Wednesday, June 16, 2010

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Random Thoughts on the Tony Awards

Last night I was very fortunate to be watching the Tony Awards at SarahB's annual Tony party (which I lovingly call "Lady Iris' Annual Moon Lady Extravaganza"). We were in a different suite this year, but the company was the same. While it rained on the NY, up inside 1820, the moon was the full, the gin was in the bathtub and a glorious time was had by all. There was a Twitter corner for those who wished to tweet during the ceremony, but we all had such a marvelous time with one another that no one left the couch!

The greatest acceptance speech of the night belonged to Marian Seldes. The beloved actress was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award which was presented on the pre-show telecast on NY1. There had been some conjecture wondering how long Ms. Seldes' speech would run. However, she trumped all by merely walking to the microphone, taking several glances at the house and merely put her hand to her cheek in astonishment as she walked offstage. I think it will go down as one of the greatest Tony moments ever (and is that now officially the shortest acceptance speech on record...)

I've seen some speculation on web boards and twitter that Ms. Seldes' speech was either disingenuous or indicative of failing health. But the truth of the matter that it is neither. Marian is an animal of the theatre, one who has a unique quality of eccentricity about her. But this eccentricity is pure sincerity. I don't know that there is another person alive or dead who genuinely loves theatre like Marian Seldes, who recently sat through a three hour performance of A Little Night Music, backstage visit and dinner with a smashed shoulder (which would require surgery). She is wholly dedicated to her profession, and I for one say "Brava!"

Last July, the Tony Management Committee released a statement to the press to inform the world that members of the press were to lose their voting privileges in the awards. There was a huge backlash at the time because of the hypocritical statement that removing the press would make the awards more balanced and fair. Bullshit. It was a choice that removed the most impartial members (approx. 100 folks, accounting for 1/8 of the voters). The results of last night's awards were indicative of that choice.

Producers were given far more influence in the voting results, which were reflective of the trends of this weary, underwhelming theatre season where the great financial successes were star driven limited engagements. Stars were given preference; not necessarily saying that their performances weren't meritorious, but it seemed more like a plea on the producers' part to entice other stars to come to Broadway. While I welcome any and all to give it a try onstage... I am weary at the unhealthy trend this could set as more and more producers look to shy away from artistic risks and pander to middling tastes.

There weren't as many sound gaffes as last year, but that didn't help much when it came to Tony performances. Once again they felt rushed and were at extremes. There was no balanced excerpt. Green Day was given two songs while Christiane Noll was given the bridge of "Back to Before." Nominated revival, and the best reviewed show of the season Finian's Rainbow wasn't even represented in song. The television direction once again proved entirely incongruous, giving the audience very little feel for the shows in contention. Matthew Morrison needs to do another musical, but I'm not sold that Lea Michelle is ready for a revival of Funny Girl.

The trouble remains the need for CBS to draw ratings (which it always fails to do) so they limit the performance time for shows and make it impossible to get a sense of the shows currently playing. Also with the show being held in Radio City Music Hall, a cavernous barn fit only for a revival of Jumbo, much intimacy is lost. Radio City Music Hall is not Broadway, nor will it ever be. It's unlikely to change unless the awards are given the boot from network television (and the way it's going, it would probably be better off on PBS), but I wish the tradition of going to a different Broadway house each year would return.

Then there is the legend of Catherine Zeta-Jones. While I am not a big fan of the stage revival currently playing the Walter Kerr, I did think that the star could have been exceptional Desiree Armfeldt with a more nuanced director, such as Bartlett Sher. The performance of "Send in the Clowns" ranks as one of the worst renditions of the song I have ever seen/heard, whether it was the choice to remove Alexander Hanson (who should have been nominated for his exceptional Fredrik Egerman) from the moment so she would have someone to play to or nerves, or projecting to the house at Radio City Music Hall. It heightened what was problematic about her performance to me - the need to oversell, oversing and the overall lack of nuance and balance in her performance. Even folks I know who liked the performance found themselves screaming at the pregnant pauses, jerky head movements and crazy eyes. What seemed mediocre at the Kerr was downright terrifying in HD closeup. Barbara Cook introduced the number, but truth be told I think she should have been the one singing the Sondheim classic last night.

The Best Musical Tony should be renamed "Best Vehicle for Marketing on Tour." It was a weak year for original musicals, very few properties were represented and there were only two eligible nominees for score (with Fences and Enron filling out the rest). Memphis won because it was the most wholly original and traditional musical in the bunch, a diluted and derivative hybrid of Dreamgirls and Hairspray. (I'd have voted for Fela!, one of the great experiences of the year).

