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Not-So-Tony Event With Host Rosie

Commentary: Theater's biggest night has some high notes, but dramatic plays get short shrift and, in the end, time ran out on Nathan Lane.

June 09, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

We'll never know what witty jest Nathan Lane had planned for the end of the Tony Awards broadcast Sunday night on CBS. He came to the podium to announce the most hotly contested Tony--best musical--but the big hand was just a hair before 11, and his bon mot was turned into a pumpkin. You could tell trouble was brewing by host Rosie O'Donnell's tense expression at the conclusion of "Into the Fire" from "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (actually that show's best number, but without the impressive scenery change it looked pathetic). Did Rosie--Broadway's biggest booster--hate the number? No, Rosie, the Tony producer, was going to bring the show in on time. And that meant Lane, the funniest man in the theater, would be given the bum's rush. All he was allowed was the titles of the nominated musicals and the big announcement. He looked nothing less than clinically depressed as he pronounced the magic words--"The Lion King." It was almost as if Garth Drabinsky, the producer and creator of "Lion King's" main competitor "Ragtime," had announced the winner. Disney's Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher rushed breathless through their thank-you's as in the days of old, before Rosie and PBS (which broadcast the first hour of the now three-hour show) stepped in to give the show the dignity that breathing room affords.

"Into the Fire" notwithstanding, the musical segments looked much better than they did when producers tried to squeeze a medley of several numbers into a tiny, frenzied time slot, giving migraines to potential ticket buyers. On Sunday, "Side Show," "Ragtime," "Cabaret" and "The Lion King" all conveyed some semblance of their magic, though of course they must be seen live to be understood. But what happened to the poor plays?

Yasmina Reza, who took the Tony for best play, had refused to write a one-minute synopsis of "Art" for the broadcast. (Tony producers wrote one for her.) In this regard, she turned out to be smarter than Martin McDonagh, whose "Beauty Queen of Leenane" was in fact the best new play of the season. Its segment, however, was a mess. It began with star Anna Manahan reciting random lines from the play out of context. She then switched over into a synopsis/review that made even less sense. It was almost as frightening as the play, but in the wrong way.

O'Donnell continued her campaign as the savior of the theater, injecting her own opinions about who should have won (Tsidii Le Loka from "The Lion King") and what should win ("The Lion King") and keeping up a steady stream of one-liners that sounded like a late-night talk-show monologue ("The Sound of Mucus" was one punch line).

Through her daytime talk show and heartfelt enthusiasm, O'Donnell brings theater to the people. That means making the Tonys less tony, a strategy by which you gain something (higher ratings) and lose something (a serious sense of culture). This seems a practical trade. The broadcast, however, could have done without the K-Mart commercials starring O'Donnell. We all want more people to go to the theater, but does that have to include the announcement: "Attention, K-Mart shoppers"?

The voice-over narration offered some unintended comedy when it described Liam Neeson as "one of the most powerful dramatic actors of our time" and then added, as if in proof, "Mr. Neeson will star next year in the first of a brand-new series of 'Star Wars' movies." For his part, Neeson, who was not nominated for his portrayal of Oscar Wilde in "The Judas Kiss," gets the Spousal Antipathy Award: He seemed to be deeply involved with a toothpick at the moment his wife's name was announced for best actress in a musical (Natasha Richardson in "Cabaret").

Unplanned gaffes are always a bonus in live awards shows. But it should be said that the Tonys remain the show with the most authentic human emotion on view, certainly when compared with the Oscars. With most of the contestants toiling on stage eight times a week, week after week, there seems to be more than just money and career-jockeying at stake. The evening's auteur star, Julie Taymor, was no James Cameron. She took the award for best director of a musical--the first woman to win it, just after "Beauty Queen's" Garry Hines was the first woman to win for best direction of a play. Taymor yelled that this was just "spectacular." Just as it seemed she might announce that she was on top of the world, she pulled back and said with beguiling restraint and perspective, "So thank you for this." Even without cameras, theater people pull back better.

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