The Tony Awards: Can We Ever Go Back to Before?

katie finneran
(photo via
Tony Award night was always a magical evening of television when I was growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia because it was the one night of the year when my idols were all nicely assembled and broadcast right into my bedroom. On this one special day, my idols were not acting on Law and Order, they were not guest starring on Will & Grace, they were not co-hosting Live with Regis and Kelly, no, for three blissful hours my idols were doing exactly that which cemented them as superstars of the American theatre. These exorbitantly talented performers were not merely singing and dancing, but weaving a magical world of musical theatre with the ability to transport me out of my room and into a vibrantly poetic place where rich emotions were explored and expressed through soaring, original, powerfully gripping music. When I could not go to the Broadway I so loved and longed for, I knew that, if only for one day in June, Broadway would come to me.
In the past few years, however, I’ve watched some of this magic slowly seep out of the Tony Awards, and this year I barely recognized this broadcast to be the one that I anticipated so fervently as a teenager. This was not the place where my musical theatre idols were nicely assembled, this was not the place where my musical theatre idols were being honoured or celebrated, this was not even the place where my musical theatre idols were performing and magically transporting me to 42nd Street, inspiring me to pursue my dreams of a life in the theatre. This is a tragic loss for the American theatre, this is a tragic blow to the future of the musical and this is a gargantuan disappointment for anyone who considers themselves a friend of the theatre.
There were, of course, a few moments reminiscent of the Broadway that I know and love in Sunday’s show, and I do not wish for them to become completely cast aside in a tirade against the commercialization and “Hollywoodification” of the American theatre. Conversely, I am not completely opposed to there being some cross-over between film and television stars and Broadway. Simply because one is on television or in a successful film does not necessarily mean that he or she is completely devoid of artistic integrity, genuine talent or the dream and ambition of making a career on the stage. One need look no farther than Angela Lansbury, Bea Arthur, Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke, Bebe Neuwirth and Matthew Broderick to understand just what I mean. If an actor is legitimately well suited to play a role, regardless of if she is the most iconic and famous movie star in the world or was just plucked from a High School in Cincinnati, I will happily embrace all performers who have earned their Broadway bow. I think Sean Hayes is one such performer and I think that he was the most delightful, charismatic, and refreshingly hilarious host of any award show that I have seen in at least the last decade. I could feel the love and the respect that he had for the Broadway community and although I wish he had been featured more prominently in the scene chosen to represent Promises, Promises, I could sense a radiating sense of joy in him that I immediately connected to. Christiane Noll sang a beautiful, albeit far too short, rendition of “Back to Before” from Ragtime, a show that I think has never received the critical acclaim and audience response it deserves. Matthew Morrison harkened back to a distant time with a classic rendition of “All I Need Is the Girl” that I found both comforting and wistful. And of course, we were all treated to the class and grace that is Katie Finneran who won her second Tony Award for her portrayal of Marge MacDougall in Promises, Promises.
In her beautiful acceptance speech Finneran said, “I want to talk to the kids at home watching. I was a kid and I watched this show and it seemed so far away from me and I want to tell you that all of us here up on stage and in the audience, we feel the same way. And with the world being so fast right now I want to remind you to focus on what you love, because it is the greatest passport, it’s the greatest roadmap to an exceptionally blissful life. Just focus on that one thing, don’t listen to anybody else, and you will run into the right people, the right teachers, the right moments and circumstances and one day you will meet the person that will share that love with you… thank you for sharing the love of the theatre with me because it’s just the light of my life and I know you all feel the same way. I’m so very grateful. Thank you.” Recently, the executives at CBS and the organizers of the Tony Award broadcast have chosen to invite mainstream American music and film stars, often not affiliated or only marginally affiliated with the American theatre, to perform or to present at the Tony Awards in attempt to entice a more mainstream television audience to tune into the program. It can be argued that this ploy works as good publicity for Broadway and that in a time when theatre audiences are small and theatre costs are exorbitant, any publicity is good publicity. I disagree. Firstly, in the past few years it seems like CBS has become more and more adamant about turning the Tony Awards into the Oscars and every year the Tony Awards’ ratings remain staggeringly lower than other award shows and, as in the case of the 2010 Tonys, the ratings are continually surpassed by that of sporting events. Secondly, if the network is determined to turn the Tony Awards into the Oscars and continuing to thrust our American theatre stars, our iconic Broadway idols and legends into the background at a ceremony that is supposed to honour and celebrate the American theatre, choosing instead to showcase celebrities such as Will Smith, Jay-Z, Paula Abdoul, Catherine Zeta Jones, Denzel Washington and Green Day, even if new audiences are tuning into the Tony Awards for the first time, this is a wildly inaccurate representation of what Broadway is and of what the theatre looks like. And, quite frankly, peppering the broadcast with renditions of songs like “Send in the Clowns” being performed by stars like Catherine Zeta Jones is not only an inaccurate depiction of what Broadway is, but also one that does not do justice to the sorts of brilliant performances that are the norm on the Great White Way.
