Tony Awards 2015

Just like last year, I went to my friend Vanessa’s to watch the Tonys, dish on the nominees, and nosh on some lovely vegan food. And just like last year, I’m writing up a few of my post-Tony musings for you.

The Hosts
Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth were cheesy, they mugged too frequently, they worked some pretty lame jokes, and they were given lousy song and dance material. Kristin could hardly walk in those massive heels. Alan looked ludicrous in those shorts. And you know what? I liked ’em anyway. I found them dorky and lovable. There was no pretense that this show was for anyone but theater nerds, and to me they fit much better into the Tonysphere than Hugh Jackman and his Hollywood splash. Of course, they were not any match for Neil Patrick Harris, but come now. They were never going to be any match for Neil Patrick Harris. I don’t care that it wasn’t objectively a very good hosting performance. I liked the silly irreverence a lot more than the bloated grandiosity of the Oscars. They were cute.

The Numbers
Halfway through, I turned to Vanessa and exclaimed: All the show numbers thus far were pretty terrific! Wow! Something Rotten‘s big number translated fairly well, Gigi seemed like old-fashioned fun, An American in Paris looked beautiful. Plus On The Town and The King and I showed that Tony medleys can sometimes work. (I generally hate Tony medleys. Just do one song!) Fun Home sounded wonderful, of course, though I do wonder why they cut the very helpful line from Beth Malone’s Big Allison at the beginning. “She was a delivery woman, an old school butch” is how the song is introduced onstage, and those lines were inexplicably missing. I almost wonder if Sydney Lucas accidentally started too early and cut off that line from Beth Malone. Or maybe the orchestra started too early and she had no choice. Something seemed messed up. In any case, it was a lovely performance once it got going.

Things went pear-shaped later in the telecast, though. The Finding Neverland song was completely ridiculous (“I don’t remember anything like THIS in the movie…” I said, dumbfounded) and On The Twentieth Century medley was frenetic, manic, and confusing. (Again, medleys don’t usually work, producers!) And then there was The Visit. What a mess! As Vanessa, who hadn’t seen the show, exclaimed halfway through the song: “I DON’T UNDERSTAND THESE PEOPLE!” I explained a little bit of the context (“Well, Chita was dancing with her younger self, and those guys are singing like that because they are eunuchs”) but how the show’s producers gave it the green light baffles me. Josh Groban’s In Memoriam was OK, I guess, especially once the stage filled up with Broadway performers and musicians, but the Tommy Tune tribute was simply pathetic. And that closing number: I like Jersey Boys, but enough already! Why is Jersey Boys always on the Tonys?

The Best Actress
I’m going to focus on one Tony winner in particular: Kelli O’Hara. Since I didn’t write about The King and I when I saw it (it was during my fallow period), I thought I’d give a few thoughts on her performance. To get right to it: I was a little surprised that this was the performance that finally won her a Tony. Don’t get me wrong, she was a good Anna Leonowens: She was poised, she was determined, she was in lovely voice, she looks beautiful as ever. But to me she didn’t bring anything revelatory or particularly moving to the role. I didn’t find myself getting choked up during “Hello Young Lovers”, and I wasn’t emotionally drawn into the love story between Anna and the King either.

I have two theories as to why this was the case.

  • Theory One is that’s my fault: I have become so deeply familiar with The King and I that I’m more or less immune to it by this point. How many times have I seen the movie? How many times have I listened to the cast recordings? How many times have I seen the stage show over the years? And this production, though lovely, doesn’t really plumb new depths in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic. It doesn’t matter what kind of performance she is giving, because I’ve exhausted the emotional possibilities of this musical through overexposure.
  • Theory Two puts a little more blame on Ms. O’Hara. A friend made the case that “She has absolutely no warmth!” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do think she really played to her strengths in Bridges. Her role as Francesca was a little more thoughtful, a little more still, a little more wistful. Two minutes into her performance of the Bridges opening number and I’m ready to give her a dozen Tonys, but as Anna she just didn’t win me over in the same way. Perhaps it’s just not as good of a fit.

