Can I get an AMEN?! What a wonderful thing to celebrate the success of Fun Home last night (and all the other winners and nominees and non-nominees). It was a fun evening of surprises right and left (all four Actor/Actress in a Musical categories went the opposite way of the predictions).
Before I dive into my high/lowlights of the evening including links to all the performances, a brief word about yesterday morning. If you haven’t heard, I attended the Tony Dress Rehearsal with Miss Jenn Haltman, and it was a grand ol’ time. The best moment for me may have been stepping into Radio City and seeing the iconic Tony set on the stage. It was pretty surreal. The dress rehearsal is as you might expect – they run through the entire evening, all the performances, all the banter, presenters, even fake winners and acceptance speeches. There’s a set of ten or so actors who “play” the nominees, sit in their seats, and one goes up to deliver a thank-you speech after each award is announced. It’s actually quite entertaining. You also get to see how the sausage is made, like how the cameras work and how the crane reaches over the audience. It was a super cool morning, but now, onto the real thing.
- Let’s begin with the best of the best: Sydney. Effin. Lucas. Is there really anything else to discuss? This was the performance of the evening. The folks at Fun Home made the (very) smart decision to highlight one song and one performer (with cameos by Tony nominee Beth Malone and now two-time Tony winner Michael Cerveris) to represent their show, a decision I fully support. And to have Joel and Jennifer Grey introduce the number made it all the more apropos. This song stands for so much in the musical theatre genre, and the fact that an 11-year-old is delivering it makes it all the more impressive. I could talk about it for ages, but I’ll let the song speak for itself. Here’s Tony nominee Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home. Also, a mini-anecdote from director Sam Gold in the press room after winning his Tony, talking about directing Sydney in that song: “The day that I was first going to stage that song with Sydney in rehearsal, I was really nervous…What was I going to say to her? She was nine at the time. I started to ask her, ‘Do you understand what this song is about? What can we talk about?’ And she was like, ‘I got this.’ She had it already. She understood everything about it. She’s a very mature actor and didn’t need to be treated like a kid. I treated her [from] that moment forward like all of the adults.”
- Something Rotten also gave a great performance. Since there was no real opening number (missing you, NPH), Rotten ended up serving as the big opening of the night, presenting the Act One show-stopper “A Musical” featuring Tony nominees Brian D’Arcy James and Brad Oscar. It’s funny, right?
- Let’s focus now on the lady power happening last night. I did a lap around my living room every time a woman won. Firstly, yay lady director Marianne Elliott for Curious Incident. Second, representation in all the design categories: Catherine Zuber for The King and I Costume Design, Bunny Christie for Curious Scenic Design, and Natasha Katz for American Lighting Design. And then! Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori for Best Book and Score for Fun Home. They made history by being the first all-female writing team to win for a musical. What should be on the lowlights is the fact that these wins happened during commercials. Considered “Creative Arts Awards” – and deemed not worthy to be aired with the rest of the program – book, score, choreography, and designer awards all happen off-screen with only five-second snippets of their speeches shown later. So here I share their fantastic and important speeches: Lisa Kron for Best Book and Jeanine Tesori/Lisa Kron for Best Score.
- Let’s hear it for Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang. This category seemed like a shoe-in for one of the Fun Home ladies. I haven’t seen The King and I yet (going in July), but I’m still so excited for her and her adorable speech. And how nice to squeeze in a little bit of diversity on that stage (wow, I just looked it up: she is the second Asian actress ever to win a Tony).
- While we’re on the topic of The King and I, let us all bow down to the wonder that is Kelli O’Hara. Congrats on winning your first Tony after six nominations. Yes, standing ovation! And that speech!! And have you seen the quick change video going around right now? Amazing offstage choreography. Kelli, I hope you’re still shuffling off to Buffalo filled with joy.
- I want to do a couple of shout-outs to my other favorite actor wins. Alex Sharp is so wonderfully earnest. Annaleigh Ashford I’ve been rooting for since I first saw her in Legally Blonde in 2007. And Michael Cerveris for Fun Home! A frazzled Tony speech but a terrific performance as Bruce Bechdel.
