STAGE TO SCREENS: A Look at the Tony Awards (and the 2004-05 Season)

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: A Look at the Tony Awards (and the 2004-05 Season) Tonight is the one time a year when TV brings us the best of Broadway (plus commercials), as good a reason as any to check out the season just past and the Tony Awards (CBS, 8 PM ET).

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As you may have heard, tonight's Tony night, the Super Bowl for show folk. After scoring touchdowns two years in a row, Hugh Jackman takes the field for a third go-round. Last season, Jackman was Broadway's biggest star; this season, that distinction belongs to a flying car (and possible future host).

2004-05 marked the invasion of Monty Python (and killer rabbits); with 14 nominations, Spamalot could make the event a To-Ni night. Last year, Avenue Q, an Off-Broadway transfer, won the Tony for Best Musical; this year, that could happen with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (if people voted with their h-e-a-r-t).

It was the season of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, many of them in Glengarry Glen Ross. We welcomed back the Joneses (James Earl and Cherry), and had childhoods recalled by Billys: Crystal and Crudup. It was a season when the term "Limited Engagement" sometimes indicated the quality of a production. Back on Broadway were Dracula, Julius Caesar and Robert Goulet. Harvey Fierstein went from playing a big mama in Hairspray to portraying a father of five in Fiddler. Next, he's starring as either Charley's Aunt or Uncle Vanya.

Unscripted reality shows may be currently popular on TV, but the real reality shows can be found on Broadway — eight times a week. In theatre, there are no apprentices, only survivors. Like television, Broadway thrives on "American Dreams," "Hope and Faith," the "Fear Factor" and "Desperate Housewives." And TV can change the way that people look at theatre: A "Law & Order" fan went to see Twelve Angry Men, and enjoyed it so much that he went back again. But, the second time, he was disappointed: "They tried the same case." While many of the season's shows were male-dominated, a reminder — "Don't overlook the female stars" — was voiced by Dame Edna, Bruce Vilanch and Gary Beach. The female star most likely to win tonight is Cherry Jones, who takes her role as a nun very seriously. If a cell phone rings during a performance of Doubt, its owner must stay after the play and say an Act of Contrition (in Latin).

Three legendary female characters came back to town: Blanche (Streetcar), Amanda (Glass Menagerie), and Martha (Virginia Woolf) — played respectively by Natasha Richardson, Jessica Lange, and Kathleen Turner. We toast the trio: for Blanche, a pink lady; for Amanda, a mint julep; for Martha, a triple anything.

Busiest actress of the season was Frances Sternhagen. She preceded Steel Magnolias with two Off-Broadway plays (Echoes of the War, The Foreigner). On August 17, she'll also celebrate her 50th year on Broadway, having made her debut as Miss T. Muse in a 1955 production of The Skin of Our Teeth, starring Helen Hayes, Mary Martin and George Abbott. Sternhagen's a very gifted (and truly nice) lady. Brava!

Featured Actress nominee Dana Ivey gave one of the season's best performances as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals. Recently, Ivey told me that Mrs. Malaprop's last line (that "men are such Bavarians") was a variation from the script, which reads "barbarians." Years ago in England, explained Ivey, a director made the change, and since then it's been the director's choice for each production as to which word to use. While the substitution usually gets a laugh, one wonders if Richard Sheridan's intention was to have his character finally say something right.

Comments Overheard During Intermissions:
"How did Dana Ivey remember all those incorrect words? She must have a photogenic mind."
"There were fewer shows with puppets this season, and I missed them."
"Was the Ford Center renamed the Hilton for Paris Hilton?"
"We can't split up. Our pre-nup agreement says that he gets the Encores! subscription."
"Do you like my Pillowman souvenir? It's a severed-toes keychain."
"I think Michael Riedel is wonderful!" "What else is new, Michael?"

The season had several Bests:
Cinderella Story: Christina Applegate in Sweet Charity
Entrance: Kathleen Turner in Virginia Woolf
Exit: Kevin Cahoon inChitty Chitty
Ensemble: (a three-way tie) Twelve Angry Men, Glengarry,Spelling Bee
Chorus Line: La Cagelles (superb male dancers who learned what women already know — dancing in heels is hell)
Fill-In: the classy Charlotte d'Amboise in Sweet Charity.

