June 18, 2008

Tweaking the Tonys 2008

The best part of the Tonys for many theater lovers is speculating about what will happen before hand and complaining about what did happen afterward. I skipped the run-up chatter and I’ll get to my complaints later. But, in general, I liked the show and while the winners weren’t really surprising (who was going to deny Patti LuPone's powerhouse performance in Gypsy?) they seemed, for the most part, deserving (even Boeing-Boeing's Mark Rylance is having second thoughts about the decision to recite a weird poem for his acceptance speech—click here to hear it).

The constant dilemma for the Tony show producers is whether to put on an artistic event the theaterati will love (full coverage of every award, long speeches, scenes from the nominated plays as well as the musicals, and as little from Disney as possible) or to do a more commercial show that will appeal to a broader audience that may just be tuning-in to Broadway for the first time all year, to the producers who want to sell those folks tickets, and to CBS which continues to air the show despite its continually low ratings. This year, the show tilted heavily towards the commercial. And with the economic recession and sluggish ticket sales, who could blame them for doing whatever they could to get more people to see more Broadway shows?

While nearly all the presenters had theater experience on their CVs, the producers clearly hoped that those who could claim movie, TV and even rock stardom would help draw a bigger and younger audience. So while folks like the “Harry Potter” movies' Daniel Radcliffe (whose Broadway debut in Equus isn't until September); Adam Duritz, lead singer of the band Counting Crows; and TV news anchor Julie Chen (who also happens to be married to CBS chief Les Moonves) appeared in primetime, recent winners and theater stalwarts Julie White and Michael Cerveris got relegated to the off-air portion of the show. But the ever-popular Whoopi Goldberg, who has credibility on both sides of the street—Oscar winning actress and Tony winning producer, not to mention co-host of the TV show “The View,” which managed to get nearly all of this year’s nominated musicals on in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s awards show—was a suitable and entertaining host.

The biggest break with tradition may have been that in the past, only nominated musicals got to appear on the Tonys. This year, although the nominees for Best Musical and Best Revival of a Musical still got the biggest production numbers, just about every song and dance show still running got some kind of airtime. The show opened with the crowd-pleasing The Lion King, celebrating its 10th anniversary, and closed with the equally beloved Rent, closing in September after 12 years.

Later, Faith Prince did a number from A Catered Affair, Megan Mullally and Shuler Hensley did one from Young Frankenstein, and Sierra Boggess got to show off her wheelies in a little excerpt from The Little Mermaid, even though none of the three shows were nominated for Best Musical. Meanwhile the casts of long-running shows like Avenue Q, Chicago and Jersey Boys appeared in filmed segments paying tribute to behind the scenes folks like musicians and stagehands (apparently last fall's 19-day strike is forgiven). And Whoopi donned costumes for several shows including A Chorus Line, Spring Awakening and Mary Poppins (apparently Disney was even forgiven).

I thought it was all pretty entertaining (click here to find a minute-by-minute account on the blog The Playgoer) and it was probably really great if you were planning to make a trip to New York and trying to decide which shows you might want to see (although Cry-Baby and Passing Strange didn’t come across all that well on the small screen, while South Pacific, a hard ticket to get even before the broadcast, put together the most TV-friendly performance). On the other hand, it wasn’t so great if you were the winner of one of the “lesser awards” (a category that included Best Revival of a Play and Best Book of a Musical) since those awards were given before the live show started. Their winners were shown during the broadcast in quick 5 to 10 second film clips but I bet it wasn’t the same. And to add insult to their injury, the live show included a Lifetime Achievement Award for Stephen Sondheim who didn’t even show up to pick it up.

The folks from In the Heights showed up in full force and took home the awards for Best Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Score (composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rapped acceptance speech, with a deft allusion to a Sondheim lyric, was the highlight of the night and earned him even more good will than his feel-good musical has already done—click here to hear it). As expected, August: Osage County also took home a bunch of awards, including Best Play and acting honors for Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed. Both actresses and three others of the 13-member cast played their final performance on Sunday so newcomers who liked what they saw of them on the broadcast won’t see them in action.

But that’s not my complaint. It was the award in a much smaller category that disappointed me: Best Scenic Design of a Musical. Michael Yeargan’s winning set for South Pacific is undeniably beautiful but the video projections used in Sunday in the Park with George are truly innovative. I'm not making a case for a separate award, as I did last year for Sound Design, which, by the way, was recognized for the first time this year with Mic Pool taking the prize for The 39 Steps.

But video projections
will change the way set design will be done in the future and are already enlarging the tool kits of the most imaginative designers. They level the playing field so that little shows can be as inventive as large ones. And they also create an artful compromise between the unique wonders of live theater and the more cinematic experience that younger people demand from their entertainment.

This year the more forward-thinking Drama Desk Awards created a new category for Outstanding Projection and Video Design. The nominees included small productions like Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which played at PS 122 in January; and The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, which opened at the Vineyard Theater in February, alongside big shows like Broadway’s A Catered Affair and
Macbeth. The winner was Sunday in the Park with George.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I've never agreed with you more than I do on your point regarding Best Projection Design.

Thanks to unsung, yet incredibly visionary artists like Timothy Bird, Zachary Borovay, Marc Brickman and Francis Laporte, projection designers are effectively changing the way we now view live theatre both on Broadway and elsewhere.

Current Broadway shows that employ projection design to exceptional effect include:
A Catered Affair
Avenue Q
Jersey Boys
Monty Python's Spamalot
Sunday In The Park With George
The Lion King
The Little Mermaid
Young Frankenstein

Certainly, there were many contributions from more than enough shows over just the past year to provide a coterie of Tony contenders.

While Sunday In The Park was without question the most breathtaking, other worthy nominees could easily have included A Catered Affair, Xanadu and Young Frankenstein.

Brava to you, Jan, for your continued advocacy on behalf of projection designers who deserve their due!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Steve, many thanks for putting the list together, which I was too lazy to do. I really do think video projection is making an impact (in off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions too) and it's going to be fascinating to see how it develops over time.