- Best presenters of the night were Larry David and Jason Alexander. How Larry David manages to ride that line of hilarious yet offensive is quite the feat.
- Although I am not a supporter of the medley performance (more on that below), I think On the Town, An American in Paris, and The King and I were solid performances, showing off their stars and choreography.
- I said it before and I’ll say it again, It Shoulda Been You drives me nuts. From David Hyde Pierce’s intro with a fan letter to the jokes to the song itself, I can’t do it. But let’s give well-deserved credit to the talent that is Lisa Howard and the sound that she produces. I just wish I liked the song.
- I can’t really speak too much of Gigi because I have not seen it (nor do I intend to quite honestly), but it doesn’t do anything for me. Here’s Vanessa Hudgens performing “The Night They Invented Champagne.”
- As Jenn said about Finding Neverland while we watched the performance yesterday morning, “Everything is happening onstage, and nothing is happening onstage.” Yes, Matthew Morrison can still sing underneath that beard of his, but this number was literally smoke and mirrors to distract from the fact that so little is actually going on. Here’s “Stronger” featuring Morrison and Kelsey Grammer. Also? That intro.
- I would never speak badly of Chita Rivera; she’s Broadway royalty. But The Visit, or as I’m now calling it, “The Visit – What Is It?”…I just had no idea what to make of that performance. And sadly I’m not the only one – they just posted the closing notice this afternoon.
- Although the memoriam was touching and featured a record amount of performers in a Tony number (not to mention actually being aired on the live show as opposed to last year), the speed of that slideshow left something to be desired. It didn’t need to be rushed! Why not start it at the top of the song (with the right notes ideally) instead of featuring Josh Groban for one minute and twenty seconds?
- Let’s talk about the E.T. bit. While funny and unexpected, let’s read the room, shall we? Wait to send Kristin out in that ridiculous costume until the audience has stopped reeling from Sydney’s performance. The music had barely faded out when she wobbled out, unfortunately reducing the moment that had just occurred.
- The Jersey Boys finale was a little bit of a letdown after some of the great closing bits we’ve had over the last couple years.
- As I mentioned above, any award happening during the commercials is a lowlight.
- And now, a mini-rant on medleys. Have you heard this before from me? Medleys are so rarely a good idea in my book. I totally understand that you want to show as much of your production’s range and stars as possible. I get that one number doesn’t fully represent what your musical is, but what a medley tends to do instead is get all…jumbly. It gets messy because too much is being squeezed into a few minutes. So for example, On the Twentieth Century, which I very much enjoyed the other week (review to come), comes off looking all over the place. There were technically FOUR songs covered in those few minutes. People don’t know what to come away with after seeing that. Why not just do the last song in the medley? I know we don’t get to see Peter Gallagher or the adorable tapping porters, but we’ll get to see Kristin sing her heart out and we’ll enjoy one full song. It’s a bummer Tony winner Christian Borle didn’t get to perform in the Something Rotten number, but guess what? It was still great, and now people get a sense of what that show will be. Why not just do “Shall We Dance?” from The King and I or one dance with the two leads in American in Paris? Haven’t we learned yet that medleys don’t do a show justice?
Alright, let’s not dwell too much on the negative (like no love for Hand to God). Things like this exist now! Not all of the shows can be recognized, and there will always be a lot of BS that gets in the way of celebrating the arts, but Fun Home taking home the big wins last night is a huge accomplishment. So let’s bask in that while we can. One more time, here’s a link to all of the performances. Go see a Broadway show!
Oh yeah, one more thing. Bring back Sound Design.
We interrupt our normally scheduled programming (aka the chronological order of the shows I’ve seen) to first talk about Fun Home because it’s too important. I’ve been waiting for this show all season. I know this might sound a little over-the-top, but I can’t help myself: it’s flawless. End of story. A musical like this only comes around once in a while (you can see highlights here). Consider me officially obsessed.
