The 69th Annual Tony Awards: TV Review

Tonys Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming - H 2015
Associated Press
The Tonys are always a niche affair, but for the initiated, nice job.

Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming co-hosted Broadway's biggest infomercial — sorry, honors night — with top prizes going to 'Fun Home' and 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.'

Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming signed up for an unenviable task when they agreed to co-host the 69th Annual Tony Awards on CBS. This might be Broadway’s big night, presenting coveted honors to the best of New York’s top-tier theater, but even with heavyweight emcees such as Hugh Jackman or Neil Patrick Harris running the show, the ceremony’s relevance beyond tri-state area stage fans has long been limited. And since Chenoweth and Cumming — Broadway darlings with great chemistry though they may be — occupy only the modest midrange of the star firmament, they were going to need kickass material to carry the telecast.

The good news is that in terms of awards show hosting, there’ll always be James Franco and Anne Hathaway at the 2011 Oscars to set the benchmark for thudding tandem failure. But it turns out Chenoweth and Cumming didn’t need that flattering yardstick, and were just the right combination of cute, cheeky and respectful. Their opening spot was underwhelming, as was their Tommy Tune tribute, but they injected charm throughout, incorporating the featured songs into their commercial break signoffs in ways that was both clever and disarmingly cheesy. Cumming, by the way, gets extra points for rocking both a short suit and an off-the-shoulder hoop-skirt gown, without surrendering to the tyranny of the tanning lamp.

Read more Tony Awards: Full Winners List

Unlike the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys and their vast plethora of ugly awards-show stepchildren, the Tonys is the one major entertainment honors ceremony where the majority of contenders are inaccessible to much of the audience watching at home. But given the scarcity of marketing platforms available on a national — let alone international — level for Broadway, the Tonys represent a unique promotional opportunity, and producers foot huge bills to stage a splashy musical number during the telecast. This might be an honors ceremony but it’s also an infomercial, designed to keep the upward-trending audience numbers on that path. (The 2014-15 season totals hit a new high of 13.1 million tickets sold, yielding a record $1.3 billion in grosses.)

In terms of reaching theater lovers across the country and around the globe, potential local and New York City tourist audiences, and those that might encounter the shows in regional stops on their national tours a year or two down the line, the Tony Awards are advertising gold. So any assessment of the annual telecast arguably hinges as much on the varying impact of chosen musical segments as on the sparkle of its hosts.

Best musical nominee Something Rotten! made the most of its prime opening spot with “A Musical,” a truncated but still effective version of the 8-minute showstopper that aptly pays homage to the form while referencing a string of popular hits. And musical revival winner The King and I followed with a gorgeous medley that finished with leads Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe breaking into their exultantly liberating polka to “Shall We Dance.”

The ultimate New York musical, On the Town, also put on a great, dance-heavy showcase, with star Tony Yazbeck pausing to give Chita Rivera a twirl in the audience. The exuberant moves of that show were matched by the elegance of another ballet-driven musical, An American in Paris, highlighted by a lighter-than-air pas de deux from leads Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope. Sticking with the City of Light, the performance from Gigi made that uneven production look good, with the perky Vanessa Hudgens leading “The Night They Invented Champagne,” with bubbles and energetic can-can dancers.

See more Tony Awards: Red Carpet Arrivals

Chenoweth turned it on for her number from current revival On the 20th Century, hitting all her high notes, nailing her madcap dance moves and making her vocally demanding role look effortless. Rivera, ageless at 82, showed the stuff that Broadway legends are made of in her imperious number from The Visit.

For once, the miking on the show was excellent, and all the musical interludes sounded clear as a bell. On the In Memoriam segment, Josh Groban was not at his vocal best in the low opening notes of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel. But he soared as the song took flight, backed by photo portraits in a presentation that was simple, eloquent and democratically alphabetical. The moving tribute gained intensity when Groban was joined onstage by a chorus of more than 175 costumed castmembers from current Broadway shows.

The flattest musical component was the tepid closing salute to mark the tenth anniversary on Broadway of Jersey Boys, which seemed especially arbitrary in the wake of last year's blah big-screen version. Given that the Tonys already returned to the well of the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons bio-musical a few years back, it closed the entertaining telecast with a fizzle rather than a bang.

The Tonys' big challenge invariably is to make the presentation of nominated nonmusical productions interesting. This year’s show did as efficient a job as any, with a year-in-plays montage and pithy excerpts from the best play contenders, presented by Bryan Cranston.

The Tonys frequently yield a better class of acceptance speech than many other awards shows. Long before film and TV started paying attention, the New York theater community was a pro-diversity field in terms of race, even if complete gender parity remains elusive in the breakdown of male/female wins in many unisex categories. Tony winners, however, were regularly thanking their same-sex partners long before marriage equality entered the legislative conversation. The relative intimacy of the theater industry compared to film or TV, and the collegial rapport among casts and crews working night after night within the radius of a few blocks, generally makes for an awards show in which the mutual lovefest is contagious.