In any case, I haven’t seen On the Twentieth Century, so I certainly can’t say Kristin Chenoweth deserved it more. Plus Ms. O’Hara gave an absolutely lovely thank you speech. It’s just wonderful to see an actress who has really focused her career on Broadway finally get her due. I just wish that she’d have gotten the award last year, when I was rooting for her wholeheartedly.

The Big Win
And then of course, there was Fun Home‘s win for Best Musical. The highlight of the night, of course. If you saw my last post (or have spoken to me in the last few weeks) you know that I was simply desperate for this show to get the recognition it deserves. I was full of preemptive woe and irritation. In fact I’ve essentially been throwing a tantrum all week as though An American in Paris had the thing sewn up: “Broadway doesn’t know a good thing when it gets it!” “Why are we so concerned about which show is going to tour better? Can’t we just give the best musical Tony to the actual best musical of the season?” “How is a movie musical adaptation a NEW MUSICAL?” “What is WITH the Gershwin obsession anyway?”

Naturally, I gasped and cheered when Jason Alexander said: “Bravo. Fun Home.” Oh Tony voters. Let’s be friends again. I like you better than ever and that ridiculous win for Kinky Boots is a distant memory. However on my bike ride home I gave it a bit more thought: “Now why am I so thrilled that the Tony voters picked the obvious best musical? WE SHOULD BE EXPECTING THIS!”  In any case, I’m happy to relax and celebrate Fun Home‘s very well deserved win while waiting for Hamilton‘s coronation next year. For once, a Best Musical race won’t be stressful. (I’d say “famous last words” but seriously. No one is beating Hamilton.)

The Shows I Want to See Now
The Tonys left me wanting to see The Curious Incident, of course, but no more than I’d already wanted to see it. No surprise there, as plays are barely featured in the telecast. As for musicals: I’m sure I’ll get to An American in Paris at some point, though to be honest I’m a little reluctant to pay $57 for a balcony ticket. I may wait a few years until it goes back up on TDF. On the Twentieth Century didn’t particularly tempt me, but on the other hand, when will I have a chance to see a high caliber production of that musical again? Maybe I should look into tickets. As for next season: I know I’m going to see Hamilton on Broadway in August; beyond that I know I am interested in American Psycho, School of Rock, and who knows what else. As ever, I can’t wait to see what the next year will bring. Bring it on!

Best Musical Tony Nominees, 2015

First, let me apologize for the unexpected intermission. If Previous Julia (that’s Julia 2014, or PJ as I call her), Future Julia (the me of 2016 — FJ) and me (Jules) had a discussion on why I’ve been so disinterested in blogging over the past few months, it might go something like this:

PJ: So wait, I started this blog in March of 2014 and you have already lost interest by April of 2015?
Me: Well, no, I– I’ve been really busy—
PJ: What on earth happened? Did you come up with another ridiculous, expensive and time-consuming hobby along the lines of boardgaming (2013)/homebrewing (2006)/sewing (2014)/knitting (2009)/whatever?
Me: Erm– Well, yes, but—
FJ: Oh you won’t believe her latest ridiculous hobby. She’s trying to swing dance!
PJ: Oh, hmmm, actually I’ve always wanted to learn to swing dance. Maybe I should take it up. Am I good at it?
FJ: Not remotely good at it. And Jules still hasn’t been doing anything for me either in terms of saving money.
Me: Wait, why are Past and Future Julias both so judgy? Can the three of us talk about something more pleasant? Like my desperate longing for Fun Home to win Best Musical on Sunday?
PJ: Wait, Fun Home MIGHT NOT WIN? It swept all those Drama Desk/Lortel-type awards in 2014!
Me: I know. I’m feeling blindsided too.
FJ: I know who won!
Me: You are always so cagey with your information, FJ.
FJ: Anyway, Jules, can you please buy a subscription to Playwrights Horizons? And start working out more?
Me: I could tell Past Julia the same thing.
PJ: I hate working out.
FJ: Me too.
Me: Me too.
PJ: Anyway, Jules, please start blogging again. You’re embarrassing me.

