Beginning with a burst of dizzying Disney energy in the form of a performance from the cast of The Lion King, which is currently celebrating 10 years on Broadway, the telecast of the 62nd annual Antoinette “Tony” Perry Awards last night was off to a predictable start that would continue throughout.
The success of a host of unexpected hits notwithstanding, the awards fell mostly into the hands of a handful of productions. And despite a host of new musicals and plays this season, much of the attention regarding the Tonys was on nominees in the revivals categories, namely Gypsy and South Pacific, with the glaring exception of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer-winning new play August: Osage County, which received tremendous Tony buzz and took home a host of awards, including Best Play and Best Director of a Play, as well as several acting and design awards, five in all.
As host, Whoopi Goldberg spearheaded a vast improvement over previous telecasts, especially the three years in recent memory when the clunky, unsuited Hugh Jackman took on hosting duties. Popping up now and then to poke fun at various past and present shows – including The Little Mermaid, The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins, Spring Awakening, A Chorus Line and Spamalot – she peppered the show with much-needed pockets of humour.
Early in the show, after descending from the wings in full Mary Poppins regalia, Whoopi shouted defiantly, “Yeah, I can watch the kids, but I won’t be cleaning the house!” Her several Disney-aimed gags only served to highlight – in Whoopi’s bold style – the shutting out of The Little Mermaid. Though maintaining its sea legs at the box office, Mermaid sank at the Tonys this year, snubbed from the nominations except for recognition in the categories of Best Original Score and Best Lighting Design of a Musical. In a year when blockbuster shows like The Little Mermaid and Mel Brooks’s new show Young Frankenstein promised to take home big bucks at the box office – Brooks hoping to ride on the success of The Producers in 2001 – it was the little shows that proved that with originality on their side they could win out in the end.
About halfway through the broadcast came the second commemorative moment after the grand “Circle of Life” Lion King opener – the reuniting of the original Broadway cast of Rent, which is slated to close later this year, in a performance also featuring the current Broadway cast of the show. To those like me who feel that Rent has a lost a bit of its steam, by now in its twelfth year on Broadway, the current cast’s cries of, “To faggots, lezzies, dykes – cross-dressers too!” during the anthem “La Vie Boheme” served as a much-needed reminder that in 1996 Rent was a trailblazer of sorts on behalf of little-musicals-that-can, shows beginning downtown or in cities across America with small budgets, big hopes, and oftentimes more daring subject matter.
This sentiment rang true even more so as In the Heights began picking up awards throughout the night. Taking home deserved awards in the categories of Original Score, Choreography, and Orchestrations, In the Heights topped it all off with a big, bright cherry – the Tony for Best Musical. In the Heights began its life in New York last season nine blocks downtown from its current 46th Street home at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, playing off-Broadway at 37 Arts to positive reviews and enthusiastic audiences. The musical, which focuses on a big lottery win and its effects on the mostly-Latino population of the Washington Heights community of way-uptown Manhattan, followed in the footsteps of other recent musicals, including Rent, Avenue Q, and Spring Awakening, which opened downtown first, gained a cult following, and opened to critical, box office, and awards season success uptown.
Proving that the Tony Awards are first and foremost an elaborate pageant in celebration of the opulence of Broadway, however, many of the second-string awards were replaced this year on the telecast by a greater number of performances. Awards for Best Book of a Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations, were announced in a quick video clip, while shows shut out of the top category of Best Musical – including The Little Mermaid, Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, and Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino’s A Catered Affair – were given a brief moment in the spotlight. These were atypical inclusions; in previous years, shows snubbed for the Best Musical prize have had to fight tooth and nail – usually unsuccessfully – for a spot on the telecast. Also disappointingly, in the first year of awards for sound design, the newly-designated categories weren’t even televised. This year the producers must have realized, for better or worse, that it’s the performances and not the technical and design categories that audiences tune in for. Despite the need for a ratings boost, however, these snubs seemed a bit of a shame.
