58th ANNUAL TONY AWARDS
From Hugh Jackman's spirited opening number through the final, surprising Best Musical of the Year announcement, the 2004 Tony Awards turned out to be one of the most exciting telecasts in years.
The broadcast was exactly what the Tonys should be — a joyous celebration of the theatre. And, in Jackman the Tonys have finally found the perfect host — he is charming, modest, talented, appealing and loves being onstage. That love of performing is palpable even through the air waves and makes for exciting television. In fact, Jackman's first number — "One Night Only" — was the most enjoyable opening since Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone and Jennifer Holliday joined Rosie O'Donnell for a diva lover's delight in 1998; Jackman's routine also featured three trios of divas — the Hairspray Dynamites, the urchins from Little Shop of Horrors and the radio from Caroline, or Change. And, what fun to see this boy from Oz high-kick with the Rockettes and then be joined by cast members from the nominated musicals and revivals. I particularly loved seeing Jackman flanked by Avenue Q's Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut.
The awards also got off to a great start with Anika Noni Rose's moving acceptance speech. Rose, whose heartwarming performance in Caroline, or Change was awarded the Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, could barely control her tears while saying, "[Co-star] Chandra Wilson told me to write a speech. I didn't do it! My middle name, Noni, means 'gift of God,' and I just want to thank God so much for the gifts I have been given — my voice, the cast of this amazing, amazing show, this opportunity to be here today, the fact that my grandmother is here for me and with me and my brother is sitting there, next to me, and I'm so thankful for all of that. . . I would like to breathe, I would like to do that. . . Thank you so much, for my cast, for everyone. God bless, and thank you."
Perhaps the most exciting speech of the night, though, was delivered by Idina Menzel, who nabbed a surprise victory for her performance as Elphaba, the green-faced witch of Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's Wicked. Menzel breathlessly paid tribute to the four other women in her category, especially co-star Kristin Chenoweth, who she said was "the grace and the light" each night on the Gershwin stage. Menzel, whose husband (Taye Diggs) adoringly wiped away tears during her acceptance speech, also gave thanks to director Joe Mantello, composer Schwartz and book writer Holzman for "giving the green girl a heart." She finished by thanking her parents for "taking me to see Dreamgirls and Annie . . . and my beautiful, beautiful husband who tells me he loves me every time I feel like the biggest loser." Most every musical number also seemed to work well on the small screen. Fiddler on the Roof's "Tradition" was spirit-raising; Tonya Pinkins, despite vocal problems, offered a glimpse of why her performance in Caroline, or Change was, for me, the most haunting and moving of the season; Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth belted their hearts out to deliver a rousing "Defying Gravity"; Assassins scored with the chilling "Everybody's Got the Right"; Hugh Jackman camped it up to great effect in The Boy From Oz's "Not the Boy Next Door"; and the multi-talented company of Avenue Q demonstrated why Broadway fell in love with the show with its terrific opening number, "It Sucks to Be Me."
Other memorable moments: the adorable Rod (manned by the adorable John Tartaglia) flirting with the adorable Hugh Jackman; the shock on Jeff Whitty's face when he won the Best Book of a Musical Tony for Avenue Q; and Martin Short and Harvey Fierstein's quips during their presentations of, respectively, the Tony for Best Director and Best Book of a Musical.
Among Tony's class acts of the evening: Bernadette Peters, who looked stunning and managed to be humorous and graceful at the same time; Kristin Chenoweth, a nominee herself, who seemed genuinely thrilled for co star Menzel's Tony win; four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, who is not only abundantly talented but gracious and humble; Michael Cerveris, who acknowledged, one by one, his four co-nominees; and, yes, rapper LL Cool J, who treated veteran Carol Channing with respect during their comical updating of "Hello, Dolly!"
My only criticism of the telecast would be the inclusion of Tony Bennett and Mary J. Blige and the exclusion of the Big River cast. Bennett and Blige are obviously gifted performers, but they can be seen on any number of awards shows and programs throughout the year. Why take time away from theatre performers who rarely get the chance to shine on national television? I don't think their appearance brings in any more viewers — the people who are going to watch the Tony Awards are the people who are going to watch the Tony Awards. I'm going to watch the Tonys until I drop, but people who aren't interested in theatre are not. Wouldn't it have been much more exciting to take the six minutes that Blige and Bennett were given and let Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone belt out the famous Streisand/Garland "Happy Days Are Here Again"/"Get Happy" duet? Or let Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley re-create the classic Merman/Martin medley? Or how about a belt-off with Linda Eder and Alice Ripley?
That said, though, the broadcast's final moment — the astonishing Avenue Q victory — made up for any of the show's faults. When Nathan Lane and Sarah Jessica Parker announced the Best Musical winner, I have to admit I spontaneously applauded the TV set, something I haven't done since high school when Bernadette Peters finally won her first Tony Award for Song & Dance. And, it's not that I didn't love the three other Best Musical nominees — Boy From Oz features the greatest male star turn in recent years plus appearances from "Liza" and "Judy"; Caroline, or Change offers a profoundly moving performance from Pinkins and dazzling work by newcomer Rose; and Wicked is great theatrical fun that is often moving and boasts two divas for the price of one — but Avenue Q captured my heart, and I was thrilled for its creators and cast.
Let's hope next season is as exciting as the one just ended and that Jackman returns as host to prove, once again, it doesn't suck to be Hugh. Congratulations to all the winners.