(Yes, I really do talk about Previous Julia and Future Julia all the time. Usually I’m complaining about PJ failing to do nice things for me. Or sometimes I announce that I’m leaving FJ to deal with my problems later.) Anyway, enough with that nonsense. Shall I get right into it, then? Here are my thoughts on the Best Musical Tony nominees of 2015.

2015-04-09 20.01.05Fun Home
“Now THAT’s a musical!!!” — My first thought when the lights came up after seeing this remarkable show on Broadway.

In fact one of the reasons I’ve felt so inclined to start writing again is that I’ve been unable to stop talking about Fun Home in the runup to the Tonys. It’s a little embarrassing. The #juliaspeeches have really revved up since the Tony nominations came out, because it’s recently come to my attention that this show may not win the Best Musical Tony. Apparently the favorite is actually An American in Paris. (WHAAAAAT? But more on that in a minute.)

What makes it so good? For those of you who don’t know the story, it’s based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel about growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania with a closeted father and the dawning realization that she was gay, too. Fun home is the family’s nickname for their funeral home, the family business.

Has musical theater written all over it, doesn’t it?

Maybe not, but the authors — Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) — have done a phenomenal job of dramatizing the story. Alison is played by three terrific actresses: Beth Malone as our 43-year-old narrator, Emily Skeggs as a college-aged Alison, and Sydney Lucas as a child. The story jumps around quite a bit, but no matter: the storytelling is sharp, crystal-clear and compelling as hell. Despite the seriousness of the show’s themes — you find out early on that Alison’s father committed suicide just a few months after Alison came out in college — it’s not a heavy or preachy show like some I could name (cough cough, The Visit, cough cough); it’s a joy to sit through. That’s because Fun Home handles its coming-of-age themes with wit, creativity, and intelligence. Plus the songs are great! (Is Jeanine Tesori a gift from the Broadway gods, or what?)

And the production is outstanding too: in addition to Three Fantastic Alison Bechdels (or T-fab, as I like to call them), you have Michael Cerveris giving his customary textured, intense, affecting performance as Alison’s miserably closeted father Bruce. And you have the always wonderful Judy Kuhn as Alison’s long-suffering mother Helen. It’s performed in the round at Circle in the Square, and for the most part the staging (by Sam Gold) plays even better than it did at the Public in 2013. (There are a few moments I couldn’t see, but mostly it was fine.)

I told my roommate, who doesn’t care for musicals at all, that this is the type of show I’d take him to see if he’d let me. I don’t think it would sell him on musicals, but if he saw Fun Home, I feel like he’d have a better sense of just what a musical can do. A terrific musical can turn an ordinary moment in life into a magical, joyous, seemingly spontaneous expression of emotion, realization, or connection. It can take a philosophical, thoughtful, deeply personal graphic novel and make it into a coming-of-age story for all of us. And it can make us laugh and cry while doing so.

This is what you call a terrific musical.

2015-04-15 19.51.17The Visit
My wordiness and exuberance come to a screeching halt when I think about The Visit. When people have asked me about it, I can’t get much beyond merely saying: “Well, it’s bleak.” I wasn’t familiar with the play beforehand, but it’s about a rich old lady (Chita Rivera!) who comes back to her hometown to exact revenge on the teenage boyfriend who jilted her.

Already bleak, but then there’s the John Doyle production, full of drab colors and sad faces. It’s heavy-handed too. (For example, there’s a coffin used as a prop throughout.) You do have the wondrous Ms. Rivera onstage, and that accounts for something indeed: at 82 she can still command a stage and win over an audience with just a few words. But no matter how much I liked her (and the rest of the cast, including Jason Danieley and Roger Rees), I couldn’t warm up to the show. I just wish it gave me a little something to hang onto. I constantly felt the Brechtian distancing techniques pushing me away, so much so that I couldn’t feel for any of the characters at all. Even when the show seemed to want me to.

All that said, this is probably the last new Kander and Ebb show on Broadway, and it feels wonderfully unapologetic and uncompromising. It’s far from their best, but it does remind you just why we are so lucky that they decided to write musicals together. Thanks, fellas.