Philip Bosco, up for Best Actor in Twelve Angry Men, told me at the Drama Desk Awards that he's pleased to be nominated, but that he really hopes the play will win the Tony as Best Revival. Bosco claims that he's never had a more enjoyable or rewarding experience in all his years in the theatre, and that the cast really bonded.

Last year, Brian F. O'Byrne won a Tony as Best Featured Actor for playing a pedophile in Frozen, an Off-Broadway transfer, directed by nominee Doug Hughes. Tonight, O'Byrne is favored to win as Best Actor, playing a suspected pedophile in Doubt, another Off-Broadway transfer, also directed by nominee Hughes. And this time, Hughes (son of Tony winner Barnard Hughes and actress Helen Stenborg) also seems likely to win.

One hopes that O'Byrne's first name (BREE-in) is pronounced correctly. While we're on the subject, it's Billy CREW-dup, John Lith-GO, Sa-RAH Ramirez, Michael McGRAH, Dan FOE-gler, and Mireille (MUH-ray; it rhymes with beret) Enos.

Enos is up for Featured Actress in Virginia Woolf; in the original, the part earned a nomination (but not a win) for Melinda Dillon. Liev Schreiber's role as Ricky Roma in the firstGlengarry garnered a win for Joe Mantegna, who beat out fellow cast member Robert Prosky (playing the part for which Alan Alda is nominated this year). George Hearn received a Tony for La Cage in the role for which Gary Beach is now nominated. Gwen Verdon, who originated the part of Sweet Charity, lost out to Angela Lansbury's Mame.

I'm reminded of something that Gwen Verdon told me during a 1999 interview. Before summoning his friend Neil Simon to write the book for Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse had attempted it himself. However, Verdon pointed out, "The whole movie star sequence, including the closet scene, was written by Bob." The scene holds up very well (even in its current revised state). One of the biggest laughs is when Charity, hiding in the star's closet, smokes a cigarette and exhales into a garment bag, which she unzips and zips.

Among the Best Actress in a Play nominees, Kathleen Turner's role of Martha in Virginia Woolf won a Tony for its originator, Uta Hagen. In the Best Actor in a Play category, Bill Irwin is a nominee as George, a role for which Arthur Hill (in the original Virginia Woolf) won a Tony, and James Earl Jones is up for Norman Thayer, a part that did not earn a nomination for Tom Aldredge in the first On Golden Pond.

Of the four nominees for Best Revival of a Play, only Virginia Woolf? won for its original production. Glengarry lost to Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing; On Golden Pond was not nominated; and, though considered a revival, Twelve Angry Men had never been on Broadway before. As for Best Revival of a Musical, La Cage won its first time around, while Sweet Charity lost to Man of La Mancha and Pacific Overtures to A Chorus Line.

Coincidences exist in the Best Actress and Featured Actress in a Musical categories. In the former are Sutton Foster and Erin Dilly; Foster won a Tony for Thoroughly Modern Millie, in which she replaced Dilly out of town. In the latter, Kelli O'Hara is up for The Light in the Piazza, having taken over a role that had been played during some tryouts by Celia Keenan-Bolger (a nominee for Spelling Bee). Surprises can always happen, but not many are expected this evening. There's little doubt about Best Play (there's no way to say that without making a pun), and its principal, priest and mother seem headed to the winners' circle — along with a real-estate salesman (if I say which one, it would ruin Alda fun). As for performers in musicals, the prizes should go to another mother, a con man (no ifs or ands, it's Butz), a baroness and a contestant who spells with his foot.

Strangest Sight of the Season: Stanley Kowalski (John C. Reilly) wearing a jacket at the dinner table. While he needn't wear a torn t-shirt, Stanley would never wear a jacket at dinner, especially in his own apartment. Most Enjoyable Sight of the Season: Kids scooping up confetti after Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (probably so they can sell it on e-Bay).

We look ahead optimistically, eagerly anticipating next season. When things go right, it's — to quote Mr. Porter — "a trip to the moon on gossamer wings." If they don't — as Porter also wrote — it's "fighting vainly the old ennui."

Meanwhile, enjoy the Tony telecast. Here's hoping that all your favorites are named as this year's awards are announced, starting on CBS at 8 PM ET.

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published later this year.