Tonight… Tonight… Theatre Stars They Shine So Bright

I’m certain that my experience with the annual American Theatre Wing’s Tony Award broadcast mirrors that of young, proud theatre dorks across the world. For me, growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, especially before the advent of Playbill.com and Broadwayworld.com, the Tony Awards were so often my introduction to sensational Broadway shows and unbelievable show-stopping stars. I remember watching Hunter Foster perform “Run, Freedom, Run,” during the 2002 Tony Broadcast, my mouth gaping open thinking, “who is this boy? What is this show? I need to get it now. Who is this boy!?” The Tony Awards used to be a conglomeration of Broadway’s biggest stars, it seemed, all vying for the ultimate honour. Yet, tonight, with the Tonys turning sixty-three, I didn’t find a single performance that captivated me with quite as much star power.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t stars on Broadway this season, but rather that the performances chosen for the ceremony tonight may not have been the most suitable. Karen Olivo, who won her first Tony tonight for her mind-blowing portrayal of Anita in West Side Story, has all the passion and belting prowess of such Broadway legends as Idina Menzel and Patti Lupone. It’s too bad she didn’t get a chance to showcase any of that in the broadcast tonight. There were very few nominees that I was overtly rooting for, but Olivo was absolutely one of them. It thrilled me to bits to see how moved and overwhelmed she was to receive such a merited award.
My favourite moment of the evening was watching 83 year old Angela Lansbury accepting her Tony Award for her role in Blithe Sprit. What an exceptional lady. Her speech was so poignant and full of class. She, for me, is the essence of joy and happiness. What an extraordinary achievement from one of the world’s most renowned performers. I stand in such awe and take such inspiration from her.
I also take inspiration from Jerry Herman, who was awarded the special life-time achievement Tony Award. Along with being an incredible Broadway composer who previously won two Tony Awards, he is also such a brave pioneer of the gay equal right’s movement that is still being fought especially in parts of the United States. As much as I love contemporary musical theatre, I found myself growing nostalgic as I watched pre-recorded performances by Carol Channing in Hello Dolly and heard bits of the score to Mack and Mabel and La Cage Aux Folles and Mame being played. There is something of such grandeur about Herman’s songs, such sweetness and richness and nuance. Contemporary musicals have that when they’re not ripped off Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks movies or compilations of rock stars’ greatest hits. I miss having something lyrical on Broadway. I miss having something poetical. I miss having something that allows you to appreciate the talent of the singer and a story and characters that require real acting muscle. Will we find our way back to then?
Don’t even get me started on Shrek- the Musical and Rock of Ages makes We Will Rock You look like Sweeney Todd. I don’t understand why Hair won for best revival over West Side Story, unless only because Gavin Creel is a superstar. I would listen to Liza Minnelli read the phonebook she is so enchantingly hysterical. I teared up again when I saw Bea Arthur on the “In Memoriam” board. I had heard that the new revival of Guys and Dolls was bad, but seriously, sit down… you’re ruining the show. Yikes. I was surprised how unimpressed I was with the performance from Billy Elliot, but I think it was just a poorly chosen excerpt, as it seemed to be entirely without context and I’m sure that within the production, the sequence is both stunning and impressive. I was not at all surprised that the show won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It won four Laurence Olivier Awards after all.
It struck me how many of tonight’s winners had British accents. I had thought that the “British Invasion” of the 1980s was over, but upon second glance that seems to be a naïve thing to say. While I have no problem at all with the musicals from other cities/countries finding a home on Broadway, London’s gifts to Broadway, the slew of Lloyd Webbers that dominated marquees for decades upon decades, Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You, are all the giant McShows that continually have me worried and often make my stomach churn. America seems to be fighting back with its Disney sure-fire hits and juke box shows like The Jersey Boys— and they’re all fine and dandy as long as they’re not making it impossible for musicals rooted in stories, with characters who express themselves in innovative new song and dance, to emerge and thrive.
