Random Thoughts on The Tony Awards

The best of times is now, or rather was last night as I live-twittered the Tony telecast from SarahB’s swanky suite in the Regency Hotel. Here are a few recollections from last evening…

– The preshow telecast should be aired on PBS or a local affiliate rather than as a webcast. It’s unfair for those who work so hard in their field of the industry to be relegated to a highlights reel during the nationwide telecast.

– Whoever was hired to work on the sound design for the telecast should be banned from the industry. Or perhaps go back to college to train in the field. So many faux pas: bizarre levels during the opening number, Titus Burgess’ mike going out (kudos to the well dressed stagehand who bolted out onstage with a handheld) and so many sloppy cues.

– Best presentation of an award goes to Frank Langella with a brilliant commentary on the snubbing of fall shows at this year’s awards. He almost immediately went off teleprompter (you could tell) as he performed his bit about being snubbed with sly wit (I especially loved the “Oh wait, this is my Oscar acceptance speech…”)

– The director should also reconsider his or her chosen profession. What a poorly executed show, with sloppy cues, sickening camera movements (especially during the “In Memoriam” tribute) and overall just bad programming for television. I’m sure it was great for the house at Radio City, but something was ultimately lost in translation for us little folk in television land.

– Neil Patrick Harris was a fantastic host…when they let him be onstage. Feels like he disappeared for well over an hour. He offered the best performance of the night with his eleven o’clock wrap up of the entire evening. Kudos to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who kept on their toes finalizing the song during the telecast!

– Speaking of performances, the opening number was a mixed bag. I liked how they arranged “Luck Be a Lady” and “Tonight” to be sung together in counterpoint, but the Aaron Tveit/Stockard Channing duet was just plain weird. The final moment with the cast of Hair leading all the presenters and performers with “Let the Sunshine In” was tremendous fun, pulling people out of their seats and onstage. It may not have landed as well in your living room, but from the full house standing ovation at Radio City, it was certainly a showstopper.

– The selected shows should have done a better job of representing themselves during the telecast. Christopher Sieber led the Shrek number which was quite cute and the Hair cast rocked the joint with their title song. However, the “Angry Dance” wasn’t an impressive showcase for Billy Elliot (not that it really matters, they don’t have to worry about being a box office draw), Next to Normal’s “You Don’t Know” didn’t really showcase much except Alice Ripley’s bringing the crazy (“Whew! That was way too much acting for me.” – Roxie).

Guys and Dolls is generally considered so well written that it’s foolproof. However, that was hands down the most lifeless rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” I’ve ever seen. Titus is a fantastic singer, Mary Testa always a scene stealer, but the lifeless choreography and projections made it a miss. Nothing could save this one. It didn’t help that Titus’ mike went out before the start of the song.

– Neil Patrick Harris was fun, affable, quirky and offbeat. He was an entertaining host but was decidedly underused. We could have used more of him throughout the evening (anyone else notice that he disappeared for an hour or so?) His final song was one of the best moments of the show, bringing it to a fantastic close.

– Angela Lansbury tied Julie Harris’ record for 5 performance Tony wins. Angie’s last Tony was thirty years ago for Sweeney Todd and I cannot tell you what a personal thrill it is to have been there to see this legend give a Tony winning performance; something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. Her acceptance was poised, elegant and the epitome of class. Looking forward to cheering her first post-Tony performance on Tuesday evening. Her win was easily the most moving moment of the entire evening.

– Congratulations to Roger Robinson on his win for Joe Turner. It’s a great performance, but my heart belongs to Stephen Mangan’s Norman.

– After seeing Alice Ripley’s acceptance speech, I think it’s safe to say that this role is not that big a stretch for her. Jeff Bowen was right, she is fierce!

– The runner-up for classiest speech goes to Geoffrey Rush, who seems incredibly awed by his first experience on Broadway. Exit the King ends its limited engagement on Sunday so if you haven’t seen this titanic performance, run! I also hope Mr. Rush will come back to the NY theatre sooner rather than later!

