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Broadway Takes Back the Tonys

Broadway Takes Back the Tonys
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What a difference a year makes. In Back Stage's 2010 Our View on the Tony Awards, we asked if the prevalence of stars from Hollywood and shows featuring recycled pop and rock hits was edging Broadway itself out of the proceedings. The traditional musical, with specific characters and a storyline, seemed to be treated like an eccentric aunt who should not be brought out of her upstairs bedroom when company calls. Well, the 2011 ceremony marked the return of the Main Stem in a big way. Taking a page from "The Book of Mormon," the evening's biggest winner with nine awards, the ceremony didn't take itself too seriously.

The show started with an acknowledgement of the theater's outsider status among entertainment mediums. In the dynamite opening number, "It's Not Just for Gays Anymore" by David Javerbaum, who has written book musicals and for "The Daily Show," host Neil Patrick Harris mocked the perception of the Great White Way as being primarily for "dudes who like dudes." By ribbing the mainstream audience's view of Broadway as elitist and specialized, the show put people who are not regular theatergoers at ease. From there it took off like a rocket, each of the musical numbers showing its production to good advantage. In addition to selections from all the nominees for best musical and best musical revival, the entertainment featured scenes from 2010 winner "Memphis," the all-star concert version of "Company," and "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," spotlighting that show's highlight, its costumes. Ironically, the only excerpt that was a bit static was the ballad from "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which featured Jennifer Damiano and Reeve Carney, sans superhero outfit, crooning a simple ballad on a fire escape. The only non-Broadway star in these numbers had to be Daniel Radcliffe, who did not rate a Tony nomination for his just-okay performance in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," despite his international superstar status.

In fact, three of the four winners for best leading actor and actress were theater veterans taking home their second Tonys—Mark Rylance for "Jerusalem," Sutton Foster for "Anything Goes," and Norbert Leo Butz for "Catch Me If You Can"—rather than visitors from Tinseltown. Plus, Frances McDormand, who won the Tony for best leading actress in a play, may be an Oscar winner, but she's hardly a Hollywood ringer. From her denim jacket to her no-nonsense acceptance speech, McDormand's unspoken message to the Tony audience was "I'm a hard-working stage actor, goddamnit!"

Nonmusical productions also gained valuable exposure. The success of "War Horse," the winner of five awards, including best play, proves that a straight play doesn't need big names from TV or the movies to be a hit.

Harris, emceeing for the second time, proved to be a brilliant host. In addition to that spicy opening number, he shared the spotlight with another former Tony host, Hugh Jackman, in a cute duet, and Harris wrapped up the whole show with a clever rap, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of "In the Heights."

Despite the definite improvements in the quality of the show, the overall TV viewership slipped slightly from last year's audience of 7 million, but there was a 9 percent increase in the all-important 18–49 demographic. CBS finished the evening second, behind ABC's broadcast of Game 6 of the NBA finals.

The ratings for Broadway's biggest night will probably remain relatively steady, never surpassing the broader appeal of basketball, so the producers of the Tonys may as well embrace the show's outsider status and not try to turn them into the Oscars or the Grammys.

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