For a Broadway Torn by a Pandemic, a Split-Personalities Tonys

It’s no surprise that the Tony Awards ceremony on Sunday night took much more time and bandwidth than usual, swallowing up more than four hours that were split between two platforms. After all, it had a big agenda: to honor the shortened 2019-2020 season and everything that came after, including the ongoing pandemic and a cultural reckoning in the theater, as in the world. Also, of course, with special urgency now, the event wanted to encourage possibly wary theatergoers to buy tickets to shows by highlighting Broadway’s performers as they return to the stage.

With so much on its to do list, how did the Tonys do? Jesse Green, The New York Times’s chief theater critic, discussed the presentation — or, rather, the presentations: one on Paramount+ and one on CBS — with James Poniewozik, The Times’s chief television critic, and the contributor Elisabeth Vincentelli.

JESSE GREEN The Tony Awards ceremony was deliberately broken into two halves: the first more like a private industry dinner, on Paramount+, to give out most of the awards efficiently; the second more like a desperate advertisement, on broadcast television, to lure tourists back to Broadway. (The second was even called, somewhat ambitiously, “Broadway’s Back!”) But did either of you feel, as I did intensely, that the two shows were almost psychotically different, even if they were written and directed by the same team? One half gave us the art form that wants to speak in serious terms of the human soul and cultural change. The other gave us weak comedy bits and bad timing.

ELISABETH VINCENTELLI It felt like one of those horror films where a lab-made creature’s parts suddenly take on a life of their own: What used to be an awkward — but often very entertaining, in its own way — whole suddenly became split into separate bits and pieces. Mind you, those bits and pieces meant that even with four hours of airtime, the show still ran long!

JAMES PONIEWOZIK The two shows were undeniably different. I’m not sure I mind that, though, at least in theory — we can get to my issues with the execution. Broadway was hit by the pandemic uniquely among art forms, but the Tonys really have the same challenge that all televised awards shows have now: Who is this production for? Is it for the die-hards or the casuals? Is it for the artists or the audience? Is it meant to honor the creative work of the past year(s) or sell tickets for the next? The Tonys answer was essentially, “Why not both?” There was definitely whiplash for those of us who managed to find Paramount+ and watch both halves. But I’m not sure how big that audience was compared with the CBS-only crowd.

VINCENTELLI Splitting the awards from the musical numbers is what, I suspect, CBS had wanted to do for ages: shove the awards to the side because nobody (in the network’s view) cares, and focus on the fun stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if they continued with that format in the future.

PONIEWOZIK That split, by the way, is what the Grammys have done on CBS for years — shunt most of the awards off prime time and put on a big show for the general audience. That worked pretty well for them this year.

GREEN The difference, and what makes the split feel more neurotic to me, is that the theater, abetted by pretentious theater critics like myself, often tries to imagine it is upholding a more noble tradition. Certainly it’s an older tradition. In any case, given the choice to divide the awards, it’s surprising how the first half managed to provide everything the second half was supposed to — warmth, dignity in a difficult time, Jennifer Holliday live! — and the second half largely failed to, except in the recorded segments from the nominated musicals.

VINCENTELLI The combination of Sheryl Lee Ralph’s introduction and Jennifer Holliday’s performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is bound to become a YouTube classic. CBS might be trying to turn the Tonys into the Kennedy Center Honors, which they also broadcast — they’re well placed to know that in 2019, the Honors scored more viewers than the Tonys. So that’s the model: celebrity presenters of big numbers. Having the awards themselves on Paramount+ also testifies to the siloing of audiences.

Danny Burstein in a performance by the “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” cast. The critics agreed that the number worked well on TV.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

PONIEWOZIK I would question whether the theater is more inherently “noble” than TV or any other art form. But another argument, another day. More to the point, if the theater wants to celebrate its hard work and creative spirit, you can rent a nice hall for that and do it privately. If you expect a broadcast TV audience, your obligations are different — no one is entitled to the attention of millions of people. But I agree that (to my surprise) the first, industry-awards part actually did a better job of conveying the excitement and electricity of being in a theater!

GREEN The “concert” half, not a bad idea in theory, was in fact so poorly routined and timed that it erased all the gains of the “awards” half. The final 30 minutes, which felt like an entire additional day, was a train wreck of bad calls: ballads, duets, redundant improv from “Freestyle Love Supreme” — when what you really wanted in that spot was the “Moulin Rouge!” kickline and confetti cannons.

