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Tonys on TV: How quaint — speeches, musical numbers, class

June 7, 2009 | 10:47 pm

Neil Patrick Harris closes the Tony Awards There is something stubbornly old-fashioned about the Tony Awards, the 63rd edition of which was broadcast Sunday night over CBS. As a television broadcast — a real-time event honoring a craft that exists in real time — it’s a yearly revival, “Brigadoon”-like, of a type of singing-dancing variety TV whose light otherwise went out sometime in the 1970s. (And as a theatrical event — a one-night-only performance on the stage of Radio City Music Hall — it is just a night off for many of the honored productions.)

But theater itself is the living embodiment of its own history, continually reviving, reworking, reassessing and rediscovering past works; this year’s nominees included works by Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco; Angela Lansbury, who won for a revival of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” introduced a filmed tribute to composer Jerry Herman, in whose “Mame” she long ago starred. The mash-up of numbers from nominated musicals that began the evening included work by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Rodgers and Hart, not to mention an appearance by Liza Minnelli, who herself is the genetic embodiment of her mother, who famously played the Palace before her.

It was a remarkably fast-paced three hours, with few glitches. (An emergency hand microphone needed to be brought onstage for “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from “Guys and Dolls.” They used to do these shows without mikes, kids.) And it was classy, to use a less than classy word, without being dully respectable, from the subtle set representing a theater entrance, to well-dressed, square-shouldered host Neil Patrick Harris of CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother” but sporting a few Broadway credits of his own, puckish but never embarrassing. He went “off-prompter” to pay tribute to the Tonys broadcast as the thing that brought news of the bigger world of theater into the living room of his New Mexico childhood.

Karen Olivo The backbone of the show remains the musical numbers, just as the musical itself remains the backbone of the Broadway renaissance. Where this year’s Oscar broadcast was stopped dead by musical “special material,” the Tony Awards highlight numbers from hit musicals from which all the kinks have long been worked out. (Though Harris’ closing version of “Tonight,” with lyrics recapping the evening, worked exceptionally well as well.)

But its heart is still in the acceptance speeches, which, like the theater itself, harness the energy of a lived moment: the three young stars of “Billy Elliot: The Musical” learning onstage how to craft an acceptance speech, Karen Olivo (from “West Side Story”) collapsing in tears (to roars of approval), Geoffrey Rush (from “Exit the King”) thanking the voters for “proving that French existential absurdist tragicomedy rocks” or Alice Ripley (“Next to Normal”) turning it up to 11 in the name of theater as fine art.
I find the Tonys the most reliably exciting of award shows; certainly it is, in terms of audience reaction, the noisiest. Unlike the Emmys or Oscars, the audience for the Tony Awards includes members of the public, and the evening feels like a real celebration of a real community.

If there was less local boosterism than in some past broadcasts, it may just be that the health of the venue seems assured these days: 43 new productions opened on Broadway in its last season, according to figures quoted by Gina Gershon, which was “the highest-grossing season in the history of the Broadway League.”

--Robert Lloyd

Caption (top): Neil Patrick Harris, host of the Tony Awards show. Credit: Seth Wenig / Associated Press

Caption (bottom): "West Side Story's" Karen Olivo, accepting her trophy for featured actress in a musical. Credit: Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images