June 10--Broadway, you are a place and an idea, a subset of an artform bounded by certain northerly, easterly, westerly and southerly Manhattan streets surrounding the walk-through pinball machine known as Times Square. Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall, which is outside your official boundaries but is, after all, Radio City Music Hall, you celebrated yourself, as you do every year around this time, on national television, with the Tony Awards.
The theater the Tony Awards celebrates is the moneyed, spangly, mostly successful edge of the theater. But that is the theater of our dreams, promoted and reinforced across decades of backstage musicals.
The well-intentioned NBC musical drama "Smash" (not a smash itself) did not tell the story of a plucky bunch of downtown bohos putting on some worthy literary thing in a 100-seat black box; it was all about the really big show, the one that might run forever and where an understudy might go out a youngster and come back a star.
There is much to recommend in this dream, however, and it is all on view at the Tonys; indeed, it was a theme that invaluable, unshakable Neil Patrick Harris, in his fourth time as host, struck in the night's opening number (written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt, of "Bring It On: The Musical"), when he sang of how the theater could "spur that kid/We were that kid."
He also jumped through a hoop, danced with Mike Tyson and disappeared from a box suspended in the air and materialized at the back of the theater with the cast of "Newsies."
Harris was never too long out of view, and when he was around, he was put to good use. He was licked by Sandy, from "Annie," and licked back. ("You do know I'm in a relationship, right?") He sang -- with Andrew Rannells, Laura Benanti and Megan Hilty (from "Smash"), theater actors who had TV shows canceled this season -- of the dialectical tension between those forms.
If the Broadway musical -- so much the backbone of the business now that "best musical" gets pride of place as the night's last award -- has become a muscular succession of showstoppers, that is one of the things that makes the Tony Awards, which anthologizes the year's hits and nominees, so satisfying. It is a live show about live shows -- alive, lively and very much about a life.
There is a sense -- a sense belied by the enormous amounts of money Broadway now takes in, even in a slow year, and by the fact of this broadcast itself -- that the whole process hangs by a thread, a shoestring, and that it is a miracle that it happens at all. It's what keeps the self-celebration from getting too self-congratulatory. If, for actors and writers and directors, television is an opportunity and the movies are an industry, the theater is a religion. A few agents do get thanked in the acceptance speeches, but that is not the main theme.
In a broadcast and Broadway season full of children -- this was the year of an "Annie" revival, "A Christmas Story" and "Matilda the Musical," acknowledged in the opening number's rhyme of "up to your knees," "MVPs" and "Chuck E. Cheese" -- the aspirational, transformational aspects of the theater were stressed.
Cyndi Lauper, who won for her score for "Kinky Boots," remembered playing her parents' albums of Broadway shows until they were wrecked. Billy Porter, who won best actor for the same musical, remembered being 11 years old and seeing Jennifer Holliday on the Tonys, singing something from "Dreamgirls": "That moment changed my life," he said.
And there was Cicely Tyson, 79, making a long walk to the stage to accept an award for best actress in a play for "The Trip to Bountiful."
"I didn't want to be greedy," she said of the part. "I just wanted one more."
She spoke with a strength and grace that dared the orchestra to play her off, and when it began to, anyway, and she was told to "wrap it up," she didn't flinch.
"That's exactly what you did with me," she said, to her peers and her people, "you wrapped me up."
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