Host Neil Patrick Harris, in white tux, performs at the 66th Tony Awards. (Charles Sykes, Associated…)
During the long and glorious reign of the variety show, it was fairly common to see the stars of popular Broadway musicals singing and dancing their big numbers on network television. Now, like Christmas, that opportunity comes but once a year, during the annual broadcast of the American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards.
With their consistently heady yet satisfying blend of song and dance, impromptu humor and deeply felt sentiment, of theatrical lions and upstarts, the Tonys is actually as close as it gets to a variety show these days. Where else can you see Mike Nichols reminisce about winning a pie-eating contest in the Beacon Theatre and Harvey Fierstein wearing a jacket, tie and bathing suit amid live snippets from "Porgy and Bess" and "Newsies."
That the Tony's are consistently the most genuinely entertaining of the televised awards shows is about as surprising as...well, Nichols winning this year for his direction of "Death of Salesman" (it's his sixth Tony). From the backstage to the back row, these are people who know — and love, and yearn, and demand — to put on a show.
TONY AWARDS: Red carpet | Winners | Best & worst
And a show is what we got, this year as in years past, hosted for the third time by Neil Patrick Harris. A preternaturally talented performer who manages to project an Everyman humility, Harris should probably host everything, including each year's first joint session of Congress. I am fairly certain many of the things that appear to divide Americans could be settled in just a few moments if Harris simply stood on a stage and belted out a smart and revealing song about them.
Which is exactly what he himself implied during the show's introductory number (not to be confused with the opening number, which was a fabulous performance from last year's big winner "The Book of Mormon.") Wouldn't life be better, Harris mused, if life were more like theater?
Of course it would. Or at least if life were like theater as depicted by the Tony awards, where every terrible and tedious play you've ever seen, or written, or directed, or starred in is simply part of the great circle of theatrical life (and yes, there appeared to be a guy in full "Lion King" costume in the audience), the compost from which true beauty springs.
Despite presenter Ellen Barkin's announcement that Broadway box office posted yet another record-breaking year, those involved in live theater still feel, and act, as if they were something between an endangered community and an underground movement. It's both endearing and mildly irritating — that is Patti Lupone exchanging warbles with Mandy Patinkin, after all.
But the feeling of shared goodwill rising off the audience, and the camaraderie between those in the seats and those on the stage, is sincere enough, and strong enough to entice and include the larger national TV audience. We may not have seen most, or any, of the nominated plays and performances, but gosh, the numbers and clips look terrific and everyone seems so genuinely delighted with the collective work that it's difficult not to wonder what the fares to New York are like these days.
There was a certain genre cross-over factor among this year's nominees to satisfy the non-theaterphile — "Once," based on the indie film of the same name, faced off (and won) against "Newsies," another musical adapted from a (much less celebrated) movie. The coolest mash-up moment came when Christian Borle, one of the stars of the critically beleaguered "Smash," won the Tony for featured actor in a play for his performance in "Peter and the Starcatcher." (Strangely, he didn't mention the show in his acceptance speech but still, it's publicity, right?)
More disturbing was the Fierstein moment — he donned trunks and a floatie to introduce a live performance of "Hairspray" from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. Which might have seemed like a generous gesture — theater is theater no matter where it occurs, even on the high seas — except it was repeatedly preceded, and immediately followed by, a commercial for Royal Caribbean, which made the whole thing feel a bit like an infomercial.
But then Hugh Jackman's lovely and very non-professional-entertainer-wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, presented him with a special award for service to the theater; James Corden, star of "One Man, Two Guvnors," and Nina Arianda, star of "Venus and Fur" gave sweet giddy acceptance speeches, and Harris sang another hilarious little song.