No Funny Business at the Tonys

The cast and crew of Spring Awakening after winning the Tony Award for best musical

Dear June,

Regarding last night’s Tonys: While they were happening, I thought a lot about The Vertical Smile. Richard Condon, most famous as the author of The Manchurian Candidate, wrote this novel in 1971 but set it in the 21st century. Two of his characters meet for dinner and “discuss both the shows on Broadway.”

And while there are 35 shows currently on Broadway—23 of which opened this recently concluded season—you might assume from the Tony Awards last night that there were only two shows on Broadway: The Coast of Utopia and Spring Awakening. They were not only the respective best play and best musical, but also the combined winners of 15 awards in the 22 categories in which they were elegible.

I also thought about that famous line that comedians used to give: “But seriously, folks.” Has there ever been a roster of winners that has more reflected serious themes? One can never be surprised when the Tony-winning play is a drama—especially a Tom Stoppard drama. (The Coast of Utopia, about the dissatisfaction in 19th-century Russia that led to that 20th-century revolution, was his fourth win in six nominations.) The nine-hour trilogy was arguably his most serious work of all.

The Coast of Utopia even set a record for the most Tonys ever taken home by a play. That new record should come with an asterisk, however. Starting in 2005, the Tonys decided to have two separate categories for best sets, costumes, and lighting: one for plays, one for musicals. Until then, plays and musicals had to compete together, and given that musicals often had splashier sets, costumes—and even lighting—the tuners usually took home the prizes. On Sunday, The Coast of Utopia won all three of those prizes, which represented 43 percent of its “record-breaking” total. Still, the only people who could possible begrudge the show’s winning both best featured performers prizes (Billy Crudup and Jennifer Ehle) and best direction (by Jack O’Brien) would be those who were in competing shows.

Meanwhile, the winning musical, Spring Awakening, was a dour tale of teenagers embroiled in lust, sex, abortion, homosexuality, suicide, and accidental death. It won eight of the 11 prizes for which it competed, doing far better than I would have expected. After all, Tonys often go to the most commercial shows, and Curtains and Mary Poppins have had many more attendees in their seats than Spring Awakening has had. What’s more, though Duncan Sheik can write a stirring tune, lyricist Stephen Sater conveniently ignores the long-held belief in craft that lyrics should rhyme. The way he’s written this show suggests that if he had created The Music Man, Harold Hill would have sung, “You have a mess right here in River City/ With a Capital M/ And that rhymes with P, which stands for pool.”

Three of the musicals’ winners were for morose characters, including John Gallagher Jr. as the fated-to-die teen who sings one of the show’s more quoted songs, “The Bitch of Living.” Oh, granted, Christine Ebersole, the best actress in a musical, must play an unhappy spinster living with her impossible mother only in the second half of Grey Gardens, for in the first act, she’s mostly a relatively happy hostess. That the song Ebersole performed on the broadcast came from the more arresting (and more dismal) second act is telling. And speaking of that impossible mother, the performer who brought her to life—the ever-fascinating Mary Louise Wilson—won best featured actress in a Musical, while proving that Tolstoy was right: Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Frank Langella won for best actor in a play for playing the second-worst president we ever had, a tortured, post-resignation Richard M. Nixon. Winning the Tony for best play revival was Journey’s End, which turned out to be an all-too-apt title for this anti-war drama. This win was literally and ironically the end of the journey that this play took, for it had closed only hours before it won the prize. And while we’re on revivals, the best musical revival was Company, a realistic view of marriages that still haunts many audiences who come to see it (which is undoubtedly why many audiences DON’T come to see it).

That leaves us with three winners from shows that had mirth on their minds. Best actress in a play was Julie White as the business-at-all-costs agent in The Little Dog Laughed; best actor in a musical was David Hyde Pierce as a musical-theater-obsessed detective in Curtains; and Jay Johnson: The Two and Only was the ventriloquism act that landed special theatrical event. But Johnson had his serious moments and managed to elicit some tears from his audiences when lauding his mentor. Pierce’s show did have two murders in it, and White’s character sure took herself seriously.

Until this year, past post-9/11 Broadway seasons more often opted for sheer entertainment. The winning musicals in that span—Thoroughly Modern Millie, Hairspray, Avenue Q, Monty Python’s Spamalot, and Jersey Boys—had much more fun on their minds than Spring Awakening. And while the previous five best play winners weren’t comedies—The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia, Take Me Out, I Am My Own Wife, Doubt, and The History Boys—each of them had more laughs in them than in any of the three Coast of Utopia plays. Looks as if Broadway, too, is reflecting the glum times in which we live.