Monday, June 11, 2012

Musings on the Tony Awards

As awards shows go, the Tonys have always been especially dear to me, not only because I am an avid theatergoer who researches and writes about the stage musical, but because the members of the industry who gather to recognize one another always seem, at least to me, like some of the realest celebrities you ever get to see on television. The Emmys, Grammys and Oscars focus on the famous, the mega-famous, and the mega-mega-famous; people who are expected to spend weeks in advance preparing for the events, who get picked to shreds if they end up in the wrong outfit or if they say the wrong thing or if they seem somehow off-kilter during the course of the evening. I read once that many film industry people believe Cuba Gooding Jr's career ended when he gave that over-enthusiastic reception speech for Jerry Maguire. I don't know if that's true, but I wouldn't be surprised in the least if it were.

When it comes to the Tonys, though, the stakes are traditionally just not that high. Not nearly as many people are watching, because not nearly as many people care. This is what has always made the Tonys special: It's cool to come off a little shabby, or a little crazy, or a little distracted at the Tonys. It's cool to swear, or to make tons of inside jokes, or to ramble on a titch too long during reception speeches. Long before the rest of television caught up--and it's only just beginning to--it was also cool for Tony winners to kiss their same-sex partners, on the mouths, on national television. For a long while, the Tonys struck me as the most subversive television viewing you could find.

I'm not sure that last night's ceremony held up on this front. Don't get me wrong: the 2012 Tonys were just great, as award-giving goes. There was some genuine competition, for once, and while I didn't always agree with who got what, I was consistently impressed with the lineup. Best actress in a play? Good Lord, what a category! Best actor? Ditto. So many good, new plays! So many small, innovative shows getting recognition! Granted, I remain a little concerned by the musicals: Ghost? Kill me now. Newsies and Once? Wonderful, wonderful...but also, like the failed Leap of Faith, once movies. I'm hardly thrilled by the fact that of the four Best Musical nominees, only one, Nice Work If You Can Get It, was truly--um, ok, only sort of--original. That said, the inherent musicality of both Peter and the Starcatcher and One Man, Two Guv'nors strikes me as promising and interesting, and there is certainly no lack of talent behind even the most derivative of productions. There were also a few moments of genuine surprise, last night: Porgy and Bess? Right ON! Take THAT, Stephen Sondheim!

As always, Neil Patrick Harris was great as an emcee. The show he hosted moved swiftly, was engaging and entertaining, and, all bitchiness about movie musicals aside, did not make me feel like Broadway was on its last legs, struggling desperately and pathetically to establish itself in a world of mass-mediated entertainment forms. Rather, I got the feeling last night that Broadway is doing pretty damned well for itself; is drawing locals and tourists alike in record numbers; is extending its brand to new audiences and in new ways (cruise ships? really?); and is even still making creative, innovative--dare I say risky--artistic choices, which is a lot more than I can say for a number of seasons past.

But last night's Tonys also felt, to me, closer to the Emmys, the Oscars, and the Grammys than I've ever noticed before: glitzier, more serious, more moneyed, more conservative, a bit straighter in every sense. I'm not sure how to put my thumb on this; I just felt something changing or shifting, ever so slightly, while I watched last night.

Maybe it was just me. And maybe the subtle shift I detected, if there even was one, is not such a bad thing. Maybe, after decades of trying desperately to regain the entertainment street-cred it lost when Tin Pan Alley died and Elvis Presley burst on to the scene, Broadway has finally started to figure out how to piss with the big boys. And maybe that new awareness results in an awards show that's more professional, bigger in size and in reach, and thus just a titch less real and local and raw than it once was. Maybe this is the price we have to pay for a healthy, widely appealing, endlessly varied theater culture. I suppose if that's the price, I'll miss my ragged old Tonys, but I'll ultimately be comfortable paying it.

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