Helen Mirren set the bar high for poise and graciousness early on when she accepted best actress in a play for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience. “Your Majesty, you did it again,” said an unsurprised Mirren, referencing her previous Oscar win for playing the same character in The Queen. The actress also summed up the cross-pollination of London theater on Broadway, acknowledging, “a British and American cast, who make the Atlantic look like a little creek you can just hop across.” She was followed soon after by her co-star and featured actor winner Richard McCabe, who shared the advice he’d been given by a fellow Brit actor: “Prepare your speech, you tosser!”

See more Tony Awards: Best and Worst Moments

Christian Borle was a model of generous inclusiveness, winning featured actor in a musical for Something Rotten! His emotional female counterpart in a play, Annaleigh Ashford, who won for playing an untalented ballerina in You Can’t Take It With You, sputtered, “I can’t believe I’m standing here right now on the Radio City Music Hall stage for the worst dancing that ever happened on Broadway!” And the surprise winner for featured actress in a musical, Ruthie Ann Miles, gave a tearful and heartfelt acceptance speech, muttering “This feels like I’m being punked,” before turning to her iPhone for help. Miles’ trajectory in the past two seasons — from playing Imelda Marcos off-Broadway in David Byrne’s Here Lies Love to her winning Broadway debut as the devoted Lady Thiang in The King and I — has made her one of the most wonderful new discoveries of the New York stage.

Given that the craft awards are all handed out off-camera, directing winners Sam Gold (for Fun Home) and Marianne Elliott (for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) helped counter that absence with humble speeches that acknowledged every contribution. And Scott Rudin, a frequent presence in the Tony winners’ circle over the years, underlined with pride that the best play revival win for Skylight, which he produced, marked a first-ever Tony for veteran Brit playwright David Hare.

It’s always uplifting to see newcomers grab the Tony spotlight, and 26-year-old Alex Sharp’s lead actor in a play win for Curious Incident provided one such tender moment. “This time last year I picked up my diploma for graduating from Juilliard, so standing here holding this is insane,” said Sharp, clutching his award.

The lead actor and actress for a musical wins also offered affecting highs. Michael Cerveris honored the spirit of his show Fun Home with a lovely nod to the importance of home and family, expressing his hope that the Supreme Court will make gay marriage legal. And O’Hara, finally grabbing her first win on her sixth nomination for The King and I, brought the crowd to its feet in admiration. “You’d think that I would have written something down by now, but I haven’t,” she said, getting overcome with emotion and wrapping up her speech by doing the worm.

Read more Tony Awards: Larry David Jokes About Snub, Invokes Anti-Semitism (Video)

The snubs also got a look in, with Chenoweth and Cumming giving a shout-out early in the show to big names that graced Broadway during the past season but failed to land a nomination for their work, such as Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. The most commented-on exclusion, however, was Harvey Weinstein, whose first Broadway show as lead producer, Finding Neverland, scored zero noms.

Weinstein has been declaring to anyone who’ll listen that the shut-out was punishment for wedging Jennifer Hudson into last year’s Tony show with a number from the musical before its Broadway booking was even confirmed. He got special consolation from the co-hosts with a brief serenade of “Smile, though your heart is aching,” before reminding him to count his $1 million-plus per week in box office receipts, and adding that they’re available for movies. This year’s Finding Neverland number, “Stronger,” led by Matthew Morrison and featuring Kelsey Grammer, will no doubt add a fresh adrenaline shot to the show’s strong sales.

Presenters were mostly forgettable, but bestowing the final award of the night, Fish in the Dark playwright and star Larry David and Jason Alexander, his old Seinfeld alter ego and imminent replacement in the Broadway production, brought some amusing shtick.

“The true measure of a man is not to be nominated and still to show up and read a list of names that were nominated; that’s a big man,” said David. “You say big man, others say loser,” responded Alexander.

Neil Patrick Harris also proved a good sport, taking a dig at his poorly received turn as Oscar host earlier this year.

For the diehard theater faithful that did stay tuned for the duration, the telecast benefitted from an element of suspense in some of the major races, most notably best musical. While forecasts were neck and neck between the handcrafted chamber piece Fun Home and the more commercially robust An American in Paris, the eternal art vs. commerce battle came down this year in favor of the former, anointing Fun Home with the big win.

While the show opened on April 19 to stellar reviews and has been doing brisk business in one of Broadway’s smallest theaters, any musical in which a lesbian protagonist takes an emotional journey to reconcile with the suicide of her closeted gay father is never going to crack the commercial mainstream. But after racking up five Tonys in total, the creative team behind Fun Home can expect a significant boost at the box office and an extension of perhaps a year or more on their Broadway lifespan. The irony of Cerveris notching up the sole acting win for a female-centric show with four actress nominees may have been bittersweet, but winning the top prize of the night should soothe any sting.

The choice of the song “Ring of Keys,” while an undisputed high point of Fun Home, yielded one of the less impactful numbers out of context on the Tony telecast. But having the excerpt presented by Broadway veteran Joel Grey, who came out earlier this year at age 82, accompanied by his daughter Jennifer, was a beautiful self-referential instance of art overlapping with life. All that, and the show even ended right on time.