Some backstory: Fun Home is based on the graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her relationship with her closeted father. The name Bechdel might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the Bechdel test or the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Nevertheless, you’re about to get to know Alison and her family very well as she looks back on her childhood and teenage years, building a timeline and attempting to unlock (and draw) the mystery of her father. We meet her at three different stages: Young Alison is nine or so, Medium Alison a freshman in college, and current-day 43-year-old Alison.
Present-day Alison doesn’t quite narrate; rather she excavates her past with the audience in tow. As she sifts through her dad’s old things, she pieces together memories to literally draw from them and make a cartoon. And then she captions the different moments, casting a new light or interpretation on them whenever possible. “Caption: Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay.” Through her eyes, we quickly fall into this world of memories. It’s additionally effective because the production is performed in the round; company and audience, we’re all in this together. The set pieces spin and shift and disappear through the floor as we move through time. Like the recent production of The Glass Menagerie, the design does an excellent job of creating a memory piece (shout-out to Associate Scenic Designer Tim McMath who designed our gorgeous Summertime set).
And within the in-the-round theatre, we meet fully developed, three-dimensional characters, and the fact that they’re based on a real family makes the experience all the more visceral. Each performance is more fantastic than the last. The chillingly good Tony-nominated Michael Cerveris loses himself in Bruce, Alison’s father – his inner pain radiating from every move, every smile or outburst, every awkward attempt to connect or push people away. The same goes for Tony-nominated Judy Kuhn’s poignant, understated performance as Alison’s mother, Helen. And the three Tony-nominated women who play Alison each bring something unique and beautiful to the role. Eleven-year-old Sydney Lucas plays Young Alison, and all I want to know is where did this girl come from?! She’s stellar and changes everything when she sings THIS (it will also be the Tony performance on Sunday). Emily Skeggs brings an infectious, wide-eyed joy to Medium Alison as she discovers her sexuality. And Beth Malone as adult Alison is the center of this show, keeping everyone and everything grounded. From the moment she starts speaking, you know you’re in good hands.
Here is one of my theories about musicals. If it has a bad score, it dies, it’s forgotten. If it has a great score and not the strongest book, it’s forgiven. As long as it’s got that score, people let the bad, typically contrived, book slide. So when a musical comes along with a book that’s just as strong as the score, if not stronger, it leaves a mark. Shows that meet this criteria stand out (think Sweeney Todd, Next to Normal). So bless you Lisa Kron for this book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori – whose music doesn’t always click with me – for writing a beautiful score that I’ve been listening to nonstop since Monday evening. The story weaves seamlessly in and out of song and spoken word (hear the nominee hopefuls discuss the music and lyrics here).
And just a quick word about the subject matter and gay characters. I won’t delve into this too much because I fear I’m not eloquent enough to discuss how important and enormous it is to have a lesbian character be the lead of a musical. It’s unheard of. So instead I’m going to quote an LA Times interview I just read with Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director at the Public Theater where Fun Home began Off-Broadway:
Fun Home, Eustis believes, has the potential to do for lesbians what Angels in America did for gay men: “Take a marginalized group and say, ‘No, you are actually center stage.’ The art form…depends on empathy. It has been magical watching Broadway audiences at Fun Home. No one is thinking, ‘Oh, I know a lesbian.’ They are identifying themselves with the story, and that changes you. Once you’ve identified with someone, you can’t think of them as the other anymore.”
As for Sunday’s awards, there are legit races this year with no clear frontrunner in multiple categories. And as far as Best Musical goes, Fun Home wins in my book, hands-down, but An American in Paris (truly gorgeous, review to come) may have the edge. We’ll have to tune in to find out how the chips fall. Regardless of who wins, this is an intimate, heart-wrenching, funny, true-to-life story of love, self-denial, self-discovery, and above all, family.
Caption: Get your tickets, and come on home.
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron, Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel, Directed by Sam Gold
Circle in the Square Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus and Jenny Anderson
Pictured: Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and the Cast of Fun Home