Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Tap-Dancing Around TV on the Tonys

This past weekend, Broadway celebrated itself with the annual Antoinette Perry awards. Although, in this era of streaming and binge-watching, no televised awards show can hope to capture the Nielsen ratings it once enjoyed, for the viewing public the Tony shindig is still the most entertaining of the bunch. Partly this is because those savvy Tony folks give out their less exciting awards during commercial breaks, so that we at home never have to sit through the honoring of the year’s best sound designer or lighting maven. And each host is carefully selected on the basis of sparkling personality, musical talent, and for being a familiar living-room presence. For years, Neil Patrick Harris was the go-to Tony host, and he made an amusing cameo appearance in 2019. Lin-Manuel Miranda has also ably taken on the job. But in 2019 the role of the MC went to the ebullient James Corden, who nimbly presided over the festivities on the gargantuan Radio City Music Hall stage.

The Tony event, needless to say, is always a celebration of the joys of live theatre, as epitomized by Broadway. In fact, Corden’s splashy opening number emphasized the fact that “This is live! . . . We are alive!” In other words, part of the excitement of Broadway (ideally, at least) is its freshness, its spontaneity, its sense that anything can happen. (Of course there are also drawbacks: cramped theatre aisles, iffy air conditioning, rude seatmates, an endless line to the ladies’ room at intermission.) Award-winning actors are always insisting that the theatre is their true home. Still, it remains true that many of Broadway’s brightest stars spend most of their time on the tube. See, for instance, the great Audra MacDonald (currently a regular on The Good Fight) and Laurie Metcalf (The Conners), as well as Corden himself. Though this jolly Brit was first introduced to America in 2011 as the Tony-winning star of an updated Italian farce, A Man and Two Guvnors, he is today known and loved by millions for hosting The Late Late Show, home of both “Carpool Karaoke” and the even wackier “Crosswalk the Musical.”

Because TV is his bread and butter, it makes sense that Corden’s opening number amusingly tap-danced around the love-hate relationship between the stage and the screen. “We’re much better than television,” he said at one point. In the next breath, he and his fellow thespians quickly pointed out some exceptions to this statement: Game of Thrones, Fleabag, Mrs. Maisel, Big Little Lies. And so on, and so on. Eventually, Corden was forced to admit the truth: “We love you, TV . . . you pay us so much more.”

This being so, it was no fluke that some of the nominees in major categories were movie and Tv personalities, whose box-office clout could help their stage shows to thrive. Among this Best Actor candidates were two genuine Hollywood stars appearing in theatrical versions of beloved movies. Jeff Daniel was cited for playing the Gregory Peck role in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Yes, I know it was a novel first.) And Bryan Cranston, the ultimate Tony winner, took on the part made famous on screen by Peter Finch, that of the half-crazed news anchor in Network, he who’s “as made as hell  and . . .  not gonna take it anymore.” Leave it to smart producers to understand that the ticket-buying public prefers familiar faces and familiar plot lines. And, in some cases, familiar costumes. Like the va-va-voom outfits that brought 80-year-old Bob Mackie a Tony for this year’s The Cher Show. Yes, we’d seen them before.

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