The Tony Awards, Up Close and Personal
“Cast to your opening positions.”
The booming voice comes over the sound system at 9:55 a.m. I’m sitting halfway back in the orchestra—which, considering this is the enormous art deco cavern that is Radio City Music Hall, is a considerable distance from the stage.
Around me hover TV cameras, boom operators, sound engineers, and a two-story revolving crane hoisting a camera to catch celebrities in their seats and winners coming down the aisles.
This is dress rehearsal for the 67th Annual Tony Awards, and I’m fascinated by every single thing happening around me.
I last went to the Tony Awards in 1971 for the 25th Anniversary of the Tonys. I was just out of college, having scored tickets with a friend. Apparently, it hadn’t been a banner year on Broadway because the entire show featured classic performances from the recent Golden Era of musicals. I saw Yul Brynner do a scene from The King and I, Carol Channing sing from Hello, Dolly!, and the highlight for me, Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur reprise “Bosom Buddies” from Mame.
Now it’s more than 40 years later, and thanks to a friend who knows the producer, I’m back at the Tonys. Well, the dress rehearsal, which, I know will be even more interesting than the real thing.
“We will be using all effects, all elevators, everything. This is dress rehearsal. 45 seconds...stand by…”
And there’s Neil Patrick Harris, launching into one of the most spectacular opening numbers ever, complete with circus performers from Pippin, newspaper boys from Newsies, orphans from Annie, and great big, glorious drag queens from Kinky Boots. There are lyrics about Billy Porter’s ass, drag queens, and Broadway being swarmed by child actors, proving once again, that the Tonys are indeed the gay superbowl. Neil Patrick Harris’ opening number last year was “The Tonys—not just for gays anymore!” but frankly who are we kidding? The show is gay, gay, gay.
All of the nominees and celebrity ticket-holders are still in bed on this Sunday morning in New York, while stand-ins hold their assigned seats so cameras can practice pick-ups. Stand-in actors also play presenters, filling in for the likes of Tom Hanks and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
“And the winner is—FOR THIS REHEARSAL ONLY…”
The stand-ins announce random names, and give phony speeches, thanking their mothers, agents, and lovers, some pausing to make a case to the audience for going to Broadway shows early and often. One handsome actor, standing in for a phony Kinky Boots winner (although I sit here hoping Kinky Boots will take it tonight) said “I’d like to have one of those cute Newsie boys to take home.”
We all laugh. By all, I mean me and Bonnie and the hundred or so gay men sprinkled throughout the orchestra. There are a smattering of straight couples, obviously in the business, and a few hapless much-older straight men on the arms of well-dressed women who have had lots of “work done.” But seriously, the crowd is overwhelmingly, fantastically gay.
After suffering though a big number from the musical Matilda, which by the way, I hated, although the critics raved, I get to see Jane Lynch gleefully belt out a number from Annie. The big musical number from Pippin shows that the 70s musical has been re-imagined with acrobats, magic acts, and jugglers. Pippin du Soleil.
Jessie Tyler Ferguson shows up to rehearse his lines, asking for the correct pronunciation of one of the nominee’s names. “Glad I came to rehearse,” he says.
Actually, as the hour gets later, more celebrities show up to try out their presenter speeches, including some casually dressed pros—Sally Field, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Matthew Morrison, and more. Even the dog from Annie makes an appearance, providing our emcee with a face full of dog slobber.
The show proceeds in real time, with breaks for commercials where techies scramble to get the scenery ready for the big musical numbers. One or two set pieces slide on stage, but the backgrounds are projections. Clever!
“Back in five seconds, can we have some applause please?” We obey.
The boom camera sweeps the gigantic theatre like a graceful giraffe, the base of its neck sporting weights to keep it grounded. Uh-Oh, there’s a glitch! The curtain isn’t in place.
“Did you wake up this morning and wonder why we have a dress rehearsal? This is why,” quips Neil Patrick Harris. A hundred stagehands come running and fussing and rigging.
Then comes the most moving part of the rehearsal. The words "In Memoriam" appear on an upstage screen and Cyndi Lauper and her band file on to do a sweet rendition of “True Colors” with photos and names appearing behind them.
Cyndi’s up for a Tony for best music and lyrics for Kinky Boots. I imagine she’s nervous. But her performance is poignant and perfect.
Two last “winners” for this rehearsal only come up on stage, mumble their faux appreciation and the sparkling emcee says, “That’s it folks!!! Goodnight.”
What? No closing number???? Guess not. And out we go.
By 6:30 pm, after a late lunch at Carnegie Deli, a walk through the Village, and checking in at the Chelsea Pines Inn, we go to the owner’s suite at the hotel, where we’ve been invited to watch the Tonys. The hotel owner, if you have not heard this story, is my former high school prom date, now the proprietor of the number 2 B&B in NYC, according to Trip Advisor. The hotel is gorgeous, his apartment there, magnificent.
From the ceiling comes a huge movie screen projecting the CBS annual Tony Awards presentation. There’s the opening number, compete with close-ups, brought to life by those big boom cameras.
Nathan Lane, David Hyde Pierce, and Harvey Fierstein sit where their doubles had been; Cuba Gooding, Jr, stumbles over the names of the nominees because he slept in this morning; smooth, professional readings rise from Patti LuPone and Sally Field; Tom Hanks smiles from his seat, held that morning by an exuberant older woman; everything goes like clockwork.
Jokes which fell flat this morning are gone; a couple of awkward presenter’s comments are MIA, and damn, if that dog from Annie didn’t slobber on cue again for the real show.
And this time the awards are not for this rehearsal only. Kinky Boots dominates with six Awards, including Cyndi Lauper for her words and music; Matilda doesn’t win for Best Musical (Yay!) and Kinky Boots does. Cecily Tyson is crowned Best Actress; the cast of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe does well, and Pippin shines in the revival category.
But wait! There IS a closing number. Neil Patrick Harris manages to sing enormously clever lyrics about all the winners! They must have written the number featuring every single possibility, frantically crossing out non-winners from the wings. That really IS show business! It was a tongue-twisting triumph of a closing number, adding to the glorious production. I loved every single minute.
I think I’ll wait less than 40 years to go back.
Fay Jacobs is the author of As I Lay Frying—a Rehoboth Beach Memoir; Fried & True—Tales from Rehoboth Beach; and For Frying Out Loud—Rehoboth Beach Diaries. Contact Fay Jacobs