Sean Hayes was an exceptional host. Funny, affable, self-deprecating. He was genuinely funny and his one liners and shtick worked very well. His quips as well as his numerous costume bits were very amusing and as the night progressed further and further into tedium, I looked forward to seeing what the Promises, Promises star would come up with next. Also, props on the classical piano skills - I was sort of hoping that he and David Hyde Pierce would engage in a round of dueling pianos.

Angela Lansbury did not break the record for most acting Tony wins last night, but she was still the epitome of class and grace as she was announced the first ever Honorary Chairman of the American Theatre Wing, an announcement which brought the entire crowd at Radio City Music Hall to its feet.

Oh - and one more thing. NY Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was on hand to present the Best Musical performance of Memphis. In his introduction he was touted as a theatre aficionado, to which I said, "That doesn't look like me." It was unexpected, but I think it's nice to see someone from the world of sports taking an interest in Broadway.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Lily Tomlin's Special Tony Acceptance Speech

It's the eve of the Tony Awards. By this time tomorrow, we'll know what the voters decided on and we will Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning, afternoon and evening quarterback (and possibly still further... Two Gentlemen of Verona over Follies anyone...?). Twitter, facebook and the blogosphere will be a jumbled mess of opinions, arguments, commentary and 20/20 hindsight. But for now I want to share one of my favorite Tony acceptance speeches -and one of the more unique -in Tony history.

Lily Tomlin has appeared in two solo shows on Broadway, both solo works and has won Tonys for both. The more famous is her 1985 vehicle The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which she revived in 2001. But in 1977, Tomlin made her Broadway debut in a special limited engagement Appearing Nitely, which she directed and cowrote with her partner Jane Wagner. She received a special Tony award for her acclaimed appearance and in turn they made her work for it. Happy Tony watching and may you all win your Tony party pool. In the meanwhile, here's Lily. Enjoy:

Friday, June 11, 2010

Melba Moore sings "I Got Love"

High belting doesn't really excite me as much as it does some others. But, that doesn't mean I don't have some favorites. One of the all time greats is Melba Moore, who made her professional debut as Dionne in the original cast of Hair. Moore came from a musical family (her mother was singer Bonnie Davis and her father Big Band leader Teddy Hill; her stepfather and great influence was jazz pianist Clement Moorman). Moore eventually moved into the role of Sheila, a couple years into the run (replacing none other than Diane Keaton).

In 1970, she opened in a new musical based on Ossie Davis'
Purlie Victorious. A light comedy with satiric edges about race relations in the Deep South, the play was about a charismatic and cunning preacher who returns to his Georgia hometown to save the church and also to get the cotton pickers out of the clutches of the mean old plantation owner (who treats the workers like slaves). The plan is to get an inheritance out of the old racist codger and use the money to help the townspeople, with the help of the plantation owner's liberal son.

The musical starred Cleavon Little as the "new-fangled preacher man Purlie Victorious Judson, and featured Sherman Hemsley, Novella Nelson, Helen Martin and Linda Hopkins. The score was written by Peter Udell and Gary Geld, the book by Udell, Davis & Philip Rose. (Davis had no actual involvement with the musical, but so much of his original work remained that Udell and Rose felt that he deserved credit).

Playing Purlie's love interest, Lutiebelle, Moore created a sensation out of town with the musical when she stopped the show with the show's title song in act one. She went over so well, that Udell and Geld wrote another song for her, which was such a sensation it would bring the show to a complete stop. The song is "I Got Love." It comes towards the middle of the first act, and begins as a quiet, plaintive reflection. But it soon explodes into one of the most joyous musical theatre numbers I've ever heard. It pops out on the original cast album, but the recording doesn't contain the alternate ending that Moore used in the theatre. (For the record, the show has one of my all time favorite opening numbers too).

Melba won the Tony for Best Featured Actress, besting Penny Fuller and Bonnie Franklin in Applause and Melissa Hart in the bomb Georgy. (Little won for Lead Actor, the show was nominated for several others including Best Musical). The success of the musical jumpstarted Moore's career as a recording artist and actress, with several successful albums and some film and TV work.

Moore returned to Broadway in 1978's reboot of Kismet called Timbuktu, but reportedly friction with co-star Eartha Kitt sent Moore packing within a few weeks after opening. She provided music and lyrics and starred in the 1981 play Inacent Black, which lasted 14 performances. Later stage work includes a Broadway stint as Fantine in Les Mis and the national tour of Brooklyn.

Here is "I Got Love" in its show stopping splendor from the 1981 telecast of Purlie, which I think is even better than her high octane performance on the 1970 Tony telecast. Much of the original cast was involved, with the noted addition of Robert Guillaume, who replaced Little on Broadway, in the title role. Oh... and she does her alternate ending here...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Follies" - A glimpse of the original

Who's got the budget to recreate this spectacular piece of theatre? Here are fragments of the original cast, in a final dress rehearsal. Watch...marvel...enjoy... (The first part is viewable here).