Monday, June 10, 2019

73rd Annual Tony Awards (American Theatre Wing, CBS-TV, aired June 9, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night CBS-TV aired a three-hour presentation of the 73rd annual Tony Awards, hosted by James Corden — one of the blandest and least interesting personalities in modern entertainment. When he stopped in the middle of the show to do a number from a restroom — the gag being that hosting the Tonys is such an arduous gig that whoever does it spends literally the next year hiding out in a restroom stall — the lyrics he was “singing” (if, to appropriate Dwight MacDonald’s description of Haya Harareet’s “acting” in the 1959 Ben-Hur, “I may use the term for courtesy”) contained references to all the tweets he gets saying he has no discernible talent at all, to which I replied, “I agree!” Corden started the show with an opening “song” about the glories of live theatre and in particular the thrill of being in the same room, in real time, as the people who are entertaining you, as well as the demand that you have to be there on a certain date at a certain hour and you can’t just “stream” it later.

The big winner last night was the musical Hadestown, which judging from the number presented in the show (the main reason I watch the Tony Awards is for these snippets of performances that are as close as those of us who don’t have the money to travel to New York and score tickets for these shows will come to seeing them — the Tony Awards have also preserved snippets of performances otherwise lost, including Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady and Katharine Hepburn in Coco) is a recasting of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in which Orpheus is white (and, this being the 21st century, plays an electric guitar — actually guitars are pretty recherché by now but he could hardly be expected to trundle a synthesizer or a DJ’s turntables and mixing board with him into Hades!), Eurydice is racially ambiguous but the waitstaff of Hades seems to be Black (and their song, which seemed to be a mashup of two numbers called “Wait for Me” and “Who Are You?,” was yet another knockoff of African-American gospel). Hadestown won for Best Musical, Best Score (Anaïs Mitchell) and Best Director of a Musical — and the winning director, Rachel Chavkin, mentioned in her acceptance speech that she was the only woman nominee in that category and turned it into a heartfelt plea for greater diversity and more women and people of color on both sides of the Broadway stage. “There are so many women who are ready to go, there are so many artists of color who are ready to go,” she said. “It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job it is to imagine how the world could be.” Right on, Rachel Chavkin! Though Chavkin was essentially calling theatre in general and Broadway in particular for being far more committed to equality in rhetoric than in real life, it was clear from the political references in the show (the Donald’s name was never mentioned, but it didn’t have to be) about breaking down barriers and showing the commonality of people from different racial and cultural backgrounds that in the hyper-partisan America of today, the people who make theatre and hand out Tony Awards are in the anti-Trump party of cosmopolitanism and inclusiveness, the side Trump’s supporters believe has virtually destroyed America and needs to be pushed back into its “place” in order to “make America great again.”

The Best Play winner was The Ferryman, which I might have thought was also a reference to the Hades myth but it’s actually about the second “Time of Troubles” in Northern Ireland (the war between the Roman Catholic Irish Republican Army and the Protestant Ulster Unionists between 1969 and the 1990’s, when Irish-American U.S. Senator George Mitchell brokered a peace deal — the first “Time of Troubles” occurred between 1916 and 1922 in what is now the Republic of Ireland and was between people who were content with a so-called “Free State” in which Ireland could essentially govern themselves but acknowledge Britain as being under ultimate control, and those who rejected the “Free State” and sought full-out independence). The Best Revival of a Play award went to a new production of Mart Crowley’s pioneering 1970 drama about Gay men, The Boys in the Band — and to my astonishment Crowley himself was alive and well enough to accept the award personally even though a number of the original members of his cast were among the earliest victims of the AIDS epidemic. Though one would think The Boys in the Band would seem so horrendously dated now the only way to do it would be as a pre-Gay Liberation period piece, reviving it now in an age in which the vice-president of the United States is on record as wanting to eliminate all government protections for Queer people and supporting so-called “conversion therapy” aimed at turning Queer people straight (at best it turns people totally asexual and at worst it produces more sexually and psychologically screwed-up Gay and Lesbian people) is almost as radical as it was to produce it in the first place.