Katie Finneran was the only person who I felt truly addressed and understood the audience for the Tony Awards; the aspiring theatre artists across America and around the world, the fourteen year old girls and boys in their bedrooms in places like Halifax, Nova Scotia who have been waiting all year for the magical day when their idols would be nicely assembled and broadcast right to them. Katie Finneran understood that this is a special demographic, that a love for the theatre makes you unique, it makes you special, and it connects you, it really genuinely connects your soul to the soul of all the people you admire so much who fill Radio City Music Hall that one magic evening in June. We are the race who knew Joseph; and giving the future dancers, the future belters, the future stars, the future playwrights and composers, the future directors, the future of Broadway one evening a year to celebrate the fact that THEATRE is the LIGHT of our LIVES is not about ratings. It is about the fact that our community deserves three hours one night a year where we can celebrate in whatever way we want, regardless of whether it appeals to a mass audience or not. It is about the fact that the Tony Awards should be organized by people for whom the theatre is their living, beating heart, by people who care about the art and about the kids that Katie Finneran spoke so eloquently and passionately to. The Tonys should be organized by people who grew up not only watching them, but waiting for them the whole year through.
The Tony Awards are important because they have the power to inspire a new generation of theatre artists and they have the ability to remind them that no matter how far from New York they live, with perseverance and training, talent and ambition, no dream is too lofty or grandiose. Broadway is in desperate need of these artists. It is in desperate need of young Jeff Bowens and Hunter Bells, Mark Hollmanns and Greg Kotises, Jason Robert Browns, Jonathan Larsons and William Finns. I know they are out there. American composers like Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and Scott Alan prove that there are brilliant, passionate young composers out there writing new, original musical theatre shows and songs. It is imperative that young theatre students don’t give up their dreams of becoming the next Stephen Sondheim because they feel like the only shows that get produced on Broadway are Jukebox shows, that young actors don’t focus exclusively on learning how to sing like pop stars instead of singers because all the shows they are auditioning for are Jukebox shows. The Tony Awards need to showcase and celebrate the iconic stars of our time: Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, Joel Grey, Elaine Stritch, Harvey Fierstein, Bebe Neuwirth, Mandy Patinkin, Hunter Foster, Sutton Foster, Matthew Broderick, Barbara Cook, Patti LuPone, Liza Minnelli, Raul Esparza, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Nathan Lane, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra MacDonald, Chita Rivera, Julie Andrews. They are the ones who generations worth of performers and aspiring performers look to for inspiration and they will be our beacons of hope and strength even if Broadway’s seasons look bleak.
The American media circus spins and popularizes certain entertainment choices for the masses, and the masses tune in to things like the Oscars and the Grammys for a variety of different reasons with varying degrees of interest or allegiance. Katie Finneran reminded us that the Tony Awards cater to a much smaller demographic, a community; those of us for whom theatre is the light of our lives. It’s about time CBS allows its broadcast not only to embrace this, its own audience, to understand and acknowledge them, but for the whole show to really reflect our special community, who we are and what we do. With quality, talent and class, CBS, the public’s response may surprise you.
Well, maybe next year.

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