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Leave it to stage pros to keep the show on track

Unlike other awards shows, theater people know what airing `live' entails: Don't run long, keep it moving.

June 11, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Of all the big awards shows, I find the Tonys the most reliably moving. And that is all I want from my awards-show viewing, apart from the reliable pastime of seeing stars dressed up pretty (though of all awards shows, the Tonys are the lowest on bling).

Though the awards honor only a fraction of what makes up even New York theater, they nevertheless seem to stand for the art as a whole in a way that the Oscars, Grammys or Emmys don't -- they represent a community rather than an industry. That's perhaps because theater as an art is caught up with risk, and the same risks in every case -- the risk of the show failing, the risk of a performance going wrong. This risk makes everyone involved, including the stars and impresarios, seem like an underdog. That Sunday's broadcast was up against the last episode of "The Sopranos" seemed to underscore this.

Even if we're not theatergoers ourselves, we understand -- from the movies and TV, for a start -- something about the theater. We know that it is "harder" to act onstage, with all those lines to remember, and that when things go wrong they cannot be fixed in the editing.

And we know that it's a venue for the unexpected, of the possibility of stopping a show, or of overnight success, which are not possible in Hollywood, where nothing happens overnight and the show is fixed on tape or film.

That sense of the moment carries into the broadcast, which, like the art it honors, gets its energy from people being together in a room. And that the room -- the nearly 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall -- is filled primarily with vocally supportive theater fans, enhances the sense of community and somehow makes it easier for the viewer at home to become at one with the proceedings.

As in years past, the broadcast is hung on a series of performances from nominated musicals, which tend to be the show-stoppers, delivered by performers accustomed to pitching to the back row. Between these numbers and all the love in the air -- including winner Christopher Plummer's shout-out to the late Vincent Sardi of restaurant fame -- the show can be, for someone receptive to such things, frankly draining. But in a good way.

Presenters were for the most part more familiar than the nominees and included such evergreen eminences as Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth, Judd Hirsch, Plummer, Patti LuPone and Ben Vereen, and faces we already know, and know best, from the small screen -- winner David Hyde Pierce, Robert Sean Leonard, Vanessa Williams, Christina Applegate, Claire Danes, Rainn Wilson, Taye Diggs, Anne Heche and on and on -- but not without their theatrical bona fides.

As Angela Lansbury, as close as anyone to wearing the crown of Great Lady of the American (Especially Musical) Theater, said as she opened the show, "You'll discover that many of your favorite movie and TV stars have their roots firmly in the theater."

And many -- like John Cullum, late of "Northern Exposure" and nominated for "110 in the Shade," and "Saturday Night Live" alum Christine Ebersole, winner for "Grey Gardens" ("I left Hollywood when they told me I was over the hill.... I'm over the hill in the role of a lifetime.") -- returned after their moment in the video light.

The show fit easily into its three hours. There was the usual playing off of winners whose speeches ran long, but they are show people and knew how to handle it.

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