By Liz Wollman
The Tony Awards is consistently the lowest-rated broadcast of all televised entertainment awards shows, which helps explain why it is also the most awesome. I’m not being snide, here—either about the teeny spectatorship or about the awesomeness. As to the former point, here’s some perspective: The 2012 Academy Awards ceremony was watched by 39.3 million people, while the 2012 Tony Awards ceremony was watched by six million people. If you, like me, have a partner who enjoys watching late-night reruns of the mid-1990s tv series Sliders (which, your partner has probably repeatedly pointed out, starred Broadway’s own Cleavant Derricks post-Dreamgirls and pre-Brooklyn), you might think of it this way: it would take at least six parallel universes’ worth of Tony viewers to even come close to kicking one universe’s worth of Oscar viewers’ butts from here to Schubert Alley.
But this brings me to the latter point: who would want to? I bet Cleavant Derricks wouldn’t, and I certainly wouldn’t, either. The Academy Awards can have their adoring masses, their overwhelming press coverage, their endless search for an emcee that doesn’t suck or win ratings by hitting below the belt. I’ll take the Tony ceremony anytime, in any universe. Because so few people watch it, the Tony telecast consistently feels more friendly, inclusive, and unscripted than your typical awards show. Returning emcee Neil Patrick Harris is dashing, talented, and both wickedly snarky and classy at the same time. Tony presenters and recipients all seem realer and more approachable. Acceptance speeches are often looser and less rehearsed. Long before it was acceptable anywhere else on television, gay men and lesbians who won Tony Awards would kiss, embrace, and publicly declare their love for their partners in full view of the television cameras, and God, and everyone. For all the positive changes afoot in this country, you still can’t say that much about the Oscars.
Sliders has been off the air for a good decade now, so I suspect that Cleavant Derricks will probably not be making a surprise visit to the Tony Awards this year. I like to think that he’ll be watching from home, eating snacks, and perhaps trading Broadway war stories with his old Sliders co-star and recent Seminar alum Jerry O’Connell. But fear not—there are plenty of reasons to tune in to the ceremony anyway. Here are a few of the things I’m looking most forward to seeing:
(1) The Kinky Boots and Matilda Showdown
Allow me to be blunt. Bring It On and A Christmas Story might’ve been great fun, but neither one of them has a snowflake’s chance in hell of winning the Tony for Best Musical. The contest here is between Matilda and Kinky Boots, and while Matilda is the critical favorite, I’m not convinced it’ll take the award as easily as all that. In some ways, Matilda is the better production; it’s beautiful, innovative, and compellingly directed — an exceptional adaptation of an exceptional Roald Dahl children’s book. Also, if it comes down to which cast has the more convincing and consistent British accents, Matilda will take the prize in a heartbeat. But Matilda has its problems. It’s a darker, chillier show with somewhat more tepid word of mouth; it has lousy sound design; its score is not consistently interesting; and its orchestrations and vocal arrangements tend to overcompensate for some of the weaker songs. For all its kinks, Kinky Boots is a more conventional show in a lot of ways, but it tugs more adeptly at the heartstrings….and it’s been selling better. If there is an upset, it’ll be because Kinky Boots made more members of the Tony committee get all mushy and weepy than Matilda did.
It’s entirely possible that both musicals will come away with some big wins. Bertie Carvel—Miss Trunchbull in Matilda—is favored to win in the Best Actor category, but Billy Porter—Lola in Kinky Boots—has a devoted following and a nuanced grasp of his character, and he looks better in a dress. Both Matilda and Kinky Boots have strong books, and while I am always happy to see Harvey Fierstein give an acceptance speech, I suspect that Dennis Kelly will win Best Book of a Musical for the grace and fluidity with which he adapted the Dahl story.
(2) The Award for Best Score
Cyndi Lauper’s catchy, upbeat score for Kinky Boots is favored to win this category, and I am hoping it does, not only because I firmly believe that the world needs more Lauper, but also because I’d love to see a woman win a Tony for best music and lyrics, for once. Finally, I’ve been listening to both cast recordings a lot in the past few days, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the score for Kinky Boots is more well-conceived, memorable, and interesting than Tim Minchin’s for Matilda.