Something Rotten!
This one is fun. I keep thinking of Spamalot as a kind of equivalent show: it was similarly funny, with a terrific cast, an audience-pleasing tone, and a shiny, happy sheen to it. In a weaker year Rotten! might well have won the Best Musical prize (I think it’s quite a lot better than Kinky Boots, for example), and even if it wins this year, it’s a decent choice.

I also think that the book (by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, whose An Utterly Impartial History of Britain is also hilarious) is continually clever, with a ton of great one-liners and an inventive original story. Two brothers in Renaissance England, Nick and Nigel Bottom, want to get out of Shakespeare’s shadow, and set out to write the world’s first musical comedy in order to steal the spotlight. High jinks ensue, as do lots of jokes, as do a truckload of musical theater and Shakespeare references. The songs (by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick) are winning, the cast is great, and it all just… works. Again, it’s a fun, happy, crowd-pleasing show and I hope it keeps all my friends at the St. James employed for several years to come.

On Tony Sunday, Something Rotten! will be performing the big Act One showstopper “A Musical.” The big problem with “A Musical” is that this number is so incredibly good that really nothing else in the show can come close to matching it. (“Oh No!” I thought when I heard that was what they’d be doing for the Tony broadcast. “They’re giving the whole show away!”) But it’s probably the right call, and I would imagine the song will sell a ton of tickets. It’s a big, splashy, clever production number: a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) tries to explain what a musical is to Nick Bottom (Brian D’Arcy James), who has obviously never heard of such a thing. “The crowd goes wild every time,” as they say in the song, and at the James it frequently earns a well-deserved standing ovation. To be honest, I think “A Musical” actually makes a pretty good argument for the musical as an entertainment — sure, it’s not deep, but this number embodies pure glee, technical expertise, dancing, winking humor, and a big ol’ cast. You’ll see what I mean when you see it Sunday.

But after that, the rest of the show was a bit of a letdown. Which is an odd thing to say, because I was giggling throughout. It’s still funny, the audience ate it up, and again, it has a wonderful cast (especially Brian D’Arcy James and John Cariani as the brothers Bottom, Christian Borle as Shakespeare, and Brad Oscar as the soothsayer). It’s a good show. I liked it a lot. It just doesn’t reach the heights I had hoped for in “A Musical”.

An American In Paris
Now I haven’t seen An American in Paris yet. Why not? Well, I don’t particularly care about ballet, or corny, idealized visions of postwar Europe, or another jukebox Gershwin show, or a movie musical from the 1950s, or gamine French girls. But the mere fact that “I haven’t seen it” hasn’t stopped me from unfairly bashing it to anyone who will listen. I hope to go see it soon, so I can either A) eat my words or B) start bashing it fairly. I think it’s just that I always hope the Best Musical Tony goes to a NEW MUSICAL. It’s really nothing against An American in Paris.

I agree with you if you are thinking that I am totally embarrassing myself with my disdain for a show I haven’t seen yet. What will be even more embarrassing is that it’s very possible I’ll end up completely changing my mind on this one. (For an example of this, check out my Rocky review. I totally bashed that one before seeing it too.)

The Winner

Today I found myself wishing Avenue Q had never won the Best Musical Tony over Wicked. Or Gentleman’s Guide over Aladdin and Beautiful, for that matter. Because those two shows winning gives me hope. If it were the case that the more commercial hit always won, it would be one thing. Just as an example, look at just a few recent years when the bigger hit beat what I would consider to be the more deserving show:

  • 2009: Billy Elliot beats Next to Normal
  • 2005: Spamalot beats both The Light in the Piazza and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
  • 2002: Thoroughly Modern Millie beats Urinetown (This one still stings.)

I could go back a lot further, too. It happens a lot. The problem comes when the Tony voters sometimes get it right. And it has a real impact on the life of a show. Because of its win, Gentleman’s Guide has probably lasted a lot longer than it would have otherwise. So I’m crossing every finger and toe that the voters get this one right. But as I keep reminding myself, Fun Home’s artistic accomplishment is not dependent on what happens Sunday.

So I’m going to drink a heck of a lot of champagne and hope that the predictions are wrong. Let’s go Fun Home!