This was the year that Sweet Charity's Christina Applegate poked fun at herself and her famous broken foot by entering to present an award and tripping into the pit at Radio City Music Hall.
At the June 5 ceremony honoring the best of Broadway's 2004-05 season, Best Actress (Musical) nominee Applegate's crazy physical bit was the biggest surprise of the night — not counting the respected Bill Irwin's win as Best Actor (Play) for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the sure money was on Brian F. O'Byrne for Doubt).
At the top of the 8-11 PM broadcast on CBS-TV, host Hugh Jackman, hosting the ceremony for the third year in a row, told the crowd that as a Hollywood action star he's not exactly encouraged to dance on a stage. Image is everything in Hollywood, after all. He then burst into a comic medley ("I Won't Dance," "Gotta Dance!," etc.) punctuated with dance (but no high-kicking Rockettes this year). If Jackman's legs go up in high kicks, his stock in Hollywood goes down, he suggested.
The specialty dance portion of his evening complete, Jackman reached for a legit tone later in the three-hour ceremony. Referencing the 75th birthday of Stephen Sondheim, he sang the Bernstein (and Sondheim) anthem "Somewhere" with R&B star Aretha Franklin in a duet that would have had "American Idol" judges creating fresh adjectives. (The most famous "Idol" criticism of "pitchy" might have popped up had Simon Cowell been in the house.)
Franklin has not appeared on Broadway, and didn't on Sunday night — Radio City is technically not a Broadway house. Other Broadway never-beens (or not-yets) were presenters Don Cheadle (who has worked at The Public Theater and in films such as "Hotel Rwanda"), Marcia Cross (of TV's "Desperate Housewives," who was, for the record, a standby in the 36-performance flop run of Broadway's Artist Descending a Staircase), Emmy Rossum (the young star of the film "The Phantom of the Opera"), Keri Russell (of TV's "Felicity" and Off-Broadway's Fat Pig), Dennis Haysbert (of TV's "24.") and stiff CBS newsman Harry Smith, who joked with Doris Roberts about being in the bedroom together in the mornings — because he hosts "The Early Show." Moving right along, there was also a scattering of genuine Broadway stars who may not be known to an average TV audience these days — Tony winners Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, James Earl Jones. Nathan Lane, with freshly cropped hair, appeared, too. Harvey Fierstein — who was referenced as "Deep Throat" early in the evening — presented, in his graying Tevye beard from Fiddler on the Roof (a far cry from his waxed-eyebrow days in Hairspray).
This year, the Best Play was announced not as one of two major awards at the end of the evening, but before Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical and Best Musical. Some might think that the top honors in the American theatre would naturally culminate in the musical and non-musical production categories devoted to new work. Not so this time out, in a year of four strong non-musicals — Doubt (which won), The Pillowman, Gem of the Ocean and Democracy.
The nominated plays were introduced with still images and soundbites of potent lines of dialogue. Otherwise, the Tonys continued their trend toward celebrating musical theatre. It makes sense — musicals are considered a great American export and one of the true American creations, and they provide tuneful, colorful, active, TV moments in the marketing machine the Tony ceremony wishes to be.
Of the musical moments, The Light in the Piazza might have come off the best with the presentation of "Statues and Stories," the opening sequence of the Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas musical at Lincoln Center Theater. The musical is set in Florence Italy, where the light in the public squares stimulates its characters' minds and hearts. The sepia and marble visual world created by Tony-winning scenic designer Michael Yeargan almost pulled you into the television. Designers Catherine Zuber and Christopher Akerlind also won Tonys for Piazza, for costumes and lighting, respectively.
In the musical segment for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the Rev. Al Sharpton was the guest speller (a conceit that happens nightly, with audience members recruited into the show, at Circle in the Square). Rev. Sharpton was asked to spell "dengue," an infectious tropical disease. He misspelled it and was rejected.
Awards in seven categories, plus two previously-announced Tony honors (Regional Theatre and Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre), were presented in the "pre-tel" ceremony at Radio City 7-8 PM, with clips shown during the primetime broadcast.
Lifetime Achievement recipient playwright Edward Albee mentioned his debt to his partner of 35 years, Jonathan Thomas, who died a month ago.
Spouses, partners, parents and more were thanked all evening.
Dan Fogler, winner in the Best Featured Actor (Musical) category for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, thanked his folks for "the DNA." Fogler, who plays a respiratory-challenged kid William Barfee in Spelling Bee, added, "In the words of Mr. William Morris Barfee, 'My whole life, I have only been able to breathe through one nostril. And today... is no exception!' Thank you."
Adriane Lenox, Doubt's Best Featured Actress (Play) winner, thanked her vocal family from Memphis, who all seemed to be on a corner of the cavernous Radio City.
Making fun of his unlikely name, Norbert Leo Butz, Best Actor (Musical) winner for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, thanked his parents — including his father Norbert Sr. — who were also at Radio City. Butz also acknowledged the importance of regional theatre, where Dirty Rotten got its tryout in fall 2004 (it started at the Old Globe in San Diego).
"Support regional theatre around the country!" he exclaimed.
Best Score composer-lyricist Adam Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rodgers, also thanked the regional not-for-profits that helped nurture Piazza: Seattle's Intiman, Chicago's Goodman, Utah's Sundance.
The evening opened with Billy Crystal, a frequent Academy Awards host, playfully assuming the host duties of the Tonys before Jackman stepped in to relieve him. After all, Jackman is a Tony winner for The Boy From Oz.
By the evening's end, Crystal and his wife Janice were also Tony winners for producing Crystal's solo turn in 700 Sundays (to June 12), the Best Special Theatrical Event.
"We are a 'special event,'" Crystal said in his acceptance speech. "I thought we were a really good play. There are a lot of people we have to thank who couldn't be nominated because of the way that event is listed on the nomination form, [including] Des McAnuff, who directed this show. 'Events' are directed."
Crystal also thanked his pal, writer Alan Zweibel, "who still continues to give material; we are closing in a week and we are still writing to make this show better. That's the kind of friend he is and also a wonderful writer."
There were at least two censored moments in the broadcast. In "Great Big Stuff" from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, CBS wouldn't let con man Freddy's fantasy wish for "hummers in my Hummer" pass. (Depending where you live, a hummer is a cocktail of Kahlua and ice cream, or rum and ice cream, although that's probably not what songwriter David Yazbek had in mind for the salacious Freddy.)
When talking about her late friend Fred Ebb, Chita Rivera mistakenly said Ebb and composer John Kander had died in the past year, and was bleeped out when she reacted to the flub. Rivera was so used to mentioning Ebb and Kander in the same breath that she couldn't break the habit.
Legends are allowed to flub now and then. It makes you aware that the theatre is live — and alive.