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How the Tonys Were the Anti-Oscars in the Best Possible Way

I didn’t attend the Tonys — I prefer to experience shared cultural moments (awards ceremonies, inaugurations, targeted assassinations) the way nature intended, via telecast — but so far, I’m noticing a steep enjoyment gradient between those who were in the Beacon and those who watched on TV. Inside the theater, the near-total lack of upsets appears to have had a tranquilizing effect: The Book of Mormon swept, as expected; down-home denimist Franny McDormand was strange and surly (and triumphant), as expected; Mark Rylance was gnomic and bizarre (and triumphant), as expected. (Although it’d be nice to see the final vote tally: I’m guessing Joe Mantello — who looks discomfitingly similar to Rahm Emmanuel on TV — was within spitting distance of nabbing Best Actor in a Play.) And host Neil Patrick Harris’s final rap-wrap (flash-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and his In the Heights director, Thomas Kail) seems to have drawn mostly approving golf claps. (Same with the “Broadway Highlander” face-off between NPH and Hugh Jackman, and the David Javerbaum–assisted opening number, “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore.”)

But from the outside and through the tube (and the YouTube), the show played very differently. It was a sort of anti-Oscars: The less invested you were in the outcomes of individual races and the overall state of your fantasy ballot, the more fun you probably had. It wasn't about the winners and losers this year — there were basically no real surprises there. A few disappointments, of course: Personally, I think War Horse, gorgeously realized as it is, had no place in the winner’s circle, especially in such a strong field of real, sinewy new plays: The choice was pure commercial calculus. (Which will, no doubt, pay off: The show’s tour is selling out, and anyone who lays eyes on Joey, the equine puppet, seems to fall instantly in love. He shows well on video, obviously, and even a brief glimpse of him during the ceremony seems to have set hearts aflutter across the airwaves.) And did Mormon's Scott Pask really need a win for Scenic Design, in a category that included the exciting newcomer Donyale Werle, creator of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’s chaotic indie-rock-histori-kitsch bricolage? Couldn’t Best Orchestrations have gone to the meritorious team from Catch Me If You Can?

These are questions for theater insiders and aisle-seat gremlins to argue over, for months and years to come. But that’s not what this ceremony was all about. This was about effective diplomatic overtures to the Other America, along with a show of strength. Beneath the jokes about how hetero-mainstream commercial theater in NYC has become, there was signal after signal that Broadway will remain Broadway, without making excuses for itself. No Green Day, no Bret Michaels, no desperate Glee pandering, no karaoke renditions of “Hound Dog”: This year, the Tonys celebrated musical numbers that actually sound like Broadway musical numbers and performers who came across as actual stage-trained performers, because they are. (It’s worth noting that the most dead-boring moment of the night was the glacial ballad from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, “If the World Should End.” When you can’t deploy your best numbers because they’re too tech-dependent, what kind of message does that send?) "It's Not Just for Gays Anymore" may have been the opening number, but "I Believe (in Broadway)" was the underlying message. Along with a challenge: Tell us this isn't working.

One final note: The Tonys, far more than the Oscars, are a precious archived commodity. As theater geek after theater geek will tell you, spotlight moments from Tonycasts past are what sold them on the art form in the first place. And this year, enhanced TV production values helped spawn a host of YouTube moments that’ll live forever. Andrew Rannells’s steely strong delivery of Mormon's “I Believe,” a nicely captured rendition of “Side by Side” by the all-star Company cast, a hellzapoppin’ “Anything Goes,” and, perhaps most memorable, a bang-up “Brotherhood of Man,” performed by an ever-more-ferocious Daniel Radcliffe and the cast of How to Succeed … This is the kind of stuff that’ll have a multiplier effect on future theatergoers, more so than any traveling pony show.

Related: The Five Most Notable Tonys Moments [Vulture]

Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images