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Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

The Producers copped a record number of Tony Awards in a ceremony that was at once exciting and anticlimactic.

By New York City
Madeleine Doherty and Nathan Lanein The Producers(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Madeleine Doherty and Nathan Lane
in The Producers
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Whatever the 55th Tony Awards ceremony was, it was not full of surprises. Not obvious surprises, anyway. No one in the New York theater world appeared to be scratching his or her head over the record-breaking 12 Tony citations that The Producers racked up during the tidy, three-hour ceremony that unfolded at Radio City Music Hall and was televised on PBS and CBS, in, respectively, one- and two-hour segments. Myriad observers and participants even claimed to be bored by the mounting number of trips Producers personnel were making to the Music Hall stage.

The consensus guess is that, at parties all around New York City and the rest of the watching world, viewers were also getting very ho-hum about the continuing Producers phenomenon. To name just one site: The Theatermania.com party downstairs at the Edison Hotel on West 46th Street, hosted by entertainer Steven Brinberg, was increasingly interrupted by attendees bursting into applause as the names of underdog nominees were read out.

To little avail, of course. Anyone up against anything associated with the already-legendary Mel Brooks-Thomas Meehan-Susan Stroman blockbuster had to paste on an insouciant grin and bear it. Even in categories where members of the creative team might not have unquestionably turned out the absolute highest quality work, the outcome was foregone. Which meant that not only did Stroman, known widely as "Stro," hit the podium twice and Brooks so often as to risk causing a general feeling of déjà vu, but the likes of supporting actress Cady Huffman, set designer Robin Wagner, orchestrator Doug Besterman, and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski lunged footlights-ward to accept awards in areas where their counterparts in other shows may arguably have done better jobs.

Yet the widespread blasé attitude among viewers could be said to have been counterbalanced by the history-making nature of the occasion. To be sure, nobody foolish or willful enough to bet against The Producers made a cent, and that did impart a strong sense of predictability to the show. But the fact that the record set by Hello, Dolly! 36 years ago was being superseded by two Tony wins did provide a certain exhilaration. The unasked question so far is: Will it be another 36 years before another juggernaut like this comes along?

Robert Sean Leonard and Richard Eastonat the 2001 Tony Nominees' Brunch(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Robert Sean Leonard and Richard Easton
at the 2001 Tony Nominees' Brunch
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
If there were no big surprises in the evening, there were a satisfying number of small ones--though it goes without saying that virtually none of them had to do with the winners. Proof's Mary-Louise Parker, having collected just about every previous theater award given out for this season, clearly had a lock on the best actress category--as, only slightly less so, did Richard Easton for his Invention of Love portrayal of the 77-year-old and just-deceased A.E. Housman and Viola Davis for her corruscating anti-pregnancy harangue in King Hedley II. Robert Sean Leonard as the younger Housman in Invention besting Charles Brown as the amusingly slippery scam artist in Hedley was somewhat more unexpected.

It was a surprise and a delight when, upon getting the nod for best performance by an actor in a musical, Nathan Lane grabbed his co-star and Tony opponent Matthew Broderick by the forearm and dragged him onstage. That the two are so publicly devoted to each other isn't news, but this display from a fellow who also thought to thank Zero Mostel (as he did when he copped the Drama Desk award) was heartwarming. Equally surprising and equally delightful were the laugh lines uttered by hosts Lane and Broderick throughout the evening. According to the credits rolled at the end of the telecast, the Tony show was co-written by its producer, Gary Smith, and Thomas Meehan. The latter, as Brooks' collaborator on the Producers libretto, obviously knows how to put hilarious jokes in the mouths of Lane and Broderick.

Brooks himself surprised the audience with his quips--and didn't he have plenty of opportunities to deliver them? He might have gotten his biggest laugh when he referred to the multitude of producers associated with his show as "a phalanx, an avalanche of Jews." Or maybe it was when he thanked Stephen Sondheim for not writing a Broadway score this year. Less obvious surprises Brooks uncorked were his thanking Alfa-Betty Olsen and Michael Hertzberg for their contributions to the film of The Producers, upon which the musical is based. Olsen, known for her partnership with Marshall Efron, worked with Brooks throughout the writing of the script and got screen credit for her casting work on the adored flick; Hertzberg was its first assistant director.

Among other surprises were production ideas that could be attributable to Smith or, possibly, to veteran producer Elizabeth Ireland McCann, who was on board to take care of many substantive, supervisory chores. The decision to have nominated playwrights David Auburn (who won for Proof), Tom Stoppard, August Wilson, and Charles Busch introduce excerpts from their works was especially pleasing. There was also something charming about having children from several Broadway shows onstage. These sorts of touches added up to a program with an unusually high warmth rating. Alas, the show's Nielsen rating of 7.3 represented only the tiniest improvement over last year's 7.2, the difference so small that both are considered equivalent to an 11 share.