While it may be easy to shrug off the exclusion of some of the more obscure awards from the television broadcast, however, the biggest letdown was the underwhelming segment on Stephen Sondheim’s award for lifetime achievement, which only goes to show that the Tonys should take a cue from the Oscars and allow lifetime achievers the chance to address the crowd on the big stage at Radio City Music Hall. Instead, Tony winner Mandy Patinkin read a short segment of Sondheim’s acceptance speech and then proceeded to introduce the cast of the current revival of Sunday in the Park with George for a thrilling performance of the song “Move On.” In a perfect world, we would have been treated to a speech from the master himself, followed by a medley of his songs by some of the greats – Angela Lansbury, Patinkin himself, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, and more. Oh, well, one can dream.
The performance from Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell of Sunday in the Park with George, as well as a thrilling rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Best Actress in a Musical winner Patti LuPone, served to highlight the overwhelming dominance of revivals this year. With Gypsy just about sweeping the acting categories (besides for the win for LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines also took home top honors for the roles of Gypsy Rose Lee and Herbie respectively) and South Pacific taking home Best Revival of a Musical, Best Director of a Musical, several design awards, and Best Actor in a Musical for newcomer Paulo Szot, there was little room for new musicals to breathe. South Pacific ended up the biggest winner, having garnered seven awards by the night’s end.
Further repeating the themes of Tonys past (see The History Boys and The Coast of Utopia), Britons had as successful a year as ever in terms of nominations. Besides for big American winner August: Osage County, the Best Play category was dominated by Brits (Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard, The Seafarer by Conor McPherson and The 39 Steps), and the Broadway transfer of the London revival of Boeing-Boeing took home Best Revival of a Play, as well as Best Actor in a Play for star Mark Rylance. In addition, Irish actor Jim Norton took home the award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his role in The Seafarer, and productions of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liasons Dangereuses, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, and Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, were also among the nominees.
With Britain and the U.S. constantly exchanging theatrical productions, in any other year we could have seen a repeat of The History Boys phenomenon in the case of the critically successful Rock ‘n’ Roll. This year, however, consisted of mainly American wins. August: Osage County heralded the return of the big American play. The production, which began at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, was praised for featuring a large cast and an elaborate Tony-winning set. No one could have foreseen its hit status a year ago; nor could they have foreseen the blindsided success of South Pacific in its first revival on Broadway and the chorus of “ooh”s and “ahh”s from theatergoers applauding the return of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cock-eyed optimism. It was a year of few surprises. Even In the Heights was expected to take home Best Musical top honors. Still it was a thrilling night for the underdog.
The 2008 Tony Awards in full:
Best Play: August: Osage County
Best Musical: In The Heights
Best Book of a Musical: Passing Strange
Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre: In The Heights, Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Best Revival of a Play: Boeing-Boeing
Best Revival of a Musical: South Pacific
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play: Mark Rylance, Boeing Boeing
Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play: Deanna Dunagan, August Osage County
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical: Paulo Szot, South Pacific
Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical: Patti LuPone, Gypsy
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play: Jim Norton, The Seafarer
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play: Rondi Reed, August: Osage County
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical: Boyd Gaines, Gypsy
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical: Laura Benanti, Gypsy
Best Direction of a Play: Anna D. Shapiro, August: Osage County
Best Direction of a Musical: Bartlett Sher, South Pacific
Best Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler, In The Heights
Best Orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, In The Heights
Best Scenic Design of a Play: Todd Rosenthal, August: Osage County
Best Scenic Design of a Musical: Michael Yeargan, South Pacific
Best Costume Design of a Play: Katrina Lindsay, Les Liasons Dangereuses
Best Costume Design of a Musical: Catherine Zuber, South Pacific
Best Lighting Design of a Play: Kevin Adams, The 39 Steps
Best Lighting Design of a Musical: Donald Holder, South Pacific
Best Sound Design of a Play: Mic Pool, The 39 Steps
Best Sound Design of a Musical: Scott Lehrer, South Pacific
Regional Theatre Tony award: Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Special Tony Award: Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981)
Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre: Stephen Sondheim