ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Critic's Notebook: Tonys celebrate commerce, not art

Musical TheaterTheaterEntertainmentCelebritiesElectionsMatthew Morrison

Awards should be aspirational, validating excellence and originality even though each and every one of us knows that commercialism rules the day. But far be it from the ever-insecure Tonys — the geeky glee club representative of the major entertainment awards — to bite the hand that feeds it.

For the third year in a row the best musical award went not to the work that deserved it but to the one with the greatest box-office potential on the road. "Memphis," the splashy show about the early segregationist days of rock 'n' roll that had a pre-Broadway run at the La Jolla Playhouse, snared the prize from "Fela!," the inventive Afrobeat bio-musical about Nigerian singer-songwriter-activist Fela Kuti, which was thrillingly directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones.

If there were any doubts that Broadway doesn't know on which side its bread is buttered, just look at the acting victories. Hollywood dominated in a way that befits a season that confirmed again and again the equation of solvency and mega celebrity.

In his acceptance speech, Denzel Washington — struggling to summon the name of that mysterious body that gave him the nod over his acting betters Liev Schreiber ("A View From the Bridge") and Alfred Molina ("Red") — seemed pleased about winning, but not so much so that he could reprise the coherency of one of his Oscar thank-yous. Yet Washington's performance in the Tony-winning revival of "Fences" was, like Broadway newcomer Scarlett Johannson's in "A View From the Bridge" (a featured actress Tony winner), at least a genuinely commendable effort.

I'm afraid I can't say the same for winner Catherine Zeta-Jones' star turn in "A Little Night Music," as her clumsily emphatic rendition of "Send in the Clowns" revealed on the telecast. Too bad Tony voters (those wooers of superstars who can't be expected to know what they're called) didn't get to see Hannah Waddingham's portrayal at the Menier Chocolate Factory's production in London, where Trevor Nunn's revival of this Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler classic originated. If they had, they might have been persuaded to give the award to Montego Glover, the silver lining in that plastic cloud called "Memphis."

I complained when the sweet but conventional "In the Heights" beat out the astringently fresh "Passing Strange" in 2008 and when the Lee Hall- Elton John juggernaut "Billy Elliot" upstaged the far more dramatically daring "Next to Normal" in 2009. This year, let me reverse course and congratulate Tony voters for their dogged consistency. In a world that has become violently unpredictable, "Broadway's biggest night" never fails to live up to its staid reputation — so what if it poisons the creative well for the next decade.

Now it might seem commendable that the best musical Tony went to the winner for both best book and best original score (a category in which, depressingly, only two musicals were eligible this season, neither of them any good). But if these building blocks are so dear to the hearts of Tony traditionalists, you'd think the pooh-bahs among them would find a way to include these categories on the CBS telecast instead of relegating them to the "creative arts award" ghetto seen only on the Web.

Fat chance for a show that's so desperate to prevent viewers from clicking away that it fires a blitzkrieg of name-brand talent in the first 20 minutes, parachuting Green Day into a lineup of musical acts that went by like some kind of "Saturday Night Live" parody. "Glee" ratings magnets Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison were held back, presumably as a way of keeping the younger set from diving irretrievably down the social media rabbit hole, though I can't image Michele's overwrought "Funny Girl" number has Barbra Streisand crying into her scrapbook.

What demographic target Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and tightly preserved pin-up Raquel Welch were supposed to lure remains a mystery, but it looks like the publicity machine of Broadway doesn't yet know its indiscriminate strength.

The best thing about the telecast, beyond the heartfelt speeches by acting winners Viola Davis ("Fences"), Katie Finneran ("Promises, Promises") and Douglas Hodge ("La Cage aux Folles"), was the comic assurance of host Sean Hayes. He may not have won for his performance in "Promises, Promises," but he sure made the hilarious most of the Newsweek article that complained that his gay sexuality undermined his effectiveness as Kristin Chenoweth's love interest. (The long and sloppy tongue kiss the two engaged in was just one of many such send-ups.)

Were there writing awards? Oh, I almost forgot: "Red," the John Logan two-hander about Mark Rothko and his young apprentice, which was mostly notable for Tony winner Michael Grandage's sensationally acted production with Molina and featured actor winner Eddie Redmayne.

But it wouldn't surprise me if next year, best play is exiled with the design awards. Just think of how much more time there would be to extend to presenter Paula Abdul if they could cut the cumbersome descriptions of the contending — what do you call 'em — dramas.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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