Watch the Tonys, Even If You've Never Been to Broadway

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With The Book of Mormon and Spider-Man grabbing headlines, the awards show comes in the midst of the Great White Way's biggest year in recent memory

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It's been years since Broadway made national headlines—probably not since Wicked's megahit score slowly found its way into the mainstream beginning in 2003. This year, however, two separate stories that started at the Great White Way found their way into the mainstream news cycle. The first, a mammoth, overblown, injury-inducing creative debacle—Julie Taymor's disastrous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—made news each time an actor dropped from the rafters during its tumultuous preview period. The second time was when an irreverent, politically incorrect musical about spreading the Mormon gospel pushed the envelope farther than anyone thought it could go, successfully and hilariously satirized religion while celebrating it, and earned some of the best reviews and box-office receipts Broadway has seen in a decade.

Both news events were significant, and both exemplify why the Tony Awards, which air Sunday at 8 pm on CBS, still matter.

It's easy to write-off an awards show that celebrates such a specific area of the arts&mash;as many critics do annually when the telecast draws less viewers than a repeat of Rules of Engagement. But Spider-Man and Book of Mormon show why Broadway is a medium to be celebrated, and one that deserves our national attention, even if it is once a year.

Both musicals, to different levels of success, took risks in an attempt to bring musical theatre back into the mainstream. Taymor raised an unprecedented amount of money to produce Spider-Man, which given the comic series and film franchise's massive, masculine popularity, had—and has—the potential to draw a whole new demographic of patrons to the theatre. She even drafted U2's Bono and the Edge to compose the score. Book of Mormon, by the creators of South Park, provoked and stirred controversy in an attempt to drum up business for a musical that, for all intents and purposes, is a classic Broadway showpiece in every traditional sense.

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Yes, Spider-Man didn't open in time for eligibility&mash;too many, er, hiccups—but Book of Mormon and 13 other productions will compete for the night's top prizes (not to mention dozens of actors) and be showcased to varying degrees on the show.

Remember that actors ranging from Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury to Lea Michelle and Kristen Bell got their starts on Broadway—the next superstar could be honored Sunday night. Besides, if 13 million people think Glee is worth tuning in to, the chance to see un-autotuned, expertly choreographed professionals—the best in the business—out-jazz hand New Directions should entice countless more people to watch the Tonys. Factor in that the impossible-to-dislike Neil Patrick Harris is hosting the event, and celebrities including Daniel Radcliffe, Chris Rock, and Robin Williams will be presenting, the night should be as star-studded as any major Hollywood awards show—only with more unabashed kick line glory.

So now you're convinced to watch, but haven't been keeping tabs on this year's Tony races? Here's what you need to know:

Broadway is so over the Hollywood craze:

In past years, actors including Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, and Daniel Craig all made their debuts on the Broadway stage, bringing millions of eyes and dollars into Times Square. Last year, Oscar-winners Catherine Zeta-Jones and Denzel Washington, Oscar-nominee Viola Davis, and Scarlett Johansson all walked away with Tony Awards in very heated races. Some members of the theatre community cried foul, arguing that the A-listers won trophies over more deserving "theatre actors" in an attempt by the American Theatre Wing (which votes on the Tonys) to bring more attention to the struggling awards show.

Well, consider this year to be the backlash against Hollywood. Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, was not only thought to be a shoo-in for a Best Actor in a Musical nomination for his performance in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—he was considered by many the frontrunner to win. But on nomination Monday, his name wasn't called. There are a handful of Hollywood actors competing at Sunday's awards: Al Pacino (Best Actor, The Merchant of Venice), Edie Falco (Best Featured Actress, House of Blue Leaves), and Ellen Barkin (Best Featured Actress, The Normal Heart). But a large number of big-name stars were passed over, despite winning positive reviews: Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Kiefer Sutherland, Jim Parsons, Kathleen Turner, Cristina Ricci, and more. Chalk it up to yet another thing the Tony Awards has in common with other Hollywood awards shows: a nominations process rife with politics.

The Book of Mormon really is important:

Every year yields at least one hit Broadway musical, a show that's a money-making hit in New York: Jersey Boys, Wicked, The Addams Family. But occasionally a musical will cross that midtown Manhattan base into the social consciousness. It changes the creative direction of theatre, movies, and television. Kids begin singing its songs at auditions for their high school play. Dads in Iowa say things like, "Have you heard of this show called...?"



Book of Mormon is one of those shows. Its button-pushing content manages to get people talking while still respectfully making a point about the issues in hand (in this case, faith and tolerance). Not only that, but the show's music is of the finest quality, sending-up Gershwin, Rodgers, and Hammerstein as brilliantly as it pays homage to those classic Broadway composers. The just-announced national tour will likely encounter controversy&mash;and sold out box offices—at each city stop, and it's only a matter of time until the show is mentioned in the same breath as other modern musical theatre gamechangers. On Sunday, Book of Mormon will highlight its soaring anthem "I Believe," an anthem that not only encapsulates the overarching message of the show, but will surely put Tony viewers' faith in Broadway again.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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