Win or Lose
Hugh Jackman's Tony Jumping Fail, Plus the Winners and Standout Moments of Broadway's Biggest Night
The Tonys were a riot of musical numbers and emotional speeches. But the mystery of the night—the debate today—will be about Hugh Jackman. Why did the show's proudly all-singing, all-dancing host misstep right from the moment of his bizarre jumping opening number?
The jumping. The jumping. Oh my, the jumping. Or bouncing. Or whatever it was. What was he doing? Maybe you liked it. Hugh Jackman’s opening number for the Tonys began outside New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and took us into the innards of the building, past Tony nominees like Rocky The Musical and Jessie Mueller, who won Best Actress in a Musical, and who if you don’t love you should love, and will love, because the only thing to do when it comes to Jessie Mueller is love, and it’s OK to be embarrassing about that. Because it’s Jessie Mueller. Just…love her. Easy. Life will be better. You’ll see.
Awards-wise, the evening stood out as that of Mueller and Carole King, who she plays on stage in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and who joined her on stage to sing. Audra McDonald, best actress in a play as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, won her sixth Tony, but more significantly, the win made her a Grand Slam winner—she has won in all four categories as best actress in a play and musical, and best featured actress in a play and musical. Her speech spoke volumes of the most valuable kind.
All The Way, the play about Lyndon Johnson’s canny stewardship of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, won Best Play, and Best Actor for Bryan Cranston, the Breaking Bad star. The acclaimed farce, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, won Best Musical.
But before all this, and the wonderful moment of Mueller’s victory as Best Actress in a Musical, there was the Jackman hosting problem to surmount, or just live with. The bouncing or jumping has an explanation. Apparently the Jackman Jump—it came back in the finale—was down to Warren Carlyle, director of Jackman’s 2011 Broadway show, seeing a clip from the 1953 film Small Town Girl on YouTube.
But what looked fun and stylized in a 1953 film looked bizarre on primetime TV in 2014. After Neil Patrick Harris’s victory years as Tony host, Jackman seemed not just a safe pair of hands, but a guaranteed pleasure-bet. This year, Harris, dramatically slimmed down to look as skinny-belinky as his role in Hedwig and The Angry Inch demands, was a nominee for a best actor in a musical. But Jackman didn’t click. Or it seemed too forced. Too many jazz-hands. Too fulsome. Too intense. Too many sweeping arms to introduce performers. Too much, “I’m in charge."
He sang introductions to awards, segues. He did it with a big band, as if he was in his own golden era of old Broadway. This should have been charming. But it was so tiresome that even the biggest Broadway baby was fantasizing about the possibility of a CSI repeat to end our pain. “I love the Tonys an’ I'm the host of your show,” he warbled at the close of the first number. It was akin to a jailer wielding a set of keys before locking you in your cell.
Jackman, given all the rumors around his own sexuality, elected to play the most gay-adjacent straight man on TV. Again, this should have been charming, but wasn’t. He joked about being Wolverine in tap shoes, he said people who were against gay marriage would be better served minding their own business (true, and many thanks), and then he said he was right behind Angela Lansbury and Neil Patrick Harris in the number of times they had all hosted the Tonys, but sexed up the point, by adding of being behind the other two, that it “would be illegal in 13 states.” He jested about nipple glitter chafing.
Every joke pretty much whizzed past its target, but the audience laughed dutifully. If Hugh Jackman is totally heterosexual, his mode is a confusing—and not in a good, rad way—butch-camp. Rosie O'Donnell, who awarded the final Tony to A Gentleman’s Guide…, said the Tonys had been discussed in “hair salons across America”: Hugh, that’s the way to do a “gay” joke. Lightly, but square-knowingly on the nose.
The winners of the evening, almost as-one, were elegantly well-spoken in victory or straight out emotional barmy-crackers, like the wonderful Lena Hall, best featured actress in a musical for Hedwig and The Angry Inch. She was a sparkling riot of emotion and shock. Mark Rylance for featured actor in Twelfth Night, paid tribute to the actor Sam Wanamaker for being a driving force in building London’s open-air Globe Theater on the banks of the Thames.
There were also passionate speeches from Darko Tresnjak, artistic director of Hertford Stage, who won for directing the musical A Gentleman's Guide…, and paid tribute to his husband and his inspirational mother. Kenny Leon, who won for directing the play A Raisin in the Sun, asked that every child in America be allowed to have a “little piece of theater in their daily educational lives.” Raisin later won Best Revival of a Play.
