Seeing stars

Who are these people?

The day after the Tony Awards, I ran into somebody who said he was looking forward to checking my blog to see what I said about it. At the time, I hadn’t seen the telecast. That night I was too busy doing theatre, in a Broadway house, no less, and put myself into something of a spoiler cloak before I could watch it on Tuesday, the tenth.

Before getting to the meat of my screed, I’ll say a few of the obvious things you could say any year. I had a college poetry professor, Kenneth Koch, who said “Poetry is exactly that which cannot be translated.” And I’ll echo that about theatre: it’s exactly that which cannot be televised. Everything you experience, seeing a show, is related to the nature of a live event. The audience looks wherever it wants. The TV camera chooses a view, capturing what the director wants. I love watching a baseball game on TV where something so unexpected happens, the broadcast fails to catch it. That’s rather rare. But stage shows are built on unpredictable moments, and when you see television that’s shot in a theatre, you’re getting an inevitably false simulacrum.

Sometimes, the falseness is intentional. After Midnight is a well-reviewed revue starring Fantasia Barrino and Dulé Hill, not, as the telecast would lead you to believe, Fantasia Barrino, Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle. You see, during the run, these divas took over for each other. Audiences get one famous soul sister, not three. Similarly – and more obviously – Carole King, the real person, does not appear in the musical about her, Beautiful. I’m glad that was a tad clearer, but I bet somebody phoned Telecharge and ordered seats because they were hoodwinked into believing one show had three queens of R&B and the other one King.

Which, as practically everyone acknowledges, is the real purpose of the TV special: to serve as an advertisement for Broadway shows. But, because of the nature of theatre, year after year there are segments that don’t do such a good job as selling tickets. This has nothing to do with the quality of the show: It’s just that Broadway on television is a reflection in a funhouse mirror.

The 21st Century Tonys seem obsessed with telling one kind of joke, over and over again. The idea is that since our corner of show business has welcomed so many homosexuals, it is somehow unmanly to perform in a musical. Previously, there was a good original comedy song about how theatre is not just for gays anymore. This year was more of a celebration of unoriginality. Hugh Jackman sang witless parodies of old songs, I guess, to show us he could sing. Then he cracked many jokes about how he, a he-man X-Man in films, is, this night, wearing tap shoes. Hmmm. Which takes more muscularity, I wonder?

So, the putative Celebration of Broadway began with a recreation of an amusing dance sequence … from a movie. How I long for the day when a sizable chunk of the Oscars recreates bits of stage works that have never been films. I guess we could say that, in some of their ill-considered musical numbers, Oscar has tried to be like Broadway, and failed miserably. One regularly looks to the Tony telecast for a rare chance to see musical numbers on the small box.

And After Midnight seemed like what the doctor ordered, a revue featuring old-fashioned musical comedy tropes, like might have gone on at the Cotton Club in the jazz age. But, the moment Fantasia came on, I was distracted by her dress, which showed an unusually large swath of cleavage. I hope nobody gets offended if I say ‘twas a beautiful sight to see. And SO wrong. So not how anyone dressed in the jazz age, and what was worse, marred by – I kid you not – a tattoo. A distraction on top of a distraction, that tat for tit.

Soon enough, on came the first presenters, Anna Gunn and Orlando Bloom, and so began my nettlesome sense of alienation. I hereby cheerfully admit I’ve never heard of Anna Gunn. Not someone I recognize at all. Now, if I’d tuned into an award show honoring Jai Alai players, I’d fully expect to hear names I’ve never heard before. But this is Broadway. I think I know a little about Broadway theatre, but maybe not. So I looked up Gunn on the Internet Broadway Database and it turns out she did one play.Orlando Bloom, who was in some movies I didn’t care for, made his Broadway debut this year, in a play I’d forgotten ever played. A TV star and a movie star with one Broadway credit each.

We all know what’s happening, here: Some set of geniuses is trying to get more people to watch this perennially low-rated TV special by parading a bunch of names and faces the TV-watching audience knows. And you know I know the name and face of Cal Ripkin, Jr., but he’s somehow not invited to the Jai alai awards. How is this, then, a celebration of Broadway? It becomes a celebration of stars from other media. And so we get Tina Fey, who used to work a couple of blocks from Broadway, LL Cool J and T.I., who’ve spent time in New York, Kate Mara (I’ve no idea who she is), Emmy Rossum (I guess because she’s named for an award) and three guys named Zach who all made their Broadway debuts this year.

If anyone were interested in actually celebrating Broadway, the Tonys would hire presenters who’ve done more than one or two shows. How about Cherry Jones (14 Broadway credits), Victoria Clark (10), Judd Hirsch (10) or Michael Rupert (9)? Each has performed on The Street more times than Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman combined. My daughter’s taken to calling the latter “the hopping man.” And me, well, I guess I answer to the description, “hopping mad.”


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