I decided, in honor of the recent Tony Awards broadcast, to cover some earlier Tony Award ceremonies from the last few years. I decided to start with this one, partly because of the rather iconic status it has achieved and partly because it was the first Tony ceremony of the modern Broadway renaissance, although said renaissance hadn’t really set in yet. The truth is that, apart from one monumental phenomenon of a show, this was actually a pretty poor season for Broadway, but the choice of performances here actually does a pretty good job of disguising that.
Neil Patrick Harris is also an enormous help…this was his second Tony hosting gig, and it probably still ranks as his best. His opening number, the hilarious “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore”, would become the standard by which all Tony introductory numbers would be judged, and his medley of parodies with Hugh Jackman and his surprisingly credible closing Rap monologue are pretty fantastic too.
The actual performances from the shows themselves do get off to a rather questionable start, as the first one shown is former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which could easily be redubbed “How to succeed in show business without really being any good”. I’m sorry, but Daniel Radcliffe has never had any business being on Broadway, and while this role may have been less of an outrage than casting him in Equus, his total lack of qualification still makes him look like a little boy playing dress-up as a Broadway star.
After that, though, the performances do a pretty good job of making the most of what they have. Norbert Leo Butz’s performance of “Don’t Break the Rules” from Catch Me If You Can is thrilling…the show was kind of underwhelming on stage, but they were smart enough to pick its best number for the Tonys telecast. This phenomenon is even more pronounced with The Scottsboro Boys, as the entire performance is drawn from the show’s first fifteen minutes, at which point it hadn’t become clear just how off-track the show was headed. In fact, I blame the Tonys in large part for that show’s undeserved legion of defenders among people who never actually saw it.
Sister Act had a reasonably winning formula for a Tony number…almost any of its big gospel showstoppers would have worked for the purpose. There was also an ‘encore’ number from last year’s undeserved Tony winner, Memphis. The number they use, “Steal Your Rock’n’Roll” is, like most of the show’s numbers, pleasant and lively but conventional to a fault, but they manage to spark it with an energetic performance featuring a bunch of kids dancing in the aisles.
The Anything Goes title-song is familiar fare, to say the least, but Sutton Foster’s performance is undeniably impressive…this was the first show she appeared in that was really worthy of her, and she definitely made the most of it. Company’s “Side by Side by Side” is also something of an old chestnut, but it is performed with great panache, with Harris himself leading the number (he had starred in the superb revival and film of the show that same year).
The Priscilla Queen of the Desert number blatantly cheats by getting the original singer of “It’s Raining Men” to perform the song, which undoubtedly makes for a better Tony number but is even more misleading about the show’s actual quality than the careful cherrypicked selections mentioned above. Outside of the How to Succeed revival, the only show to genuinely come off badly is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which showcases a moderately attractive ballad that nonetheless betrays how badly the show plays in performance.
And Book of Mormon, of course, completely stole the show with one of its best numbers, the unforgettable “I Believe”. Some of the more uptight theater buffs were offended by Chris Rock’s raucously vulgar presentation speech for the Best Musical award, but he only said what everyone was thinking…we hadn’t had such an obvious foregone conclusion in this category since The Producers ten years earlier.
Given the overall quality of the season, they did a surprisingly good job putting together this broadcast, and when you factor in Neil Patrick Harris’ numbers, this might be the best all-around Tony ceremony of the decade so far, at least as a viewing experience.