About midway through CBS‘ live telecast of the 68th Tony Awards on Sunday night, host Hugh Jackman told the audience at Radio City Music Hall that the first show he’d ever been cast in was Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. To prepare, in fact, he’d learned all eight parts to “Rock Island,” the opening number of that signature piece of syncopated Americana, and to prove it, he performed a minute or so, sprecht-singing all eight parts. The first words are: Cash for the merchandise/Cash for the buttonhooks, which sounds like the beginning of an ode to Broadway, 2014. Then he ushered out LL Cool J and TI, and all three of them rapped “Rock Island,” which sounded a lot like Sesame Street, 1995. It was funny and toothless. Much the same can be said for the most breathlessly upbeat Tony broadcast in memory. Almost nothing memorable happened over the course of just over three hours of good cheer.
Jackman looked somewhat raffish and ragged of beard, as though he was coming from an audition for a revival of Sunday In The Park With George. He bunny-hopped bizarrely from the street to the backstage of Radio City Music Hall, high-fiving cast members from shows and stars preparing for their numbers, hopped into the audience and up onto the stage as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Even the edgiest nominee of the evening, Hedwig And The Angry Inch and its star, Neil Patrick Harris, seemed more intent on nuzzling the audience than, perish the thought, shocking it.
And yet the mainstreaming of an event that began 68 years ago as a hastily put-together, to-the-trade luncheon in a Times Square hotel ballroom before going to a nationally televised commercial for a small but expensive part of the American theater in 1967, may still prove as alien to the rest of the country as the island on which it takes place. Despite the isn’t-this-all-so-much-fun hawking that is the show’s primary mission, most of the audience members may suspect they’re being conned by a new Prof. Harold Hill, with premium tickets instead of flugelhorns and band uniforms in his eyes. No one worked harder, for example, than Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart, who plays the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, but getting your family into the New Amsterdam Theatre, where the show is running, will certainly cost you more than getting them into Disneyland, even with its newly jacked-up prices.
OK, enough complaining about prices (or the fact that the producers couldn’t bothered to tip the hat to Robert Morse, the original J. Pierrepont Finch of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying — that’s a joke; it was only Morse’s Mad Men character who bought the farm – or any of the notables who actually died this year, Mickey Rooney being merely the most obvious example of why the show deserved an In Memoriam segment)
The show got a few things right. Plays, for example, always struggle to look good on a show that’s really about musicals. This year, the idea was to have each author speak briefly about his work (and they were all men) and then show a very brief montage from the play. It was much less bad than most of the previous attempts. Nearly all the musical numbers (the Les Miz revival was an exception) looked and sounded terrific.
No less a personage than RuPaul introduced Neil Patrick Harris before doing his big Hedwig number, and it was at that point I realized how predominant were dark blue fingernails on so many of the men. It was the night of the men with blue fingernails, and I still wonder if the rest of the country is ready for that. Accepting her award for best performance by an actress in a featured role for her work in the revival of A Raisin In The Sun, Sophie Okonedo got a hearty laugh when she thanked producer Scott Rudin for believing that “this Jewish Nigerian Brit could come over the pond and play one of the American theater’s iconic parts.” And Audra MacDonald made history, winning her sixth Tony, for her performances as Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
The big winners: A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder, which won four awards, including the all-important Best Musical. All The Way, Robert Schenkkan’s forgiving portrait of LBJ, won two, including Best Play and Bryan Cranston for his leading performance. Raisin won three including best play revival against very stiff competition. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical did very well, with Jessie Mueller winning as King and the show getting not only a great plug from the songstress herself, but with the Will You Love Me Tomorrow number from the show selling it, well, beautifully.
The losers include Bullets Over Broadway, which went home empty-handed, as did the very fine revival of The Cripple of Inishmaan, with Daniel Radcliffe; If/Then; Violet; and Cabaret.