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 South Pacific 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 Rent, 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 Mary Poppins ("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 and Spamalot.

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 Passing Strange. Cry-Baby, 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 Xanadu (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 Gypsy 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 South Pacific and a cheesy look at the TV-spawned Grease 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 The Sopranos this year.)

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 Sunday 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 JAG." (Did he know what network this was on?) Patti LuPone, winning her first Tony in nearly 30 years (not since Evita), 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 Gypsy 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.