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Television Review: Tony Awards

Neil Patrick Harris proves a wickedly witty host in a loose yet old-fashioned celebration of theater sprinkled liberally with TV stars to keep mainstream audiences interested.

June 13, 2011|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Host Neil Patrick Harris performs during the 65th annual Tony Awards, Sunday, June 12, 2011 in New York
Host Neil Patrick Harris performs during the 65th annual Tony Awards, Sunday,…

Here we are again, Broadway: 3,000 miles apart and yet once more we spent an evening together, me here in L.A., you there on ... well, on Broadway, celebrating yourself Sunday in New York's Beacon Theater on the occasion of the 65th annual Tony Awards.

It is the magic of television that brought us together, for the usual three hours on CBS, and indeed for this one night a year, "Brigadoon"-like, you become a television show – full, like your theaters, of faces familiar from television. (This is fortunate, for the purposes of entertaining an audience many of whom will never see a Broadway play.)

Still, it is a special sort of TV show you comprise, different even from your higher-profile cousins in award-giving – more formal in some ways, looser in others and especially swollen with love, the theater, even in its industrial phase, remaining a community, and even though flush with cash, a community of underdogs. Your stagecraft may rely on computers now, your singers sing with microphones taped to their face, but the theater lives in real time, face to face. A full-size, lifelike puppet horse is magic not replicable in the Worldwide-webbed world; there is something especially heartening about the cheers from the galleries when local favorites win or are centered out for thanks.

A different measure of this distance was offered at the top by Neil Patrick Harris, addressing himself to those who regard a Broadway musical as "a two-hour, live-action, barely affordable, unlip-synched version of 'Glee,'" in a specialty number on the theme "It's not just for gays anymore": "Attention, every breeder/ You're invited to the theater." This throwing down of a sequined gantlet announced to any viewers troubled by homosexuality that they might be happier on some other channel – but that they were still welcome to Broadway: "Come in and be inspired/ There's no sodomy required."

Some dials might have been touched then. Given the family-friendly theme park that Times Square has largely become, that couplet may have veered near to overreach, but the Tonys have been an "out" show for a long time. "This is an incredible room," Robin Williams joked. "The only beard here is on my face.") And playwright Larry Kramer, winning for the revival of his play "The Normal Heart," addressed himself "to gay people everywhere" to "let them know we are a very special people, an exceptional people, and that our day will come."

Also, Cole Porter (long-departed composer of the winning musical revival "Anything Goes"): gay.

In many respects, compared to recent broadcasts dominated by rock musicals, it was an old-fashioned evening, with the nominated musicals running to retro, either in fact or in imitation. Even Bono and the Edge, whose "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" is about to open after the longest preview in history, were somewhat contained, trying out their comedy double act for when that U2 thing peters out. Winner Frances McDormand, in a denim jacket, recalling seeing the Allman Brothers play the Beacon, was as rock as the evening got.

What else? As his acceptance speech, "Jerusalem" actor Mark Rylance for the second time read a prose poem by Louis Jenkins. (It was about walking through walls and may or may not have been intended metaphorically.) Chris Rock, appearing on Broadway in a play whose title is not actually "The Mother with the Hat," turned up at the end to give an award to the best new musical – it was "The Book of Mormon," to his vocal lack of surprise – and worked blue for the space of a joke.

Harris, who has appeared thrice on Broadway and now twice hosted the Tonys (and once the Emmys), brings irony to a celebratory moment with no loss of edge or of joy: He never let the show get away from him, even when it might have. As he did at his last stand, he ended the show by musically recapping it, in rapped rhyme this time: "This ain't reality TV/ This is eight shows a week." (It was a brilliant job, both by Harris and whatever writers were working on the fly.)

Had there been a tune, the audience would have left the theater humming it.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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