[15 June 2008]
Sunday in the Park With George
Producers of tonight’s Tony Award telecast (8 to 11 EDT on CBS) are planning, somehow, to sell Broadway with scenes from 13 musicals - including the two biggies, “The Little Mermaid” and “Young Frankenstein,” which got no major nominations and, traditionally, would get no national face time.
We can only imagine how the mass marketing will slant coverage away from a season most notable for an astonishing number of serious plays and for the triumph of two unconventional young musicals - “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange” - over the usual show-biz machinery.
Even if the show, to be hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, were not promising “more entertainment than ever before,” the Tonys would have had a tough time reflecting the range and diversity of the theater year. In addition to the adventurous new musical voices, we have had Stephen Sondheim, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and - for audiences venturing beyond Broadway - three productions each by Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett.
So many extraordinary performances (Kevin Kline as Cyrano, anyone?) were overlooked by the Tony nominations that I was already a bit cranky about all that will be shut out of the theater’s annual tribute to itself.
Instead, I offer 10 personal favorite moments from a remarkably vital and messy year:
1. The moment the stage slides back to reveal a formally dressed 30-piece pit orchestra luxuriating in the overture to “South Pacific,” we know that Bartlett Sher’s revival at the Lincoln Center Theater is going to be special. And is it ever. Like that opening shock of music without synthesizers, Broadway’s first major reimagining since the landmark 1949 original is innovative and filled with the wonderment of craftsmanship.
2. Sam Buntrock’s high-tech, high-concept production of “Sunday in the Park With George” has many magical digital images - the artist’s blank page turning into Georges Seurat’s evolving masterwork, the sailboats appearing to drift across the Seine, the dogs that appear to come to life on their tiny canvases. But if I must pick just a single moment in this invaluable revival of Sondheim’s 1984 masterwork, it is the transition in which Buntrock connects the show’s controversially disparate acts - which are separated by a century - with silhouettes of people through the decades looking at the same Seurat painting.
3. In Rupert Goold’s riveting night-of-the-living-dead update of “Macbeth,” starring Patrick Stewart, the audience is first seduced into empathizing with a trio of desperate war-hospital nurses. Then, suddenly, they reveal themselves to be the witches - truly scary women who haunt the entire proceedings instead of chanting awkward prophesies around a cauldron and poofing away.
4. When we meet the mother in “Passing Strange,” she is waking up her son for church with “Lawd ham mercy, chile ... ” Suddenly, our ever-surprising Narrator (the author Stew) stops the flashback to tell us, “She drops the Negro dialect and speaks in her natural voice.” And we’re off into an irreverent, moving, take-no-prisoners musical-rock concert-performance art hybrid about the search for middle-class black identity in a hip-hop marketplace.
5. A British professor and his wife come back from America to visit his father, brothers and uncle in the shabby unrelenting maleness of “The Homecoming,” Pinter’s slippery demon of a power play that had its 40th anniversary Broadway return in December. The father welcomes the woman - played with primal elegance by Eve Best - with this typically admiring observation: “I’ve never had a whore under this roof before ... ever since your mother died.” Ah, Pinter. Bless his unrepentant heart.
6. Just when the kindly grandmother in “In the Heights” threatens to become too nice for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s terrific new Latno/rap/show-biz musical’s own good, Abuela Claudia (the savvy Olga Merediz) plants her sensible shoes into a spotlight on the barrio street. And she sells an indelible first-generation aria that cuts into the sentiment of this urban folk tale - an immigrant story that needs to be told - and, along the way, rhymes Cuba with “gotta bribe the supa.”
7. In “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Stoppard’s latest extreme-sport expedition to the jagged coasts of Utopia, a classics professor and cancer-ravaged wife (the remarkable Sinead Cusack) pleads with her hyper-rational husband to recognize the mind as something beyond “your amazing biological machine.” Although Stoppard’s drama about rock music and Czech politics, which opened in November, felt strangely distant at times, this woman and this speech stung with the visceral terror and the wondrous mysteries of consciousness.
8. There are many moments to remember in the black “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which has been completely forgotten by the Tony nominators. What I treasure the most from the production - which stars James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad and the grossly underappreciated Terrence Howard - is the way Anika Noni Rose, as Maggie, manages to compare her frustrated character to “a cat on a hot tin roof,” over and over, without sounding like a total crazy person. For all his gifts, Tennessee Williams didn’t make it easy for her.
9. We know that Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” is disappointing, that most of the classic lines are mugged in huge capital letters, that ace director-choreographer Susan Stroman clobbers us with greatest-hits punch lines until we can’t remember why we first loved them in the 1974 movie. But I won’t - and can’t - forget the moment when Shuler Hensley, as the splendidly human Monster, launches his big, darling self into a blissfully funny “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Come on. Is it too late to give Hensley a nomination?
10. Finally, the moment that changed this season forever came Nov. 10 at 9 a.m., when contract talks broke down between the stagehands union and the League of American Theatres and Producers. More than 25 productions were closed for 19 days, including the prime Thanksgiving weekend. According to the league, Broadway sales still reached $937.5 million, just less than last year’s record $938.5 million. But for the plays that lost momentum during the shutdown and have already closed - that is, “The Homecoming,” “The Seafarer,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Is He Dead?,” “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “The Farnsworth Invention” - the story of the season will never be known.
Should win: “August: Osage County”
Will win: “August: Osage County”
Should win: “Passing Strange”
Will win: “In the Heights”
Should win: “Passing Strange”
Will win: “Passing Strange”
Should win: “In the Heights”
Will win: “In the Heights”
Should win: “The Homecoming”
Will win: “Boeing-Boeing”
Should win: “South Pacific”
Will win: “South Pacific”
Should win: Patrick Stewart (“Macbeth”)
Will win: Stewart
Should win: Eve Best (“The Homecoming”)
Will win: Deanna Dunagan (“August: Osage County”)
Should win: Paulo Szot (“South Pacific”)
Will win: Szot
Should win: Kelli O’Hara (“South Pacific”)
Will win: Patti LuPone (“Gypsy”)
Should win: Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”)
Will win: Shapiro
Should win: Bartlett Sher (“South Pacific”)
Will win: Sher
FEATURED ACTOR, PLAY
Should win: Raul Esparza (“The Homecoming”)
Will win: Esparza
FEATURED ACTRESS, PLAY
Should win: Sinead Cusack (“Rock ‘n’ Roll”)
Will win: Martha Plimpton (“Top Girls”)
FEATURED ACTOR, MUSICAL
Should win: Daniel Breaker (“Passing Strange”)
Will win: Boyd Gaines (“Gypsy”)
FEATURED ACTRESS, MUSICAL
Should win: Laura Benanti (“Gypsy”)
Will win: Benanti
Should win: Andy Blankenbuehler (“In the Heights”)
Will win: Rob Ashford (“Cry-Baby”)