Something that has become a tradition for me is going to the Laurie Beechman come the Tony awards to drink and watch the ceremony on the big screen with other theater lovers. It started off because I just didn't have a television the first couple of years I lived in the city, but it's things like drama breaking out after a guy accidentally hit the girl next to him when Patti LuPone won for Best Actress in a Musical that keep me coming back. Every year I've gone to watch the awards with a different group of people-- some theatre fans, some just friends I've dragged along, and I've always been interested in gauging everyone's reactions throughout the show.
To be honest, I wasn't all that excited about the awards this year. As heartwarming as I find the well-crafted speech and as much as I love the thrill of seeing a solid performance, the actual race between the nominees didn't grab me in the way it did in the last few years. Part of this might be because I haven't gotten a chance to see as many of the shows as I would have liked. But a big part of it was the strange mix of nominees -- stacked categories of movie stars (yes, I'm talking about you, Best Actor in a Play) to categories that just pointed out the lack of original material (it seemed a waste that such an exciting category like Best Score was padded with Fences and Enron). Prior to the awards this week, I read this fascinating article from the The Times that seemed to perfectly sum up my feelings about what the nominations indicate about this past Broadway season and, upon revisiting it after watching the show, only seems to reinforce the way I felt.
Because there was something really interesting happening while I was watching the Tony awards tonight. I went with two friends: one who love musicals and another who knows absolutely nothing about theatre (she walked in wearing a soccer jersey, fresh from watching the World Cup Germany game at a bar in Bayside). And within the show's opener, both parties managed a sigh of relief when they found comfort in the familiar. For my theatre friend, it was seeing Kristin Chenoweth and Sherie Renee Scott doing their diva things. For my other friend, it was the music of Green Day and the tunes from Million Dollar Quartet.
There was, admittedly, a weird disconnect going on that seemed to permeate the ceremony. For example, I found it interesting that they allowed Green Day and the cast of American Idiot 2 1/2 songs (in addition to their later performance) in the opener after leaving them out of almost every major category, save Best Musical, Lighting, and Scenic Design. It was a blatant call out to the audience, not necessarily the one at Radio City, but to the younger, perhaps not as theatrically inclined set, using the asset of this popular music to prove the Tony's relevance. Contrast this to Catherine Zeta Jones's impassioned but comparatively stagnant "Send in the Clowns" or the expert and charming but not particularly inspired performance for La Cage, and the cross section of this past season on Broadway is a very disparate group of productions that seem separated between the new and the old. As mentioned in The Times articles, the perfect example of this divide came with the performances by Leah Michele and Matthew Morrison, neither of who were nominated for awards this season, and who each sang a Glee-esque take on a classic musical theater song, which only brought attention to how unnecessary the performance was in the context of the evening.
We were, indeed, quite lucky that many of the shows that did employ a "jukebox musical" formula were not really formulaic at all. Twyla Tharp's choreography is rarely, if ever, old hat, and Fela! was an intellectual and artistic feast in many ways. However, when it did come to original musicals, Memphis was forced to carry that torch practically alone, which is a burden for any musical, no matter how good it is.
This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the awards this year or that I don't feel that any of the winners deserved their honors. I thought this was a solid show, and I was pleasantly surprised by many of the wins and really celebrated with the actors as they got their honors. But I do think that this article, along with some of the questions raised by the ceremony, brings to light trends in what is being produced on Broadway and the increasing importance of seeking strong voices, both in performance and on the page, to fill those theaters. While there wasn't a ton of original material on Broadway in the Musical department, Off-Broadway was ripe with some great shows this past season, and I feel at ease that, with the writers I get to profile on this blog, there are a lot of writers with original, determined voices that will not only make it to the Great White Way someday, but will also defy all of the problems detailed in this article -- there are many composers who successfully merge the contemporary, the individual, and the traditions of musical theatre legend. This entry isn't meant to be a tirade on the Tonys, but a reassurance to the writers and shows who haven't made it there yet. I know the time will come... and when it does, we will all be happier for it.