Whoopi Goldberg hosting the 62nd Annual Tony Awards by Theo Wargo/ WireImage.com
Next to TV, theater probably qualifies as my most consuming passion. Whereas I love TV for its ability to bring millions together for a shared experience on an expansive canvas that's always fascinating to chart, I treasure the theatrical experience for its shared intimacy, the knowledge that what an audience of dozens or hundreds is witnessing live will never happen exactly the same way again. (The fact that in classic Broadway tradition, these performers and crews do it eight times a week never fails to astonish me.)
This helps explain why the Tonys is potentially my favorite awards show any given year, a celebration of commercial theater that gives the national audience a rare glimpse into the shows that has the stage world buzzing. I say "potentially" because in recent years, the Tonys (despite moving into the cavernous Radio City Music Hall) has become a diminished franchise, taking what was once an all-out musical spectacular that made room for elaborate tributes and specialty numbers and turning it into a perfunctory salute to the current year's nominated shows that becomes a race to get off the air by 11 pm/ET.
This year's broadcast, the best in a long while, was still rushed at the end, but primarily because the show was stuffed with the sound of music (an apt Rodgers & Hammerstein reference, given the success of the dazzling new
revival). It opened with a 10th-year anniversary homage to the still-popular
The Lion King
(the spectacular "Circle of Life" number never gets old), and ended with a nod to
, which is closing later this year, as the current and original casts each got a chance to perform. Throughout the show, Whoopi Goldberg proved a game and chipper host, appearing on stage as the crab in
The Little Mermaid
and aloft as
("Yeah, I can watch the kids, but I won't be cleaning your house.") and inserting herself in taped segments into the casts of enduring shows like
Spring Awakening, The Phantom of the Opera
The show broke tradition this year by allowing new musicals not nominated for the top best-musical prize to show their stuff, in part because several (
Mermaid, Young Frankenstein
) had marquee value lacking in lesser-known front-runners like the jubilant
In the Heights
(the ultimate winner) and the funky
, based on John Waters' movie- and how funny was he as he wondered "if there are actual prisoners watching the Tony Awards tonight"- scored with its best number, a jailhouse tap extravaganza with inmates strapping license plates to their feet. The wacky surprise contender
(introduced by Lily Tomlin) strutted its campy stuff toward the end of the show, but only hinted at its mad genius.
The musical revivals were well represented, with Patti LuPone belting the
first-act closer "Something's Coming Up Roses" to the rafters (the crowd's standing ovation revealing why her performance is already theater legend), a stirring medley from
and a cheesy look at the TV-spawned
mutation. The only time I thought the Tonys dropped the ball was in not letting the number from the dazzling
Sunday in the Park With George
revival be the centerpiece of a larger Stephen Sondheim montage, considering that he had just been given a lifetime achievement award. (Mandy Patinkin read Sondheim's witty acceptance speech to the audience). That's the sort of grand gesture the Tonys would have produced back in its glory days.
Still, a better-than-average show, not that the ratings are likely to reflect it, given the strong sports competition with Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open and the toughly fought NBA Finals. (At least the Tonys didn't have to face a pop-culture milestone like the finale of
Where else are you going to see acceptance speeches so eloquent, clever and gracious that you're tempted to applaud from your seat? Highlights:
In the Heights
' composer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda rapping his thanks, including a shout-out to Sondheim (parsing a
lyric): "Look, Mr. Sondheim, I made a hat where there never was a hat, and it's a Latin hat at that." Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts accepting his Tony for the savagely funny
August: Osage County
by noting (in a nod to his former acting career): "I guarantee you that this moment beats the hell out of auditioning for
." (Did he know what network this was on?) Patti LuPone, winning her first Tony in nearly 30 years (not since
), screaming at the orchestra that was trying to urge her offstage, "Shut up- it's been 29 years!"
BTW, I'm planning to be in the audience Tuesday night to welcome back
winners LuPone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti from their Sunday night triumph. That should be the sort of electrifying evening you can't even find on TV, especially this time of year.