This year‘s Tonys were very confusing for me. This is, to be sure, my problem, so before several paragraphs of what I imagine will be something akin to self-administered therapy for me, here are my basic reactions…
I am very happy that Fun Home won, not least because it gives me even more ammunition when I corner people at parties and try to convince them that graphic novels and stage plays are not so different in storytelling technique. Failing to televise the acceptance speeches of the women who wrote the show was inexcusable, not just because it undermines what would otherwise be a terrific win for women in theatre, but because it represents the contempt the ceremony seemed to have for everyone who was not an actor…but more on that further down.
The ceremony itself was regrettable. I get annoyed when someone jokes that a particular children’s show or whatnot must have been made by people who were high, because have you seen how much care has to go into those shows? THIS…this is what something made by high people looks like. From the tone-deaf shoehorning in of numbers from Finding Neverland and (most egregiously) Jersey Boys, to the bizarre and embarrassing jokes delivered by Cumming and Chenoweth in costumes that ran the gamut from the trying-too-hard to the racially questionable, this ceremony frequently felt loose and improvised in the worst way.
But all this is, to me, secondary to the weirdness that is the place that the Tonys occupy in the musical drama landscape right now. It is difficult to pin this all down without repeating myself, but here goes…
When you think about it, the Tony awards are the weirdest major awards in existence. The Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys, they may all display a significant degree of myopia in how they determine eligibility, but I will say this at least for them: at least they aren’t awards for plays on a specific street in New York.
Of course, I do understand why this is, and tradition only accounts for part of it. The only way to effectively counter the inherently exclusionary nature of a live performance – particularly one in a limited run – is to hold it in a city of such staggering population density that the audience cannot help but be comparable to that of the newer mass media formats. I get it. And you have to draw a geographical distinction somewhere. I get that too.
What I do not and perhaps will never get is how this is supposed to be the pinnacle of achievement for musicals.
A large part of the problem is that I come at this from the perspective of someone who likes plays but loves musicals. So, on the surface, the Tonys this year would seem to be ideal for me. The musical medleys gushed out at a prodigious pace – perhaps too prodigious, but never mind – with the plays consigned to a sad and bafflingly inept montage of clips. However, I also come at this from the perspective of someone who loves the medium and the works but is not terribly invested in the inner workings of the industry. That is to say, I relish the concerto more than the piano.
As much as the Tonys try to brand themselves as the musicals award show – and by god did they try this year, I will get to that later – the border drawn around their eligible material is fundamentally a geographical and not artistic one. This is not an award for musicals as an artistic format, this is an award for a very small physical region that has been cordoned off, in part, for the purpose of hosting works in the musical format. And, of course, what this really means is that it is an award for a very small and intensely insular industry.
This is neither an original nor an insightful observation. I make it only to contextualize how weird and conflicted I felt the attitude of this award show to be. On one hand, the insufferable Something Rotten opening number served as a sadly telling mission statement, a smug and self-congratulatory love letter to the musical as a medium, a promise seemingly delivered on both by the oddly over-packed musical medleys and the marginalization of everything that was not a musical. On the other hand, the rest of the show was heavily New York industry-centric, spending the greater part of its time giving the appropriate awards to actors who most people will never see in action (save for the few who were imported from Hollywood) and pushing aside those behind-the-scenes artists whose work will be far more lasting and – in its own way – far more accessible to the audience outside of New York.
Neither of these approaches is necessarily the wrong way to go about it, but I found myself disoriented by how confused the award show seemed in its attempts to reconcile them. I would honestly have advised them to just pick one or the other. Either make it all about the magic of musical drama and the hard-working people who conjure it, or embrace the New York insularity of the thing and just make it an inebriated industry happy fun time party. Just don’t try to do both and end up half-assing it, which is what happened.
Congratulations to the winners and here’s hoping that next year’s awards will actually be worthy of the art they commend.