JODI MOCCIA and BROADWAY BARES
For the first time in 14 years, Jerry Mitchell, who created the event, will not direct the Broadway Bares fundraiser. The annual event, which benefits Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, will instead be helmed by his associate, Jodi Moccia. I recently had the chance to chat with Moccia, who says she's very excited about the upcoming evening, which will be presented at the Roseland Ballroom June 20 at 9:30 PM and midnight.
Moccia explains that she and choreographer Mitchell met as dancers for the late Michael Bennett in a Jane Fonda workout clothes industrial. "One day [we were] in the ensemble; the next day, Michael asked three couples to go to the other studio and paired us up. I was with Jerry — I was just happy getting the tall guy for a change. So Jerry and I started doing lifts together. The next thing I know, Michael was working us. And he said in his sly way, 'Can you act?' I said, 'Sure, how do you want me to act?' 'Like you're in ecstasy.' I looked at Jerry, and we went to town. The next day, we became the leads of the show, and the rest is history."
This year's Broadway Bares event, subtitled "Now Playing," will feature dances inspired by a host of hit films. "I picked movies I like," says Moccia, "but more for what I thought would make a good strip. The music of [James] Bond [and] 'Rocky' is fun to see a strip to." Attendees can expect to see buffed bodies from Aida, Beauty and the Beast, Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, 42nd Street, Gypsy, Hairspray, Mamma Mia!, Movin' Out, Rent, The Boy From Oz, The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Wicked . The fundraiser will also include guest appearances from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"'s Jai Rodriguez, Avenue Q's John Tartaglia and Chicago's Chris Sieber. Moccia jokes, "The special guests will be performing, but the question is, 'Who will be naked?!'"
After Broadway Bares, Moccia will head to Japan for five weeks with a company of Miss Saigon. "I'm taking my two kids also. Should be a gas!"
Tickets for Broadway Bares: Now Showing, priced $50-$225, are available by calling (212) 840-0770, ext. 268. Visit www.broadwaycares.org for more information. IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons will portray septuagenarian Maude in the upcoming Paper Mill Playhouse presentation of Harold and Maude: The Musical. Based on the 1972 film starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort, Harold and Maude features book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Joseph Thalken. Mark S. Hoebee will direct the world-premiere Paper Mill run, Jan. 5-Feb. 13, 2005. The Paper Mill Playhouse is located on Brookside Drive in Millburn, NJ. Call (973) 376-4343 for more information or visit www.papermill.org. . . . The long-running theatrical tradition Forbidden Broadway takes on some of Broadway's newest hits in Forbidden Broadway Summer Shock!The latest version of Gerard Alessandrini's musical revue will feature spoofs of Wicked, Assassins, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Lion King, Avenue Q, Hairspray and such theatre personalities as Tony winners Hugh Jackman and Idina Menzel. Forbidden Broadway Summer Shock! will play July 5-Sept. 15 at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre. During this period, creator Alessandrini will also be working on a brand-new version of Forbidden Broadway that will debut in the fall. Forbidden Broadway Summer Shock! features the talents of David Benoit, Valerie Fagan and Michael West. The Douglas Fairbanks is located in Manhattan at 432 West 42nd Street. Tickets, priced $49.50 $57.50, are available by calling (212) 239-6200. Visit www.forbiddenbroadway.com for more information. . . . Susan Egan, who is currently starring in the title role of the Tony-winning musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, has been cast in a new film. The actress will portray Audrey, the best friend of Jenna Mattison's Maggie in "The Third Wish." Mattison also wrote the romantic comedy, which will feature direction by Shelley Jensen and will co-star Armand Assante, Sean Maguire, James Avery and Betty White. Egan will miss a few performances of Millie for filming, including the June 14, 15 and 16 shows. She will return, however, for the musical's final four performances, June 18-20. . . . A discussion about award-winning composer Stephen Sondheim will precede the Ravinia Festival's Sept. 3 presentation of Sunday in the Park with George. Tony Award winner Patti LuPone, who will play Yvonne/Naomi in the Ravinia concert production, will join Ravinia CEO Welz Kauffman for the pre-concert event. The discussion is scheduled for 7:15-7:45 PM in the Bennett-Gordon Hall. As part of its Sondheim 75 celebration, the Ravinia Festival will present Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George Sept. 3-5. In addition to LuPone, the cast will also include four time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald as Dot/Marie and Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris as George. Lonny Price directs. The Sondheim 75 series is a five-year salute to the works of the famed composer, which will culminate in 2005 with Sondheim's 75th birthday. To date, the Ravinia has presented stagings of Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Passion. Sunday in the Park with George will play the Ravinia Festival Sept. 3 and 4 at 8 PM and Sept. 5 at 7 PM. The Ravinia theatre is located in Highland Park, IL; for more information, go to www.ravinia.org. . . . And, finally, Tony Award winner Betty Buckley, who was recently seen on the hit detective series "Monk," will play an extended engagement at the San Francisco venue, Sept. 7-26. Show times are Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8 PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 11 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. The newly refurbished Plush Room will also host Heather Mac Rae (June 15-27), vocalist Debbi Decoudreaux (June 29-July 11) and cabaret veteran Andrea Marcovicci (July 13-Aug. 1). The Plush Room is located within the York Hotel at 940 Sutter Street in San Francisco. For reservations, call (415) 885-6800, ext. 127.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!