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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 31, 2000. All rights

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E-mail: SimonSaltzman@princetoninfo.com

Tantrum Time at the Tonys

There I was a few nights ago on the corner of New

York’s Eighth Avenue and 45th Street, around about 11 p.m., ranting

and raving like a bloody lunatic. Was this normal behavior for a

critic

who has just come from the Martin Beck Theater where I had enjoyed

a second look at the marvelous revival of "Kiss Me Kate"?

After that show, which has deservedly garnered 13 Tony nominations,

the most for any show, new or revived, I ran into a couple of friends

in the theater community and proceeded to vent my litany of

Tony-fueled

frustrations beginning with why "Kiss Me Kate’s" Amy Spanger,

who plays Lois Lane (and stops the show nightly in her own fashion

with "Always True to You In My Fashion"), was not nominated

for best performance by a featured actress in a musical.

Frankly I don’t understand how Laura Benanti and Ann Hampton Callaway

(I love them dearly), who both sing a few songs well enough in the

revue "Swing," earned nominations in that category. At least

Karen Ziemba’s astonishing dramatically danced performance in

"Contact,"

and Eartha Kitt’s downright scary star turn in "The Wild

Party,"

have substance. Why was it so difficult to find qualifying performers

for that category? I could name a dozen. Although she makes a strong

impression, "Contact’s" Deborah Yates, whose slinky swing

dancing keeps "best featured actor in a musical" nominee Boyd

Gaines from committing suicide, her dancing is not comparable to

Spanger’s

dynamic acting, singing, and dancing in "Kiss Me Kate;" not

even, for that matter, to the campy spin that Sherie Rene Scott gives

the role of Amneris in "Aida."

The mission of the Tonys? To recognize excellence on Broadway. The

reality of the Tonys? That we never lose sight of the fact that you

cannot sell tickets to Broadway shows — good, bad, and indifferent

— that have closed. Not to tourists, nor to the throngs who Rosie

O’Donnell will inspire to get close to theater when she returns to

the Tony telecast on Sunday, June 4, on PBS and CBS.

That led to my next tirade on the Best Musical category, the most

questioned category since the Tony nominating committee insisted that

the danced drama "Contact" be considered a musical. Granted,

Matthew Bourne’s "Swan Lake" got this nomination last year;

yet that ballet without words has a fully integrated score written

expressly for it (some while back, by Tchaikovsky), played in

performance

by live musicians. This year, formal protests have been lodged by

the Broadway musicians’ union regarding the nomination of

"Contact,"

which has no original, or even live, music on its bill.

Although I fought long and hard to defend my view of what constitutes

a musical, both on the street and in private sessions as a member

of the executive committee for Outer Critics Circle, and as a member

of the New York Drama Desk, it seems the organizations with less clout

have to cow-tow to the Tony committee’s arbitrary and misguided

ruling.

Does this not sound like a revival of "The Emperor’s New

Clothes?"

Have they not opened a can of worms, by setting a precedent that will

allow any new play, if it contains dance, and uses recorded mood or

background music, to be considered a musical?

And what in heaven’s name is Julie Taymor’s humorous and glorious

new creation, "The Green Bird," if it isn’t a musical? It

has wonderful original music by Elliot Goldenthal, witty lyrics by

David Suehsdorf, and inventive "musical staging" by

choreographer

Daniel Ezralow. Although it didn’t make the cut, the Tony committee

designated "The Green Bird" a play.

Before we leave the Best Musical corner, allow me to

continue my complaints with the inclusion of "The Wild Party,"

a show that is distressingly dour, dank, and depressing, as well as

shallow and pointless. But while "The Wild Party" is

struggling

to stay alive, another show "Kat and the Kings," a charming

original musical from South Africa that opened early in the season

and has since closed, has been too hastily forgotten. And would

someone

please explain to me how the stunning breakthrough musical based on

"Medea" that is "Marie Christine" could be nominated

for its score and book (Michael John LaChiusa), and not be nominated

for Best Musical? Interestingly, LaChiusa also wrote the music,

lyrics,

and book (with George C. Wolfe) for the fair inferior nominee "The

Wild Party."

While the American Theater Wing and the League of American Theaters

and Producers continue to ignore the contribution that Off-Broadway

makes, we are consoled that an important new play does occasionally

transfer to Broadway. Such is the case with "Dirty Blonde,"

Claudia Shear’s sassy, and sexy play that follows the career of Mae

West as it also follows the unlikely romance of two people who idolize

her.

"Dirty Blonde’s" toughest rival is "Copenhagen," an

intellectually compelling British snob hit. But isn’t it strange that

in order to fill up the Best Play category, we are forced to consider,

however worthy, two plays that have been around time and time again:

Sam Shepard’s 20-year-old "True West" and Arthur Miller’s

"The Ride Down Mount Morgan." While "True West" has

had two Off-Broadway productions, "Mount Morgan" was seen

in London in 1991, and produced last season at the Off-Broadway Public

Theater. Yet neither is considered revivals.

Miller can take unprecedented credit in having one play nominated

for Best Play and another, "The Price," nominated for Best

Revival of a Play. I hope that someday soon Shakespeare’s

"Pericles"

will finally make its Broadway debut and get nominated for "Best

New Play."

Let’s grouse next about the injustice done to actors. Philip Seymour

Hoffman and John C. Reilly have been alternating roles since "True

West" opened. The producers pleaded to have both actors be

considered

together. No dice, says the Tony committee, which has both actors

competing against each other, most likely canceling each other out.

I don’t really care that Patrick Stewart didn’t win a nod for his

abrasive and annoyingly congratulatory performance in "Mount

Morgan,"

but what I can’t understand is how Derek Jacoby could be snubbed for

his brilliantly untypical "Uncle Vanya," or how Philip Bosco

and Michael Cumpsty could be overlooked for their mesmerizing

performances

in "Copenhagen."

I could never find it in my heart to deny an award to Rosemary Harris

(a nominee for Best Actress), an incomparable actress, but whose

radiant

presence in the otherwise insignificant Noel Coward comedy,

"Waiting

in the Wings," can hardly be called more laudable than Olympia

Dukakis’ (not nominated) solo performance in "Rose." Where

is the willingness of the theater awards community to change and grow

and bring the performing arts and its expanding genres into the new

millennium, I find myself shouting.

Yet even as I went on and on lauding and complaining, I noticed my

audience seemed to be dwindling. Fearful of listening to the sound

of my own voice, as I stood finally alone on the corner of 45th Street

and Eighth Avenue, I retreated to my car and took the tunnel home.

— Simon Saltzman


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