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Oddly, speeches were the best part

June 16, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

The Tony Awards are unique among the big award shows in that you cannot experience the nominated works or artists in the convenience of your own home, or even your own town, unless you live in New York. Notwithstanding some 12 million Broadway tickets reportedly sold last year, the broadcast is for most an exercise in vicarious theatergoing or a kind of armchair tourism -- meant in part to inspire real theatergoing and real tourism. "Come to New York and see a Broadway show" is its annually recurring mantra.

Given such general unfamiliarity with the nominees, the producers went for splash Sunday.

Awards for things like scenic design and choreography were handed out before the broadcast began to make room for a heaping helping of musical numbers -- 13, count 'em, 13 -- including nostalgic nods to "Rent" and "The Lion King."

The whole program was bent toward the might of the musical -- the award for best play was given out about two-thirds of the way through -- but that's how it goes on Broadway, after all, and for that matter on television, where shows about singing and dancing currently get an enormous amount of love.

There is something electric about it: It reminds you of just how much energy a proscenium stage can contain.

Host Whoopi Goldberg embodied the evening's stated theme that on Broadway "anything can happen" by popping into numbers from various musicals -- "The Phantom of the Opera," "Spamalot," "A Chorus Line," "Spring Awakening" -- to mildly amusing effect. She also flew in as Mary Poppins ("Yeah, I can watch the kids, but I won't be cleaning your house"). She was funnier taking a backhanded swipe at Clarence Thomas ("forgetting" that Thurgood Marshall, now the subject of a one-man show starring Laurence Fishburne, was not the only African American Supreme Court justice).

When not dressed as a crab or as a member of "A Chorus Line," she wore ruffly things designed by "Project Runway" winner Christian Soriano.

Although many of the nominees are best known, or only known, in the theater world, the presenters tend to be people you'll recognize from movies and television but who do have real theater credits, by which they are, for this occasion, identified. They all looked beautiful and handsome and dignified in this context and under this dress code.

As usual, the written material tends to short and sometimes inspiring encomiums toward the art in question and jokes that should be funnier.

The acceptance speeches were where it got good. Best lead actor in a play Mark Rylance delivered a monologue on how one should behave in the city ("at the very least you should wear a suit, carry a briefcase and a cellphone, or a team jacket, a baseball cap, and a cellphone") and in "the back country" ("it is a good idea to wear orange and carry a gun or, depending on the season, a fishing pole or a camera with a big lens, otherwise it may appear that you don't know what you're doing"), which seemed meant to say that he was surprised to find himself there.

Patti LuPone socked across her acceptance speech at about the same pitch as she sang her number from "Gypsy" and raged hilariously, and thrillingly, as the orchestra tried to play her off. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who won best score for "In the Heights," rapped his ("Vanessa, who still leaves me breathless / Thanks for lovin' me when I was broke and still makin' breakfast"), and Tracy Letts, author of best play "August: Osage County," took a swipe at the sitcommodification of Broadway, saying of his producers, "They did an amazing thing -- they decided to produce an American play on Broadway with theater actors."


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