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Tonys 2013 Q&A: 'Neil Patrick Harris is the god of awards show'

June 10, 2013|By Charles McNulty

Charles McNulty, The Times theater critic, shared his insights about the 2013 Tony Awards and the upcoming theatrical season in an hourlong chat Monday with readers.

McNulty, who admits to a "dour mood about this Broadway season," started watching the show Sunday night "without enormous excitement." But soon Neil Patrick Harris and moving speeches from Judith Light and other winners won him over.

Read more to find out what McNulty's "honest reaction" -- as one reader requested of him -- was to the winners and televised performances.

Question: Was 'Kinky Boots' really the "best" musical, or was it chosen simply to make a point?

Answer: Awards are relative, and the Tonys are hardly a pure meritocracy.

I saw “Kinky Boots” before I saw “Matilda” and there were things I liked about “Kinky Boots” (Billy Porter’s magnetism, Stark Sands’ sensitivity with a somewhat bland role, the gaggle of gorgeous drag queens). But I thought the whole shebang was cloyingly earnest and overdone. Harvey Firestein’s book was the Achilles’ heel. I loved a couple of Cyndi Lauper’s numbers, but there was a lot of music that seemed generically expositional – just marking time.

Notwithstanding all the fun gender bending, the show seem pitched to a touristy mainstream.

But then I saw “Matilda The Musical,” which was touted by one of my colleagues as the greatest musical to come out of England. I didn’t get it. There was certainly much to admire in the show – the scenic imagination in particular of Matthew Warchus’ production. But it’s essentially a kid’s show, cartoonishly drawn. I’m not sure how I would have voted. “Bring It On: The Musical” and “A Christmas Story: The Musical” were the other choices.

I guess it would have been a tossup for me between “Kinky” and “Matilda.” I had no dog in this hunt. But it’s clear that “Kinky Boots” benefited from American producers recognizing that a Tony would do more for this show on the road that it would for the British import “Matilda.”

COMPLETE LIST: Winners and nominees

Q: What was your impression of the Motown performers? Your honest reaction.

A: I think they sold the show to mainstream America. Did the presentation make me want to run out and see it? No.

Q: Do you think the reach for larger audiences has had an impact on the quality of the talent that musicals are finding and showcasing?

A: Absolutely. The economics of Broadway are simultaneously expanding the audience and killing the musical theater art form. If current trends continue artists will be opting for an MBA in marketing rather than an MFA in theater. These productions are assembled by focus groups made up entirely of producers, it sometimes seems.

Q: Any further thought on Bette Midler's snub? Was it the play which I read was regarded as lightweight? Or was it that Sue Mengers really did not give Bette Midler a stretch beyond the large personaity with which we are familiar?

A: Bette Midler gave a very winning Bette Midler performance in a works that was more a vehicle for her than a play. It’s an enjoyable performance but very ephemeral. I wouldn’t call her not being nominated a snub. It’s not a calculated act. The competition was very stiff in the best actress category. Fiona Shaw, one of the great actresses in the English speaking world, was left off the list. For me, that was the best female performance of the year by far.

Tonys 2013: Red carpet arrivals | Show highlights

Q: The audience looked very white and not apparently very racially or ethnically diverse? Was that the case? Is Broadway concerned?

A: Broadway contines to have a diversity problem in both its artistic and producing ranks and in its audience. The latter problem is partly a function of the fomer and partly a result of outrageous ticket prices. I saw "Matilda" on a Saturday night shortly after opening. Families were there -- paying $1,500 for a night out. Broadway is becoming the playground of the 1 percent set. This can't continue. It's choking the art form.

Q: It's not relevant to this year's Tonys, but having just seen this Tony-nominated Scottsboro Boys at the Ahmanson, which I thought was great albeit with certain caveats, do you think that would have won the Tony is it were alongside this year's crop of nominees?

A: "Scottsboro Boys" received a slew of nominations after it closed on Broadway but was beaten in a year that was dominated by that giggling juggernaut, “The Book of Mormon.” I think "Scottsboro Boys" works better off-Broadway and in the regional theater. It’s a show that should not have to carry the burden of Broadway ticket prices – with all their attendance expectations.

Q: What was your overall thought of the Tonys show itself?

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