway League, American Theatre Wing, White Cherry Productions, CBS-TV, aired June 10, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s 72nd annual Tony Awards on CBS. There were a few fun facts I learned about this program, like the fact that the American Theatre Wing — the group that officially puts on the Tonys in association with the Broadway League, the management group of Broadway theatres — was not organized during World War II but one war earlier, during World War I, not only to provide entertainment for servicemembers but to coordinate bond drives and other ways celebrities could help raise funds for the war effort. (Indeed, one of the original organizers was Antoinette Perry, the actress for whom the Tony Awards are named — the full name, which appears on the award itself, is the “Antoinette Perry Awards.” Like most awards shows these days, the 72nd Annual Tony Awards was a rather lumbering spectacle, and this one was both helped and hurt by the fact that the two people hired to co-host, Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles, are both singers. It helped in that they sang a lot of the portions that in the hands of less musical hosts would have been comedy monologues, but that also was a disadvantage in that their songs together were mostly parodies of songs from current musicals and the point of the parodies was pretty much lost on people like me not up on the originals. (The funniest one was a parody of a song from the musical Waitress, whose plaint about the long hours and rotten conditions of waitressing got changed to a lament about having to perform the same show eight times a week.) 

It was also annoying that while the show presented numbers from famous musicals past and present — the major contribution the Tony telecasts have made to cultural history; without them we wouldn’t have any visual representations of Julie Andrews’ performances in My Fair Lady and Camelot (both of which were far better than those by the people who replaced them in the movies — the Audrey Hepburn/Marni Nixon combo in My Fair Lady and Vanessa Redgrave, a mediocre singer but a good enough actress to be able to pretend she could sing, in Camelot) — they didn’t label the individual performers, just attributing them to the “company.” They also didn’t always represent the musicals with the best songs: for the revival of Carousel (which got saddled with the expanded title Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, just as the revival of Edward Albee’s play Three Tall Women got called Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women — as opposed to Gladys Horowitz from Paducah, Kentucky’s Three Tall Women?) they picked Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s mock sea shanty “Blow High, Blow Low” (which I keep getting confused with the real sea shanty “Blow the Man Down”) instead of one of the show’s imperishable love ballads. (At least the costumes in “Blow the Man Down” showed off some nice baskets — there’s a thoroughly non-musical advantage for a Gay male viewer when they show an all-male number!) For My Fair Lady they at least represented it with a medley of three of the show’s best songs, “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and I wish I knew who the cast member playing Eliza Doolittle was so I could congratulate her on her excellent channeling of Julie Andrews in the role. 

For the newer musicals they not only didn’t identify the performers, they didn’t identify the songs either: the number(s) from Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical (I’m not making that up, you know!) actually had a certain professional charm (well, they were written by Billy Joel, who also turned up on the show to introduce Bruce Springsteen and joke that his one-man show Springsteen on Broadway could have been called “Jersey Boy” — or, as I counter-joked, “Jersey Boy Who Became a Rock Star Without Having to Sing in Falsetto”). One of the high points of the evening was the performance by the drama department of the Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which won the annual award for drama education — and while getting shot at by a mad killer seems like one of the weirdest ways to win an award, the students did a quite moving song and one white woman in the chorus stood out — she has a great soul voice and deserves a shot at stardom even with the cruel boost to her career presented by this bizarre exposure. The Tony Awards also indicated that the American artistic community is in many ways a private preserve cut off from the overall politics of the country — or at least of the 46 percent of it that elected the current President, whose name went unmentioned in the entire show (unless the reports of actor Robert De Niro’s speech — he was blipped almost from the get-go and the producers not only silenced him but put a blur over his face so you couldn’t read his lips — are accurate and he said “Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump!” over and over again — to which Stormy Daniels could respond, “Actually, I did — and it was boring”). Most of the musical awards, including Best Musical, went to The Band’s Visit, a stage adaptation of a 2007 film about an Egyptian band stranded in Israel and forced to spend the night with a local woman — and virtually everyone who won in connection with it mentioned that they hoped the show would actually help bridge the divide between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East at a time when President Trump and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who, you’ll recall, has blamed the Holocaust on Palestinian Arabs!) both seem to be going out of their way to increase tensions in the Middle East in general and Palestine in particular. 

The British National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (a show I avoided when it came around the first time because I was such a committed AIDS dissident I didn’t think a play that assumes the truth of the HIV/AIDS model would entertain me) won for Best Revival, and Kushner himself was one of the acceptance speakers and referenced the show’s inclusive politics even though, surprisingly, he did not mention that the real-life Roy Cohn, whom he incorporated into the play as its principal villain, was a major mentor, influence and role model for Donald Trump. I was also surprised to see Andrew Garfield accept an award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his Angels in America role, exhibiting the British accent he successfully suppressed in his Spider-Man movies — one doesn’t expect to see an actor who’s been in comic-book superhero blockbuster films turn up on Broadway and win a Tony! There was a much-ballyhooed performance by Bruce Springsteen that turned out to be a disappointment — he sat at a piano and played it while narrating a lo-o-o-ong story about growing up in Freehold, New Jersey and being surrounded by churches and graveyards, and ended it with just one chorus (the last) of his song “My Hometown.” If this is representative of Springsteen on Broadway, it seems he created the show by expanding the stage raps from  his concert and shrinking the amount of actual music. Springsteen is a compelling singer and songwriter; he’s not a compelling spoken-word artist, and this material will already be pretty familiar to anyone (like me) who read his recently published autobiography Born to Run. I was surprised that the 1990’s musical Once on an Island beat out Carousel  and My Fair Lady for Best Revival of a Musical — based on the number from it shown here it’s a fun showcase for Black performers but hardly at the level of the other two revivals nominated — and one of the best moments for me was the song that represented The Band’s Visit, “Omar Sharif,” if only because I’d associated Sharif only with his big-budget Western productions like Doctor Zhivago and Funny Girl, and here he is featured in a song sung by an Israeli woman who recalls seeing him in black-and-white movies made in Egypt which by a freak of signals she was able to receive on her TV from Egyptian stations!