Unfettered joy also burst forth from the wonderful James Monroe Iglehart, who won best featured actor in a musical for his role as the genie in Aladdin, and from the British Sophie Okonedo, who won best featured actress in a play for her role in A Raisin in The Sun.
McDonald’s speech was standout. It folded thanking her parents for not medicating their hyperactive child, with “standing on the shoulders” of “brave, courageous” women, including Lena Horne and Maya Angelou. The best parts of the evening celebrated black, female and gay performers, and their speeches were precision-targeted capsules of passion, underscored lightly or markedly with political and cultural context, warmth, and intelligence.
In his speech, the handsome Cranston said his first visit to Broadway was in 1977 to see Hair; he sneaked into the second act. To this day, he still hasn’t seen the first act, but he’d heard the second had more nudity, “so I feel blessed.”
Hugh Jackman’s evening, meanwhile, went from bad to ouch. First Neil Patrick Harris delivered a wonderful, crazy, leg-splaying, performance from Hedwig—thereby torpedoing every weakly executed Jackman number of the evening—and then he won the Tony for best actor in a musical, kissed his husband heartily, told their two children he would be returning to bedtime-reading duty shortly, and paid tribute to his parents, and the inspiration of his one-time teachers. Hedwig also won the award for best revival of a musical.
There were wonderful performances from Wicked—yes, really—and decibel-record shattering from the cast of the newly remounted Les Misérables. The final scene of the musical of Rocky, featuring the boxing match between Rocky and Apollo Creed, was as perversely lifeless as I remember it in the theater (where my view is the minority, judging by the shouting of the audience). Alan Cumming shimmered darkly and brilliantly as the emcee in the Cabaret performance. Idina Menzel sang, so much better than her Oscars performance, and Jonathan Groff, even made a witty show—“wiccckkedly talented”—of getting her name right, after it was so famously mangled by John Travolta.
More mysterious creative decisions came from Jackman, who decided to recustomize a much-loved standard from The Music Man as a rap with LL Cool J. This white man may be able to dance, but he should never ever be left to rap. Ever again.
From the moment Carole King sang with Jessie Mueller, it seemed to set the early seal on Mueller’s evening, and so it was to be—although not before Jackman insisted on serenading all the best actress in a musical nominees. This seemed oddly inappropriate, as they were just about to find out if they’d won or lost an important award in their careers. But it was his least insanely off-base song. Mueller gave a wonderful acceptance speech, hymning the “complicated” female characters celebrated in the category.
The evening ended with a best musical win for Gentleman’s Guide, and a speech by producer Joey Parnes, where he became so excitable the orchestra attempting to drown him out stood no chance. His passion was of the brilliantly combustible kind, and he told the TV audience what the Broadway Brahmin want the evening to be about, which isn’t the awards, but a nakedly commercial showcase to hammer home to all of America to buy tickets for Broadway shows. Parnes said it, indeed demanded it.
The purpose of the evening is clear enough in its format: The majority of the show is about song-and-dance numbers from musicals. The dramatic plays fare much worse—drama, speeches, complicated shit, so boring, so bad on primetime, baby. For best play, the show’s producers spiced up the suspense by having the playwrights of each of the nominated plays talk up their shows.
So, the Tonys on television are not a celebration of Broadway, they are a celebration of the musical on Broadway, and a brazen ticket-selling stunt at that. Much to the viewer’s puzzlement, there are also snatches of new musicals in preview or barely on anyone’s radar: Sting, singing gruffly about shipbuilding in the north east of England, for example, and Jennifer Hudson, looking wonderful, but what the hell—she seemed to be in a kind of boarding school set-up with adoring little boys hanging on her every note, and then the background was space, and there was a leprechaun dancing around.
The awards were spread-out, and the winners more than deserving, yet the Tonys as a showcase still celebrates the most conservative and safest of shows. It’s a Broadway revenue piledriver, though we had been spoilt by Harris’s hosting. Jackman’s was stiff, not terrible, but uneven and bellicose in comparison. He ended—I don’t know, I was in the land beyond grimace by this point—singing about Broadway, and invited all the winners on stage. He may still be dancing and singing when you wake to read this, he may order his coffee in the morning in the style of a Chicago number. He’ll also wake knowing Neil Patrick Harris aced him, and he wasn’t even presenting. That bizarre Music Man rap sealed one thing for me. After his shaky hosting—sorry gays—Hugh Jackman is indubitably straight.