Outsourcing the Tony Awards: Americans yield to foreign competition

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The Olivier Awards had more pizazz than usual this year. Must be that some glitzy musical producers were flown in from New York to give the telecast a big Broadway kick.
Oh, excuse me, that was the Tony Awards I was watching Sunday? But then how do you explain all those foreign accents?

No, I’m not talking about Geoffrey Rush’s silky Australian twang (given a spry comic workout during his acceptance speech for his “Exit the King” performance award) or best special theatrical event winner Liza Minnelli’s dialect from Mars. I’m not even referencing the remark Yasmina Reza made while hoisting the Tony for best play (“Maybe you missed my accent; you wanted to hear it again”).

No, this was another bona fide British invasion, launched in large part by “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” which picked up 10 awards and no doubt future box-office receipts in the gazillions by viewers charmed by the sight of the three dancing Billys, who jointly won for best leading actor in a musical. (Yes, they were adorable, and I’ll probably buy my parents tickets even though I thought the Broadway production was coarser than the London original.)

Yet there’s a glaring statistic: More than half of the Tonys given to plays and productions went to shows of foreign provenance. New York is truly a melting pot, but these days U.S. thespians are in danger of becoming the minority.


The Tony Awards surely aren’t about patriotic gush, as the marvelous Alice Ripley, a winner for her harrowing performance as the bipolar mother in “Next to Normal,” made loud and clear in her acceptance speech. Shouting to overcome nerves (and maybe to remind that home-grown actors have talent too) she relayed a quote from John F. Kennedy about how the future will remember us “not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

Ripley’s delivery was over the top, but the words were a tonic in an evening that impressed less by the depth of artistic vision than by the marketing dazzle of numbers that were as polished as Super Bowl commercials. I’ve seen almost all of the featured shows and had a hard time keeping my charge card in my wallet, so exuberant were the presentations. (The brief taped excerpts from the plays, on the other hand, came across as more or less a dutiful inclusion in an evening devoted to fizz.)

Globalization is a good thing, except for the bum way it siphons off jobs that are scarce enough to come by. Far be it from me to provoke a xenophobic backlash. Two of the memories I will cherish most from this season are the flamboyantly outré turns of Rush as the centuries-old dying monarch in Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King” and the British-born Angela Lansbury as the provincial English medium in Noel Coward’s blissful “Blithe Spirit.”

But Broadway has a problem when its daunting economics make producers reluctant to gamble on work that hasn’t already been test-run in other markets. Quality is fine and dandy if it comes with a West End Seal of Approval, but not even Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning drama “Ruined” or the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman’s musical “Road Show” were able to transfer from off-Broadway — losses that weakened both the best play and best musical categories.

No one’s complaining that the eminently talented British director Matthew Warchus was up against himself for his direction of “God of Carnage” (for which he won) and “The Norman Conquests” (for which most people thought he was going to win). The more Warchus the merrier, as far as I’m concerned. Likewise, I was pleased that fellow British directing nominee Phyllida Lloyd’s revival of “Mary Stuart,” which I caught at London’s Donmar Warehouse a few seasons back, made the trip across the pond with its two stage queens, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, radiantly on board.

But we could badly use some new American blood on Broadway. Yes, it was a risky proposition to move “Reasons to Be Pretty,” even after its well-received off-Broadway run at MCC Theater. But can you believe that was really Neil LaBute’s Broadway debut?

Now imagine if, in addition to all those sublime Brits, Nottage’s “Ruined,” and Gina Gionfriddo’s critically acclaimed off-Broadway drama “Becky Shaw” (a Pulitzer finalist) were added to the mix, with “Road Show” adding ballast to a musical category that could use all the help it can get.

American artists surely have more to contribute than “9 to 5: The Musical” and “Rock of Ages,” shows that got their start here in L.A. But it takes chutzpah to produce material that challenges us in the way “Next to Normal” does — and while that’s not an American word, its meaning is perfectly understood in these parts.

-- Charles McNulty

Photo (top): Angela Lansbury in ‘Blithe Spirit.’ Credit: Robert J. Saferstein / AP

Photo (bottom):Yasmina Reza accepting the best play award for ‘God of Carnage.’ Credit: Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images