At the same time, the Tony Awards are broadcast on CBS, where they compete for viewers and try to appeal to a general public that doesn’t attend the theatre. It frustrates me because the Tony Awards are for us. They are for the theatre geeks, and the Broadway lovers, the artists, the aficionados and the impresarios. They are for the Angela Lansburys and Jerry Hermans of the future. We have one night where the television broadcasts our world, and yet, it is always slightly compromised. I did like Neil Patrick Harris as a host, he’s ridiculously cute and delightfully suave. Indeed, there are some cross-over stars that I enjoy seeing presenting at the Tony Awards. John Stamos has owned a piece of my heart since I was six, and who is cuter than Chandra Wilson!? Yet, I can’t help wonder where Audra and Bernadette and Brian Stokes and Marin Mazzie and Patti Lupone and Idina Menzel and Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and Barbara Cook… were. We have one broadcast a year that showcases the best of Broadway and I feel unfulfilled when the giants of the American theatre aren’t given at least a few moments to shine. Appealing to the general public is also the reason why the extra performances were from two juke box shows (Mamma Mia (which really- haven’t we bombarded the world with enough of that already!?) and Jersey Boys) and Legally Blonde (based on a hugely popular Reese Witherspoon movie). If the American Theatre Wing can’t proudly stand behind American musical theatre rather than catering to what it thinks “the general audiences want,” who will support and INSPIRE the Hal Princes and Stephen Sondheims of tomorrow?
On second thought, however, the Tony Awards probably aren’t the best venue for the American musical theatre community to be able to unite and perform alongside one another in celebration of Broadway, as the telecast, with all the commercials and awards and speeches, already runs over its allotted time. Maybe there needs to be another night, a night that are just performances, like how in Toronto we have nights like Sing Out, Louise. How glorious would it be to have another night in the year where Radio City Music Hall is thrust in all its sparkling splendour into our homes. Dreams.
I am, of course, excruciatingly proud of fifteen year old David Alvarez for winning a Tony Award for Billy Elliot in what was the most hilarious and adorable and sweetly-awkward Tony Award acceptance speech, I’m sure, in 63 years. What an awesome, awesome achievement for such a fantastic young performer! It’s clear that he has a bright, bright future ahead of him.
I, like many of you, was dismayed and angered by the announcement that Joseph Leo Bwarie (who played Frankie Valli in The Jersey Boys in Toronto initially, but who is from Los Angeles and was replaced by brilliant Canadian performer Jeff Madden in December 2008) was “representing Toronto” in the Jersey Boys medley at the Tony Awards. However, after seeing the show, I have come to the conclusion that the powers that be did not ask Madden to “represent Toronto” at the awards, out of fear that he would outshine and upstage Broadway’s current Valli Jarrod Spector. Understandable.
Lastly on my little Tony Award rampage, the overwhelmingly worst thing about the awards, was something so basic that it seemed outrageous that it was even an issue. That, of course, was the terrible sound quality of the show. It is dismaying because obviously the Tony Awards are not a priority of CBS by any stretch of the imagination and the sound issues were such an affront and disrespect to the actors and the audience. It disheartens me so much that some of the biggest giants, the most illustrious talents working in America today can sit in the same room and the networks barely bat an eyelash.
I hope that I have grown quick to demand excellence from the arts institutions that surround me. I hope that I have become a woman who is not quite as easily dazzled by Broadway’s lustre because I have immersed myself in the theatre for the past six years. I hope that out there in the world is a little girl who saw the Tony Awards tonight in a small city away from New York and who was just as inspired by what she saw as I was by Hunter Foster seven years ago. The power of the theatre, that which insures its continued survival, is its ability to touch our hearts, inspire, astound, and change our lives. Thankfully, this is a power undaunted by even the McMusicals and unfocused sound technicians. We band together and unite. We cheer, we grow, we thrive. We overcome. Just as we always have. Just as we always will.

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