When the phone rang just after 7pm Sunday night, I joked with my daughter Lizabeth that people should know better than to call us during church. Neil Patrick Harris, last night’s reverend for the 2011 Tony Awards ceremony, had just delivered his sermon — known to the uninitiated as an “opening number.” Something about “it’s not just for gays anymore.” I suspect half of the pews emptied at that point, but no matter. The truly faithful just grabbed their remote controls and cranked up the volume.
I owe the theater as church analogy to an arts advocate I interviewed last week. After sharing her passion for theater, symphony and ballet, the woman very matter of factly said something I’ll never forget — “Church does that for some people.” More than one church was represented during this year’s Tony Awards. The opening number mingled missionaries from “The Book of Mormon” and nuns from “Sister Act.”
The church of Broadway is a place of gratitude — and this year’s remarks, by both presenters and those accepting awards, were mindful of those who make a life in theater possible. Parents. Partners. Teachers. Mentors. While accepting the Tony Award for best actor in a featured role (play), John Benjamin Hickey of “The Normal Heart” warned his family in Plano, Texas that they better not be watching the Mavericks game. Futile advice, because everyone knows that football is a religion in Texas.
I’ll be watching the headlines Monday to see whether Kathleen Marshall, winner of the Tony Award for best choreography, stuck with her vow to run right home and change the names of her baby twins to “Antoinette” and “Perry.” If you don’t get the reference, by the way, your church attendance is lagging. More time in the performing arts pew is clearly called for.
The Tony Award for best direction of a musical went to Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw for “The Book of Mormon.” While millions of Mormons may be offended by the work, Nicholaw’s acceptance speech — “I’d like to thank everyone I’ve ever met in my entire life” — offended none. Parker thanked his mom, dad and “South Park” fans — plus a few others I missed while caught up in one of many “The Book of Mormon” moments.
Remarks offered during the acceptance speech for best musical were more controversial, but ticket sales aren’t suffering. Last week you could buy tickets for shows in August, but one day after snagging nine Tony Awards, “The Book of Mormon” is sold out well into September.
When Nikki M. James accepted the award for best actress in a featured role (musical), also for “The Book of Mormon,” she thanked her mother — who was in the house to witness James’ recollection of growing up with the story of a bumblebee who flew because no one ever told the bee it was impossible. “I come from a long line of bumblebees,” shared the actress. Thankfully, she had the good sense to avoid wearing a black and yellow gown.
John Larroquette, who won a Tony Award for best actor in a featured role (musical), thanked his three children, his wife and the show’s dance captain — acknowledging the talents of fellow “How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying” actor Daniel Radcliffe as well with something along the lines of “without whom I would be sitting at home watching this in my underwear.”
Sometimes fellow faithful, even in the church of Broadway, need to call each other out. The last thing Kelsey Grammer needed was a spotlight as he uttered the words “Anything Goes.”
Still, the church of Broadway can change the way we see people. After watching Radcliffe perform with the cast during “Brotherhood of Man” we might finally see an end to folks who head to Broadway hoping to see that fellow from the “Harry Potter” films. Instead, they’ll wonder how someone so born to song and dance could have spent half a lifetime waving a magic wand. I’m a “Harry” fan, but there’s just no way to reconcile a cloak of invisibility with a loud plaid jacket.
Transformation on all sorts of levels appears to have taken place for U2’s Bono and The Edge, who wrote the songs for “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” scheduled to open on Broadway next Tuesday. “The last year,” they shared, “has been a real education in just how hard you people work.” A love song from the musical, which will be eligible for 2012 Tony Awards consideration, was performed at this year’s ceremony with beautiful simplicity against the backdrop of a delicate spider web and starlit sky.
Sometimes theater, like temple or church, changes the way we look at life. The first award shown during the Tony Awards broadcast went to Ellen Barkin of “The Normal Heart” for best actress in a featured role (play) — who says the show has taught her that “one person can change the world.” Members of the creative team spoke of the freedom to live, love and marry — and reminded the audience that “theater really matters.” They also praised Larry Kramer for the show they describe as “the ultimate love story.”
“The Normal Heart,” shared Kramer, “is our history.” He urges gay people to “learn from it and carry on the fight.” “We are a very special people, an extraordinary people,” he says. “Our day will come.” I know there are plenty of churches out there that frown on such dogma, but I’m proud to belong to the church of Broadway.
No matter the church, no one wants to listen to the same sermon time and time again. So Tony Awards watchers must have been thrilled by teasers of other shows making their way to Broadway stage. “Ghost,” a musical based on the 1990 film starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. “The Mountaintop,” a play featuring Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Martin Luther King, Jr. And “Master Class,” another play — featuring Tyne Daly.
For all the splendor of this year’s Tony Awards ceremony (and yes, Mr. Colbert, I do mean watching you mix it up in that fetching red turtleneck), there were moments of sadness as the names and faces of theater folk who’ve died during the past year were shown — including 11-year-old actor Shannon Tavarez (pictured here), who performed the role of “Young Nala” in “The Lion King” on Broadway before being diagnosed with leukemia. Tavarez inspired thousands of people to join the bone marrow registry. One day, perhaps, her Broadway legacy will include saving someone else’s life.
Note: I mean no offense to those for whom time spent in traditional churches and other places with religious significance is a very serious and sacred matter.
Coming up: Two-spirit people, Ode to blue, Signs your child is a theater geek
Update: Click here to enjoy Sutton Foster singing for Sesame Street’s “Elmo” — and to enjoy similar YouTube offerings, including “Grover” appearing in “SpiderMonster, The Musical.”