– There was no time to present 12 distinguished awards during the telecast, but we were subjected to unnecessary performances from the national companies of Legally Blonde, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys? Is it just me or was Legally Blonde not eligible to perform in 2007 because it wasn’t nominated for Best Musical? The Mamma Mia selection was embarrassing from its mere presence to the sloppiness of the performers. And finally, Jersey Boys has performed three of the last four years. I call a permanent moratorium on anything from that musical, but especially “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” If I wanted to hear that song, I’d put on a Four Seasons album, thank you very much.

– It was lovely to see a tie in the first category of the evening. Very unexpected and a rare occurence. However, Michael Starobin should not be allowed to speak again. Ever. Add to that Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s acceptance speech for Best Score where they alternated their interminable thanks. Guys, we get it and love that you provided the only upset of the evening. Now get off the friggin’ stage!

– Jerry Herman is a musical theatre icon. It was nice having Angie present to him, given their two shows together. However, the video footage used was already seen in the documentary “Words and Music.” Jerry’s words and music are the type of unabashedly Broadway elegance that epitomized musical comedy in the latter half of the 20th century. Surely a live tribute could have been used (again, in place of those national tours!). I mean, there was Angie herself! Plus, so many others like George Hearn, Carol Channing, among others originated parts in his shows and are still with us. Just sayin’…

– It was a nice touch having cast members introduce the four nominees for Best Play. However, (and this ties in indirectly with the time wasted on the national tours), there should have been more than a 20 second clip to represent the work onstage. Remember when they used to perform actual excerpts from the nominated plays for the audience to see? The musicals are the bigger draw, but this year in particular was the year of the play.

All in all, it was a fun evening. Gathering with blogger friends with endless champagne and fresca. Last year we zipped up the cocktail slacks and went up to Sarah’s apartment. This year, especially as the event seems to grow and grow in size, we took it to the Regency where we were the epitome of class and crass (oh don’t judge, you know all the best people are a combination thereof!) Razor sharp one-liners volleyed back and forth across the room through plastic flutes of champagne, pizza, cucumber sandwiches, rice krispies and Fresca (that was a first for me…). Plus, we had our own ballots (I got 20 categories right), our own Tony identities (Hello, my name is Carol Channing…) and Sarah was even lovely enough to give out swag! (I now have the revival magnet for West Side Story to go with the one for the original).

Regardless of what we felt was happening on television, we had nothing short of a blast, so much fun that I’m surprised it’s not criminal. Kari has somehow designated me the sugar daddy of the group, with all bills heading in my general direction. Sarah, ever the effusive host, was dressed to rival Liza herself; all black and sparkles. Roxie, Christine, Jimmy, Russell and Sally were back again as well, plus newcomers Esther and Byrne. All in all, one couldn’t ask for a better evening, nor better company with which to spend it. Though we hope next year our other regional favorites can join us too! (Thank God for twitter, where we could at least keep in touch throughout!)

Already excited for Tony Day 2010, when we nomads take our act on the road to a hotel that actually has NY1. Until then, there is a lot of theatre to be seen, a lot of opinions to be shared and many more memorable good times to be had by all of us.

Observation of the Day

Peter Filichia commenting in his October Leftovers column. I had to share it:

Saw A Man for all Seasons with a most unresponsive audience. How I remember experiencing the tense feeling in the house back in the early ‘60s when the same play unfolded. I suspect that back then, people had a better sense of honor and a feeling that “A man must stand up for what he believes is right.” After decades of our increasingly becoming jaded — assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, Enron, Lewinsky, steroids, and plenty of other scandals — today’s audiences may not have as noble a mindset. Instead of being impressed that Thomas More is standing up to Henry VIII and won’t sign his loyalty oath, they may well be thinking, “Oh, just put your name on the thing, will you, and don’t ruin your life, not to mention your wife’s or your daughter’s.” Whatever the case, the cast is terrific in the Roundabout revival.

A Man for All Seasons

“More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And as time requireth a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad gravity: a man for all seasons.”