Then again, the late, lamented Hands on a Hardbody muddies this category a bit. Hardbody, with a score by Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, had a promising run at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2012, but just couldn’t find an audience when it landed on Broadway. Lacking in Broadway glitz, the show focused on average people, and featured a score steeped in carefully-wrought, rootsy, bluesy, folksy Americana. An upset in this category wouldn’t be an enormous surprise.
(3) Everything Related to Pippin
I enjoyed both Kinky Boots and Matilda, but the best Broadway musical I’ve seen all year was Pippin, by a mile, on a unicycle. I can’t wait to see an excerpt from it during the Awards broadcast, and I hope that it wins oodles of awards. It’s a shoo-in for some: As much as I loved the weird and wonderful Annaleigh Ashford in Kinky Boots, I suspect that Andrea Martin will run away with the Tony for Featured Actress in a Musical. Even if she weren’t as sublime in the role of Berthe as she is, there should be some kind of special award given to any person over the age of sixty who can strip down to a leotard and rock a trapeze as expertly as Martin does during her Act I show-stopper.
I also expect Pippin to win for Best Musical Revival, but the icing on the cake, at least for me, would be if Diane Paulus were to win the Tony for Best Director of a Musical. I mean no disrespect to Matthew Warchus, whose direction for Matilda is certainly award-worthy in its own right. But Paulus is a consistently interesting and hard-working director whose ability to re-envision and reinvent Pippin while keeping it solidly rooted in its Bob Fosse past is absolutely ingenious.
I can’t dance for the life of me, and I know shamefully little about dance as an object of study, but still, I know what I like, and I know what is starting to seem stale. I was impressed with Jerry Mitchell’s choreography for Kinky Boots and with Chet Walker’s careful reinvention of Fosse’s signature moves for Pippin. I did not see Bring It On, but can only imagine that Andy Blankenbuehler had its cast members sailing gracefully through the air on a regular basis. And while the Angry Teen Dancing that Bill T. Jones introduced in Spring Awakening and that Stephen Hoggett referenced in American Idiot didn’t work for me at all in Matilda, I nevertheless give Peter Darling major props for managing to teach an enormous, alternating cast of small children how to dance in lockstep. May the best man win.
(5) Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Okay, look, I know that this might not strike you as quite as compelling an award category as, say, Best Musical, but damn if this is not the category I’ve been thinking the most about. Know why? Check out the list of nominees:
Kenneth Posner, Kinky Boots
Kenneth Posner, Pippin
Kenneth Posner, Cinderella
Hugh Vanstone, Matilda the Musical
Do you see this? Think of the consequences here. If Vanstone beats out the competition, it could be utterly soul-crushing for Posner. Then again, I am not convinced that Posner will feel much better about things if he wins. Will he feel like the cards were stacked against Vanstone, and that the whole thing was thus not a fair fight to begin with? If he wins against himself for one particular show, will he be plagued with concerns as to why he didn’t win for the two other shows? Does he need the number of a good therapist? Do you now understand why the battle between Vanstone and Posner has been keeping me up nights?
To sum up then: I’m always eager for a good Tony Awards Ceremony, and I just can’t wait to watch Neil Patrick Harris emcee the ones coming up on Sunday. Join me and the rest of the teeny, tiny Tony viewing audience, won’t you? Don’t worry—there will be room on Cleavant Derricks’ couch, and ample snacks, for all of us.
Elizabeth L. Wollman is Assistant Professor of Music at Baruch College in New York City, and author of Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City and The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig. She also contributes to the Show Showdown blog. Read her previous blog posts on the OUPblog.
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Image credits: (1) Kinky Boots logo from kinkybootsthemusical.com used for the purposes of illustration. (2) Pippin the Musical logo from pippinthemusical.com used for the purposes of illustration.