The Best Revival of a Musical award had only two nominees, Oklahoma! (actually the official title of the production is Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, presumably to avoid confusion with the Oklahoma! George Gershwin started writing in 1937 and Kurt Weill finished after Gershwin’s death — memo to my readers: I made that up) and Kiss Me, Kate, and it went to Oklahoma! even though I’d rather have seen it go to Kate, if only because Kate was done as a straight (an unfortunate word choice given that its composer/lyricist Cole Porter was Gay!) revival without any rewrites or reconceptualizations to make it more “relevant” to today’s audiences. Oklahoma! was done with the original book intact but with an on-stage “audience” as well as the real audience, but I liked the fact that the winner for Best Featured Actress in a Musical was the Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, Ali Stroker. When the cast of the Oklahoma! revival was brought on for the song “I Cain’t Say No,” a problem I have myself, Stroker was in a wheelchair and I assumed she was using it onstage to create a character. When she won her award and came out to accept it in her wheelchair, I realized she needs it in real life — and I was delighted with the decision to cast a disabled woman as the town slut. (Needless to say, Stroker’s acceptance speech contained a plea to producers to cast more actors and personnel with disabilities as a part of the overall goal to make theatre more inclusive.)

The Best Book of a Musical award went to Robert Horn for Tootsie, a stage adaptation of the 1982 movie in which struggling actor Dustin Hoffman suddenly finds success when he dons drag and auditions for a female character part in a soap opera. One Los Angeles Times article said that the musical Tootsie was more “Jewish” than the film — which seemed strange considering that the leading actor in the movie was Jewish and his part was played onstage by non-Jew Santino Fontana (who won the Best Actor in a Musical award and said in his speech that he was one of those people who lay awake in bed at age 2 or thereabouts and already dreamed of stage stardom). All too many of the shows being honored by the Tonys were rehashes of hit movies from long ago (Bryan Cranston won for playing Peter Finch’s old role in a stage adaptation of Paddy Chayevsky’s and Sidney Lumet’s film Network, and in his speech he warned of the dangers of demagogues — ironic since he’d won the award for playing a demagogue!), and frankly instead of just doing Tootsie the way it was on screen in 1982 I would have rather seen a remix of the original plot in which the experience of “playing” a woman leads the leading man to realize he’s always been Transgender and “really” a woman in his inner being.

The one thing that really annoyed me about this year’s Tony Awards is that, while they continued the traditional practice of having the actors from the musical casts perform numbers from their shows, they did not include featured scenes from the nominated non-musical plays. Instead, they simply had the playwrights come out and give short speeches about their works — and for a play called Choir Boy, which got nominated in the “Play” rather than the “Musical” category even though music is integral to it, they had the playwright (Tarell Alvin McCraney, who also wrote the script for the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight — also a tale about a young Black man coming out as Gay) give a speech and then performed a scene from the play. Choir Boy seemed to me the most interesting of all the shows nominated and the one I’d most like to see; it’s about a boarding school for young Black men that has a music program that trains people to sing spirituals and gospel music as part of the school’s choir — only the male lead is a closeted Gay man who tries to negotiate the contradiction between the school’s idea of ethics (and the religious tradition whose music he is being trained to sing) and his own inner life. I give McCraney a lot of points for his speech, especially his use of “Queer” as an inclusive term for our community instead of that preposterous series of letters we got stuck with (one woman, announcing the winner of the humanitarian award, praised the honoree’s work on behalf of the “LGBTQ+” community — the sentiment is nice but the ugliness of the designation still appalls me). Charles would have liked his speech less than I did because, while the first time he said “often” he kept the “t” silent, the second time he pronounced it.

Overall the 73rd annual Tony Awards was worth watching — in terms of Queer inclusion I should also mention that one of the nominated musicals was The Prom, in which four over-the-hill actresses descend on a small town that has decided to cancel the high-school prom altogether rather than follow a court order that a Lesbian student be allowed to attend it with a female date (the other nominees were Tootsie, Beetlejuiceanother rehash of a 1980’s movie with a leading actor considerably larger and less entertaining than Michael Keaton — and The Cher Show, which made me groan if only because it threatens the depressing prospect that Cher’s endless cycle of “retirements” and “comebacks” will continue even after she’s dead, since they’ll just get other people to “play” her — apparently Cher is played by three different people in this show, reflecting her at different ages, and I wonder whether Sonny Bono appears as a character or not), along with Ain’t Too Proud, a biomusical about the Temptations (though the number that showcased it featured a James Brown-style soul screamer and I don’t think anyone actually in the Temptations ever sang like that). It was fun watching the numbers and getting a feel for the current state of Broadway theatre, at least the musical end of it, as well as watching a bunch of people on TV who think inclusivity and cosmopolitanism are virtues while our country is governed by people who think they’re vices!