People don’t go to Broadway shows these days looking for surprises. At those ticket prices, theatergoers expect lavish rehashings of familiar stories, from the ever-shallowing nostalgia pool that revives shows sooner and sooner (is it time to bring back Cats yet?) to the apparent mainstay crop of movie-cum-musicals (coming soon: Leap of Faith: The Musical. Remember that movie? We do, sort of!). And just as Broadway audiences don’t want any M. Night Shamalayan–esque bait-and-switchery, the viewers of last night’s Tony awards got the expected, too. Yes, all six of us.
Patti LuPone won Best Actress for her turn in Gypsy, averting an upset that would have arguably incited Stonewall Two. August: Osage County swept the play categories, as predicted. South Pacific, a musical written 58 years ago about a woman torn between her attraction to a French plantation owner and her ambivalence about his once having been married to a Polynesian, made good on its favored status to win for Best Revival, over the innovative, ebullient Sunday in the Park With George.
This year’s Tonys acted the way you’re supposed to behave around an elderly loved one prone to fits: no sudden moves, nothing startling or out of the ordinary. And yet, this was the year in which the American Theater Wing nearly broke their jazz hands patting each other on the back for nominating two multiculti, “youthful” shows for Best Musical, remember? Passing Strange and In the Heights together featured in their scores elements of salsa, rock, and — wait for it — hip-hop. But based on the audience-reaction cutaways alone, we’d wager the average age of the Tony voter falls somewhere between “Old Enough to Remember When Being Married to a Polynesian Woman Was Scandalous” and “Old Enough to Have Had a Crush on Mandy Patinkin When It Wasn’t Embarrassing.”
There were some irreverent, spontaneous-seeming moments in last night’s broadcast, not including host Whoopi Goldberg’s disconcerting, Zelig-like insertion of herself into classic Broadway scenes (we never wanted to know what a gold-clad chorus line of all Whoopis would look like). John Waters’s musing on the number of Tony viewers watching from prison elicited from the audience something that sounded like genuine laughter — always an Easter egg at an awards show — and Mark Rylance, accepting his Best Actor award for his work in Boeing-Boeing, gave a surreal speech that was later revealed to be prose written by a Duluth poet.
But even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acceptance rap for Best Score was as far from a freestyle as you can get without being disqualified for cheating on Whose Line Is It Anyway. Upon winning, the 27-year-old star and creator of In the Heights offered a syncopated tribute to thank “the cast and crew, for having each other’s back, son,” adding, about his co-star, “I don’t know about God, but I believe in Chris Jackson.” As if the elderly in the mezzanine weren’t already confused enough, Manuel exclaimed to a not-in-attendance Stephen Sondheim, “Look, I made a hat! And a Latin hat at that!,” then produced a Puerto Rican flag from his suit jacket, like a magician.
Despite Manuel’s contemporary medium, the message of In the Heights, which went on to beat Passing Strange for Best Musical, is as corny as Osage County in August. Strivers in a working-class neighborhood fall in love and dream of better lives to the tune of “I Want” songs that telegraph each character’s story, but the show never charts a juicy plot, like West Side Story before it, nor does it flood viewers’ ears with catchy, crashing pop songs like Stew’s smart, sultry score for Passing Strange.
Even though the stodgier Tony viewers among us may seem put off guard by Manuel’s newfangled method of rhythmic “speak-singing,” his win is completely in line with the times: low-risk, familiar, and, frankly, old hat.
Oh, well. Maybe next year, they’ll nominate Cats. —Julie KlausnerThe Tony Awards: As Corny As Osage County in August