The 53rd Tony Awards, broadcast last night from New York, looked as if a showdown was brewing between two American classics, both nominated for best revival of a play: Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." The minute you spotted Miller in the audience, though, you suspected what the outcome was going to be, and when he was presented by Brian Dennehy, who plays Willy Loman in the revival, with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Theater, you knew. How were they going to give best revival to anything else?
It turns out there was no way they could give best actor (Dennehy), best featured actress (Elizabeth Franz) or best director (Robert Falls) to anything else either. It was an Arthur Miller lovefest. "The Iceman Cometh" and Kevin Spacey's coldly brilliant performance in it were both forgotten.
When the 83-year-old Miller walked on to receive his award, the band played "Younger Than Springtime." Thankfully, he didn't seem to notice. He received a long, enthusiastic ovation and many cheers. A taped message from Dustin Hoffman (who starred in the 1984 revival of "Salesman") was played. Hoffman called Miller "an actor's best friend. You've given us our arias, our place to dance."
Judi Dench continued to have a great year by being awarded best actress in a play for her performance in David Hare's "Amy's View." Looking smashing in white satin, Dench gave a short, elegant acceptance speech. Praising the work of her fellow nominees, she looked at her award and said, "It doesn't seem fair, but I'm glad to have it."
When Christian Slater and Scott Wolf appeared as presenters, Wolf put in a plug for "Side Man," in which he replaced Slater: "a rarity on Broadway--a new American play by a living American playwright," Warren Leight. A pungent observation, given that "Side Man"--the story of a jazz musician and his family during the period when jazz was pushed to the side of American music by rock-and-roll--was in fact the only American play by a living American playwright that was nominated in the category. Everyone else was English, Irish or dead. This may or may not have had anything to do with the award for best play indeed going to "Side Man." In the same production, Frank Wood won for best featured actor.
Best musical went to the dance show "Fosse," beating out "Parade," "It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues" and "The Civil War." An account of the Leo Frank lynching in Georgia, "Parade" won best score and best book, yet somehow, mysteriously, was not the best musical. Just the musical with the best songs and script.
Best leading actor in a musical went to Martin Short for "Little Me" and best leading actress to Bernadette Peters in "Annie Get Your Gun," which also won the award for best musical revival. Best featured actor in a musical went to Roger Bart in the revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," and best featured actress to Kristin Chenoweth in the same production.
Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," previously known as a ballet, metamorphosed into a musical just for this occasion and took away best director and best choreographer awards for Matthew Bourne, who conceived the all-male production.
As television, the show was professional, on time and dull, dull, dull. There were no notable gaffes. There were no hideous gowns. The gowns, in fact, were unusually tasteful things, mostly in black, though Sarah Jessica Parker managed to look luscious in clinging white, and Elaine Stritch stylish in gray trousers and a sweeping, duster-style coat.
The best parts, as always, were the live numbers from the nominated shows. Short and Peters did numbers from their respective musicals. She sang "I've Got the Sun in the Morning" solo and "Old-Fashioned Wedding" with her co-star Tom Wopat, and was adorable. Short did a French-accented number from "Little Me" that seemed obvious and unfunny. However he did provide the only amusing acceptance speech of the evening, eschewing a list of thank-yous at first because, he said, "the reality is, I did it all myself."
Chenoweth did a number from "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." The dance segment from "Fosse" was breathtaking in that angular, urgent Bob Fosse style, a form of stop-motion animation that uses live people instead of clay puppets. From "Parade," 1 Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello performed a wrenching rendition of "This Is Not Over Yet," Frank's hopeful jailhouse song when he mistakenly believes he may escape hanging.
The live-theater presentation was less successful. The nominated actors lined up at lecture stands for what was referred to as "a mosaic of emotions" but sounded more like a compilation of sentences, culled from the various nominated plays and put together to make some vague and not very interesting form of sense. Spacey and Dennehy were at either end of the curved line of speakers, almost facing each other, and in their readings you actually got a bit of the two performances--Dennehy's bonhomie, Spacey's ruthless chill.
In the midst of all the warm fuzziness, Miller remained clear-eyed: "Just being around to receive it is a great pleasure," he noted dryly when receiving his reward. He used the bulk of his brief acceptance speech to point out that if "big plays" like "Salesman," "Iceman" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" were to "arrive in a contemporary producer's mailbox, they would be unlikely to show up on a Broadway stage." He attributed this, accurately enough, to modern production costs, but didn't suggest any way that producers could deal with the problem. Theater is a labor-intensive art, and production costs on Broadway aren't going to get any cheaper.
The 1999 Tony Award winners:
PLAY: "Side Man."
REVIVAL OF A PLAY: "Death of a Salesman."
REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL: "Annie Get Your Gun."
BOOK OF A MUSICAL: Alfred Uhry, "Parade."
ORIGINAL SCORE: Jason Robert Brown, "Parade."
ACTOR IN A PLAY: Brian Dennehy, "Death of a Salesman."
ACTRESS IN A PLAY: Judi Dench, "Amy's View."
FEATURED ACTOR IN A PLAY: Frank Wood, "Side Man."
FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY: Elizabeth Franz, "Death of a Salesman."
ACTOR IN A MUSICAL: Martin Short, "Little Me."
ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL: Bernadette Peters, "Annie Get Your Gun."
FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL: Roger Bart, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL: Kristin Chenoweth, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
DIRECTOR OF A PLAY: Robert Falls, "Death of a Salesman."
DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL: Matthew Bourne, "Swan Lake."
SCENIC DESIGN: Richard Hoover, "Not About Nightingales."
COSTUME DESIGN: Lez Brotherston, "Swan Lake."
LIGHTING DESIGN: Andrew Bridge, "Fosse."
CHOREOGRAPHY: Matthew Bourne, "Swan Lake."
ORCHESTRATIONS: Ralph Burns and Douglas Besterman, "Fosse."
SPECIAL AWARDS: Uta Hagen, Arthur Miller, Isabelle Stevenson and the production of "Fool Moon."
REGIONAL THEATER: Crossroads Theater Company, New Brunswick, N.J.