Steven Brinberg (r) with Damian Conteat TheaterMania's Tony party(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Steven Brinberg (r) with Damian Conte
at TheaterMania's Tony party
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Not all the surprises were positive. Maybe it wasn't unusual, but it seemed that perhaps too many of the major awards were presented during the PBS slot; by the end of that 60 minutes, The Producers had already won nine of its prizes, and "Stro" had collected both of hers. This meant that viewers turning in only for the CBS portion missed out on a good deal of the momentum. And it seems wrong somehow that Stroman, who's turning into Broadway's most significant director-choreographer, didn't get commercial network exposure.

Another letdown was the musical sequence from A Class Act. It had been reported that the show's producers had poured $1 million into their property so it could remain open through Tony night, hoping for a shot in the business arm thanks to the TV time. Rather than have Randy Graff sing Ed Kleban's "The Next Best Thing to Love," which would undeniably have made for a class act, the powers that be stitched parts of several numbers together in what came across as a confusing mélange. It won't surprise wags if, as a result, the show closes soon. Nor will it catch many off guard if Jane Eyre, for which Marla Schaffel and James Barbour caterwauled to little avail, also shutters shortly.

Fashion-followers may have been surprised at the overwhelming trend in the women's gowns for the evening; the dress du jour was cut down to there or otherwise arranged to show as much bosom as possible. Cady Huffman and best actress in a musical winner Christine Ebersole wore their "now you almost see 'em, now-you don't" items with the most noticeable aplomb, but it was ubiquitous.

Below, for the record, is a complete list of this year's nominees. The winners in each category are in bold-faced type.

********************

2001 TONY AWARD WINNERS AND NOMINEES

Best Play:
The Invention of Love
King Hedley II
Proof
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

Best Musical:
A Class Act
The Full Monty
Jane Eyre
The Producers

Best Book of a Musical:
A Class Act, Linda Kline and Lonny Price
The Full Monty, Terrence McNally
Jane Eyre, John Caird
The Producers, Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan

Best Original Score:
A Class Act, music and lyrics by Edward Kleban
The Full Monty, music and lyrics by David Yazbek
Jane Eyre, music by Paul Gordon, lyrics by Paul Gordon and John Caird
The Producers, music and lyrics by Mel Brooks

Best Revival of a Play:
Betrayal
Gore Vidal's The Best Man
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Best Revival of a Musical:
Bells Are Ringing
Follies
42nd Street
The Rocky Horror Show

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play:
Seán Campion, Stones in His Pockets
Richard Easton, The Invention of Love
Conleth Hill, Stones in His Pockets
Brian Stokes Mitchell, King Hedley II
Gary Sinise, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play:
Juliette Binoche, Betrayal
Linda Lavin, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife
Mary-Louise Parker, Proof
Jean Smart, The Man Who Came to Dinner
Leslie Uggams, King Hedley II

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical:
Matthew Broderick, The Producers
Kevin Chamberlin, Seussical
Tom Hewitt, The Rocky Horror Show
Nathan Lane, The Producers
Patrick Wilson, The Full Monty

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical:
Blythe Danner, Follies
Christine Ebersole, 42nd Street
Randy Graff, A Class Act
Faith Prince, Bells Are Ringing
Marla Schaffel, Jane Eyre

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play:
Charles Brown, King Hedley II
Larry Bryggman, Proof
Michael Hayden, Judgment at Nuremberg
Robert Sean Leonard, The Invention of Love
Ben Shenkman, Proof

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play:
Viola Davis, King Hedley II
Johanna Day, Proof
Penny Fuller, The Dinner Party
Marthe Keller, Judgment at Nuremberg
Michele Lee, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical:
Roger Bart, The Producers
Gary Beach, The Producers
John Ellison Conlee, The Full Monty
André De Shields, The Full Monty
Brad Oscar, The Producers

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical:
Polly Bergen, Follies
Kathleen Freeman, The Full Monty
Cady Huffman, The Producers
Kate Levering, 42nd Street
Mary Testa, 42nd Street

Best Direction of a Play
Marion McClinton, King Hedley II
Ian McElhinney, Stones in His Pockets
Jack O'Brien, The Invention of Love
Daniel Sullivan, Proof

Best Direction of a Musical
Christopher Ashley, The Rocky Horror Show
Mark Bramble, 42nd Street
Jack O'Brien, The Full Monty
Susan Stroman, The Producers

Best Choreography:
Jerry Mitchell, The Full Monty
Jim Morgan, George Pinney, and John Vanderkloff, Blast!
Randy Skinner, 42nd Street
Susan Stroman, The Producers

Best Scenic Design:
Bob Crowley, The Invention of Love
Heidi Ettinger, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Douglas W. Schmidt, 42nd Street
Robin Wagner, The Producers

Best Costume Design:
Theoni V. Aldredge, Follies
Roger Kirk, 42nd Street
William Ivey Long, The Producers
David C. Woolard, The Rocky Horror Show

Best Lighting Design:
Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Jane Eyre
Paul Gallo, 42nd Street
Peter Kaczorowski, The Producers
Kenneth Posner, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Best Orchestrations:
Doug Besterman, The Producers
Larry Hochman, A Class Act
Jonathan Tunick, Follies
Harold Wheeler, The Full Monty


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