-Robert Whittinton, on Sir Thomas More, 1520

Get thee to the Roundabout revival of A Man for All Seasons! I had the great fortune to attend the fourth preview on Sunday with Sarah and must say it’s well on its way to being one of the highlights of the season. There is one reason and one reason alone that makes attendance mandatory: Frank Langella as Sir Thomas More. When Langella is onstage, which is for almost the entire running time of the play, the combination of Robert Bolt’s prose and Langella’s formidable talent provides an affecting lyricism, as we watch a man of such integrity refuse to compromise his morals and ideals for political reasons.

Sir Thomas More is a fascinating individual. He was noted as an author, lawyer and statesman. He insisted that his daughters be educated as well as his sons, especially rare in the 16th century. In Robert Bolt’s play, the playwright gives us a human portrait of one of the most respected statesmen in the history of England. More, who was one of King Henry VIII’s favorites, would meet his end when he couldn’t compromise his own moral beliefs and integrity and swear allegiance to Henry, who so desired a male heir that he would split from the Church in Rome, starting the Church of England. When More refused to take the mandatory oath of allegiance to the Act of Succession, which recognized Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn as his wife and their children as heirs to the throne of England, he was tried for treason and was executed by beheading on Tower Hill at the Tower of London. More was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and also has a feast day on the Anglican calendar.

(It should be mentioned that while the play portrays the man as being born with a halo, he was vehemently against Protestant Reformation, leading a violent scourge of Lutheranism in England which included the burning several people at the stake for heresy. Well… nobody’s perfect).

Bolt, a noted agnostic, was not so much interested in the religious implications surrounding the character of More, but moreso as a man of conscience and integrity, who refused to bend to the whim of the King. The play had a moderately successful run in London in 1960 and later opened on Broadway in 1961, where it was an even bigger success winning the Tony award for Best Play. The play was made into a film in 1966, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Paul Scofield, who had originated the role of More in London and on Broadway to Tony-winning effect. The film would prove an overwhelming success, winning six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor for Scofield and Best Screenplay for Bolt. A second film adaptation with Charlton Heston (who also directed) would follow in 1988.

Patrick Page has a fantastic cameo as Henry VIII in the first act, a scene that lasts only several minutes but makes a lasting impression, as see both the lighter and darker sides of Henry. Tony winner Maryann Plunkett makes a return to Broadway after a twenty year absence as Alice More, Thomas’ second wife. Zac Grenier proves a powerful foil in Thomas Cromwell, who does everything in his power to bring down More. Richard Strong is Richard Rich, the commoner who would become Chancellor of England before his death, and who is considered one of the great political villains of all time. Rich is responsible for ultimately selling out More to Cromwell under what is widely considered to be perjured testimony.

However, it all comes back to Langella, especially in his second act decline from nobleman to prisoner. The second act, really, is where the play truly takes off. There is a great deal of exposition to be learned in the first, where we are given a full introduction to the period, era and political-religious implications of the time. But it is in the second act when More refuses to take the oath and loses everything he has that the play truly soars. Most notably in the heartbreaking scene in which he says goodbye to his family (both on film and onstage this scene can reduce an audience to tears) and the trial scene that immediately follows in which More makes his final statement before the court. His performance is of such definition and quality, I can’t help but be excited by the fact that I get to see it again towards the end of the run.

Catherine Zuber provides elegant period costumes, a celebration of earth tones and with such exquisite detail, she will most likely be in the running for her fifth straight Tony win this year. Santo Loquasto’s set is simple, yet most effective in use of the space, complementing the staging of the director quite nicely. Hughes has eliminated the character of the Common Man, and really, he isn’t missed. The Common Man was a Brechtian device that narrated and commented on the play to the audience, while also appearing as More’s servant, the executioner, a boatman, etc. Really, he’s not much missed. (And yes, the Bolt estate approved the changes).

I couldn’t help but think of the relevancy this historical drama has in our own society. What it says about leadership and remaining true to oneself. There is much to be admired about Sir Thomas More, in not bending to the King’s will against his own ideals to the point of losing his life so as not to compromise his moral fiber. My God, what our politicians and statesman could learn from More, as an example on how to govern with integrity, gravitas and conscience.