Broadway: it’s not just for gays anymore. It’s also for Mormons and horses, and, well, a few gays too.
In a year that saw a cornucopia of new material – eleven new musicals and as many new plays – it truly was, in a number of categories, truly an honor just to be nominated for a Tony Award. Resultantly, this year’s telecast, hosted by the puckish Neil Patrick Harris, featured a broad selection of performances, a handful of surprises, and a newly reenergized sense of fun that was sorely lacking from past years’ presentations.
Opening with the number “Not Just For Gays Anymore” (penned by Cry-Baby writing team David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger), the night was off to a refreshingly tongue-in-cheek start, taking a dig at an artform frequently pronounced dead and which, in the age of the iPhone, can seem to some like “a two-hour, live-action, barely affordable, un-lip-synced version of Glee.”
In recent years, it’s been increasingly trendy to mock the American musical. Some shows, like Spamalot, have taken home top honors at the Tonys by mastering this tactic throughout, and others – like [title of show], The Producers, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Urinetown – many of them fine musicals, have given the modern musical a meta twist that can be as off-putting and confounding as it is endearingly self-effacing.
So it comes as a pleasant change that the top dog in this fine season was The Book of Mormon, the love child of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez. Mormon, instantly recognizable as a work of irreverent satire, has the advantage of attracting rabid South Park fans and appealing to straight guys otherwise repulsed by the idea of enjoying a Broadway musical.
Even more pleasantly surprising is the fact that Mormon truly uses its musical theatre form as a storytelling tool rather than as a means merely to lampoon the genre. There are some references to other shows (The Lion King, Wicked, the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, etc.), but the piece stands on its own as a comment on America’s unique relationship to religion, represented in this particular case by the ebulliently over-the-top example of young Mormon missionaries in Uganda.
Enough about Mormon, however, except to say that the show took home nine awards – Best Musical, Best Direction (for Parker and Casey Nicholaw), Best Book, Best Score, Best Lighting Design, Best Scenic Design, Best Sound Design, Best Orchestrations, and Best Featured Actress (Nikki M. James).
Sutton Foster, who, as Reno Sweeney in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Anything Goes, mugged and hoofed her way into theatergoers’ favor over her prime competitor, Sister Act workhorse Patina Miller, walked off with the award for Best Actress in a Musical. Best Actor in a Musical went to Norbert Leo Butz for his performance as Carl Hanratty in the musical adaptation of Catch Me if You Can, who beat out Mormon competitors Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad amongst others. Coincidentally, it was the second award for both top musical winners.
As musical revivals go, 2011 was a sparse year. Anything Goes took home top honors, though How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying made a strong showing on the telecast, performing a lively rendition of “The Brotherhood of Men” that rivaled Anything Goes‘ performance of its title number. John Larroquette took home How to Succeed‘s only award of the evening in the Best Featured Actor category, though all three actors to portray the show’s protagonist, J. Pierpont Finch – Robert Morse, Matthew Broderick, and Daniel Radcliffe – made cameos.
On the play front, the New York transfer of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of War Horse, now playing at Lincoln Center Theater, took home the Best Play award. Praised for its elaborate approximately-life-size horse puppets (puppetry for the show is by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company), the visual spectacle of War Horse usurped three other arguably more thoughtfully written contenders – namely Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat (softened to simply The Mother with the Hat for television), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, my personal pick.
War Horse also took home awards for Best Direction for Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, Best Scenic Design, Best Sound Design, and Best Lighting Design. Handspring Puppet Company also took home a special award for its contributions to the production. With its horses arguably at the heart of its production, War Horse left the acting categories wide open for the evening.
Frances McDormand took home Best Actress for her portrayal of hard scrabble protagonist Margie in Good People, and Mark Rylance won Best Actor for his standout performance in Jerusalem. Rylance, whose poetic acceptance speech impressed when he won in 2008 for Boeing-Boeing, had yet another bit of verse ready to go.
In the supporting categories, Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey took home awards for their gutsy performances in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which also took home the award for Best Revival of a Play. Kramer’s brief moment in the spotlight, accepting the award along with lead producer Daryl Roth, featured the hot-button playwright’s impassioned proclamation “to gay people everywhere, whom I love so dearly, The Normal Heart is our history. I could not have written it had not so many needlessly died. Learn from it and carry on the fight. Let them know that we are a very special people, an exceptional people, and that, our day will come.”
Kramer’s was one of the most heartfelt moments on the telecast, which also featured a genius musical cat fight between Neil Patrick Harris and former host Hugh Jackman and a closing rap written by Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. Performances from Memphis, the other musicals nominated for Best Musical (Catch Me if You Can, Sister Act, and The Scottsboro Boys), as well as Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the now-finally-open Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark were also featured.
Spider-Man, which chose to perform the lilting ballad “If the Word Should End,” represents the ultimate non sequitur of the 2010-2011 Broadway season. Overshadowing even The Book of Mormon, which typically just trails Turn Off the Dark in the Broadway grosses, Broadway’s web-slinger hogged most of the attention of the press this year despite the fact that, opening tonight, June 14th, after 183 preview performances, it technically qualifies for next year’s Tony Awards. What a tangled web these Broadway folk weave; thankfully, with Harris at the helm, viewers were mostly glad to be caught up in it all.