VINCENTELLI I don’t think I ever need “Moulin Rouge!” anything. That said, that number worked on TV and may well have done its job, which is to sell tickets.

GREEN I’m not a huge fan of “Moulin Rouge!” myself, but I thought it looked fantastic on the screen, using the cool medium to tone down its manic red hotness. Even if it hadn’t won 10 awards, the most of any show, it would have done itself a lot of good with that performance.

PONIEWOZIK The flow of the CBS portion was just weird. The “concert” wasn’t an awards show, but there were three major awards, and the last one was given out a half-hour before the end, sabotaging the momentum. I also question whether the song choices — between the general nostalgia of the production and Broadway’s reliance on jukebox musicals — did much to sell an audience on experiencing new theater. (Disclosure: I already have tickets for “Caroline, or Change.”) You’re telling me to feel excited (and safe) going back to a theater in 2021, and giving me a selection of songs I could have heard on one night of “American Idol” in 2005.

VINCENTELLI And as on “American Idol,” there was no mention of plays, which the Tonys still don’t know what to do about. Unless I blinked and missed it, there was no attempt to even describe them, let alone feature excerpts.

PONIEWOZIK Yes, Elisabeth! Four hours (plus overtime!!!), and you can’t even give us a taste of the plays you want us to come back to Broadway for?

GREEN Generally you can’t come back for the plays; they’ve closed. But the world of Broadway is changing, even when the awards don’t. “The Inheritance” swept the big play categories, winning four major awards, and “Slave Play,” its main competition, got skunked — but it was “Slave Play” that has announced a return Broadway engagement, starting in November. I’m shocked “Slave Play” didn’t win, but there’s no point in litigating the voters’ choices; they are always unintelligible and, as far as television is concerned, beside the point. Unintelligibility may even be a plus. Drama!

Daniel J. Watts, right, and Jared Grimes during their performance. The spoken word piece, featuring tap, addressed the racial equity concerns of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which received a special Tony.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

VINCENTELLI In terms of the overall tone, I was very happy to be spared the usual self-conscious posture of theater, which thinks of itself as a beleaguered band of misfits toiling for an underappreciated art form/industry and reacts with a bizarre mix of self-importance and defensiveness. Theater folks feel like the Marvel and “Star Wars” nerds of yore, before they became the de facto rulers of popular culture. Sunday night had a much more interesting, and overall healthier, balance of positivity, eagerness and joy. Of course at times there was frustration and anger, too, expressed most starkly in Daniel J. Watts’s spoken-word number, but that’s another way to let passion speak.

PONIEWOZIK To me, the job of the whole shebang was to convey through TV the excitement of seeing theater live, in a room. What did that well? Jennifer Holliday’s performance, of course — not just because she’s a legend, but because it was a theatrical performance. She was in character. (Whereas too many of the duets, however beautifully sung, simply felt like watching two celebrities I like enjoy being back together.) I thought the recorded performances from other theaters might kill the live vibe, but it helped that they had audiences. And the buzz of the first awards portion — you could just feel how pumped everyone was to be in the room — in a way recreated the live experience better than some of the performances.

GREEN Yes: What was good was whatever felt like live theater, not like an “I Love New York” commercial. Still, it’s very strange to me that the main thing all these Broadway creatives couldn’t pull off was a Broadway entertainment spectacular. (Who puts all the socko material at the beginning, leaving none for the end?) I think it’s time to give other writers and directors a chance.

VINCENTELLI The second half of the show felt a little rote because something changed over the past 18 months in terms of access. The Tonys used to be the only place we could catch Broadway stars do a number on a screen. But in 2020, we streamed them a lot, and the newness of watching, say, Kelli O’Hara or Audra McDonald slay a number was dulled — because we watched Kelli O’Hara and Audra McDonald slay a lot of numbers online last year.

PONIEWOZIK It would not be awful for the Tonys (and other awards) to learn a little from streaming. The most entertaining work of theater I saw during the pandemic may have been Annaleigh Ashford doing an insane version of “Mr. Mistoffelees” from “Cats” while cooped up at home for Miscast21.

VINCENTELLI Yes! The Tonys need a good dose of that freewheeling social-media spirit.

GREEN And maybe, hear me out, it should keep to a TikTok length.

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