Can’t Neil Patrick Harris (NPH) be hired to host all of the televised award shows? Good thing he’s already lined up to do the 2013 Emmy Awards in June. If the producers of the Oscars were smart, they’d hammer out a contract and sign him on. Compared to the puerile, offensive humor of Seth MacFarlane as the host of last year’s Academy Awards, NPH’s PhD in hosting easily trumps McFarlane’s nursery school rendition.
NPH, of course, is openly gay, which I have to think lands him closer to the center of the hosting bulls eye from the start. He somehow understands the fine line between satire and parody and sincerity that these shows demand, as they both honor and send-up the nominated work. If awards shows are really just long commercials for the product they’re touting, and a chance to see adorned celebrities read from Teleprompters or improvise and show their “real” selves, a good host has to strike the balance between toast- and roast-master.
NPH most often trades snark for sweet, with self-deprecating charm that brings the whole audience along instead of aiming only for the lowest common denominator (take note, MacFarlane). And he sings, dances, and patters with the best of them, willing to aim both high and low. Shouting out to the kid watching somewhere and yearning to be part of what was all night honored as “the Broadway community,” NPH noted, “We were all that kid” (one of the show’s early highs).
French-kissing Sandy the Annie dog, as they sat companionably on the side of the stage at Radio City, might have been lowbrow, but I found it hysterical. NPH doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he positions himself squarely inside the crowd he’s addressing. He creates a “we” that invites the television audience in, too, and lets us feel proud of and involved in a field of culture in which most of us are just consumers. That’s a gift.
The production numbers last night exemplified the best of any awards show in recent memory. Medleys or pastiches from nominated musicals (or from previous winners, like Once, which was cheated out of a full scene when the show ran late) were filmed and edited with kinetic verve and visual detail, offering movement, fluidity, and energy that nicely translated the three-dimensional song-and-dance numbers into television’s two.
Projections and set pieces offered the flavor of each show’s style and design, providing the numbers with color and texture, excitement and flare. Even the choice to announce the awards in front of a marquee-style posting of each category, with warm wood doorways coloring the television frame, helped give the show warmth and immediacy, eschewing the more formal pomp and circumstance that often bogs down the Oscars, for instance, in more remote glamour.
In fact, the 2013 Tony Awards show underlined beautifully that Broadway is all about real bodies laboring in real time to create a magical, meaningful experience for spectators. I loved how the television camera captured NPH sweating and panting after his terrific opening production number.
And you could see all of the performers actually singing (no lip-syncing here, even, I’m pretty sure, for the Phantom of the Opera number, one of the evening’s more gratuitous scenes, which only served to honor the staying power of one of Broadway’s money cows). The labor of those Broadway artists was palpable and impressive all evening.
Was it my imagination that the show also seemed politically and socially progressive and might point to a hopeful moment in Broadway theatre? Each of the musical numbers seemed strikingly multiracial, from the cheerleaders of Bring it On to the fearful but feisty students of Matilda, and from the factory workers of Kinky Boots to the singers of Motown, in which the one or two white people in the chorus nicely reversed the typical demographic balance. Even Annie’s orphans included African- and Asian-American girls.
Four people of color won major awards for acting: Courtney B. Vance for Lucky Guy (sorry for leaving him out in my first posting of this blog!); Patina Miller for Pippin (whose gown, when she accepted, showed off her gorgeous, strong arms); Billy Porter for Kinky Boots (who thanked his mother for her graceful acceptance of things she doesn’t understand which, he suggested, could be a model for us all); and the elegant elder stateswoman, Cicely Tyson for Trip to Bountiful (who deserved more than the 30 seconds of speaking time she received).
Women, queer people, and drag queens stood out in the winners’ category all evening. Diana Paulus won early for directing Pippin, eloquently urging people watching to “do what you love.” Pam McKinnon won shortly after for directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She, too, spoke beautifully and sincerely about her long relationship with Edward Albee and the importance of the arts. My Facebook feed exploded with shock and delight that two women took home this year’s directing honors, but Playwrights Horizon’s Beth Nathanson’s remark—“It’s about fucking time!”—seemed most astute.
Drag roles abounded in the nominated musicals. Although Billy Porter performed the televised Kinky Boots number in civilian clothes, all the show’s press focuses on his high-heeled drag glory. Bertie Carvel (Matilda), who lost to Porter, performed his misshapen villain turn as the hideous Miss Trunchbull. And the less-noticed but equally adept Gregory Haney was on hand as La Cienega, the trans-cheerleader in the scene from Bring it On.
Though no one in Cinderella played in drag, even that musical hints at the old English pantomime tradition of dame roles in which men played women. The numbers’ fluid gender performativity, along with NPH’s out-ness and the several gay male winners who acknowledged their husbands from the stage, gave the evening a happy queer vibe. Even Jane Lynch, singing Annie’s “Little Girls,” brought a cool lesbian affect to the drunken, child-hating Miss Hannigan.
Most of the skits and patter worked beautifully all evening. Andrew Rannells (The New Normal), Megan Hilty (Smash), and Laura Benanti (Go On) joined NPH for a funny number about Broadway stars whose television series were cancelled. The skit wittily underscored the economics of the arts and the differences between LA and NY, while letting all four demonstrate the acting, singing, and comedy chops that their televised experiences only flattened.
Sigourney Weaver deserved a better presenting partner than NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who should never, ever wear a red bow tie), and a few of those reading from Teleprompters sounded stilted and wooden. But for the most part, the show’s writing was superior and the stars’ delivery smooth and warm or appropriately funny. Steve van Zandt’s rambling introduction to The Rascal’s “Good Lovin’” struck a sour note, even though he’d earned the moment by producing the Broadway musical, The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream. The band’s number, played live over a montage of scenes from this year’s plays and musicals in which people kissed one another (wtf?), seemed to have wandered in from “The People’s Choice Awards” circa 1966. Cyndi Lauper, who was sincerely moved as she accepted her Tony for Kinky Boots, did a much better job performing “True Colors” live in front of the “In Memoriam” slides.
Finally, the evening demonstrated the synergy between universities and regional theatres, as Diana Paulus thanked Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, for supporting ART and Emily Mann, accepting the Best Play award for Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike as McCarter Theatre’s artistic director (where the show was first produced before it moved to Lincoln Center and its Broadway run), thanked Princeton University, which hosts the theatre on its campus. The presence of Paulus, Mann, and Martha Lavey, who accepted the Tony for Best Revival of a Play on behalf of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which originated at Steppenwolf Theatre, where Lavey is Artistic Director, illustrated the power of women who head significant regional theatres.
The 2013 Tony Awards made me surprisingly proud to be part of the “Broadway community” honored throughout the night—as a critic, a spectator, and a fan. The queer-, women-, and people of color-friendly show and the work its awards honored just rocked.
The Feminist Spectator