Despite the fact that I’ve never seen a Broadway show (gasp, I know!) and don’t really follow the Great White Way too closely, it’s ironic that the Tony Awards are almost always my favorite awards show of the year. With inspired performances, impassioned speeches and impressive hosting, the Tonys outclass the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes and every other televised awards show.
Maybe it’s not so surprising, though. Awards shows themselves are much like Broadway shows: stage productions with tons of moving parts, bursting with big setpieces, intimate moments interspersed throughout. Naturally, then, an awards show celebrating stage productions has an advantage. The performers and award recipients tend to be more comfortable in a live environment than their cinematic counterparts, and they’re also better trained to elicit an emotional response from a live audience. And no one does a splashy song-and-dance number better than Broadway.
Despite the Tonys’ inherent advantage, other awards shows shouldn’t get a free pass for being lackluster every year. In that spirit, I’ve come up with three takeaways that awards show producers would be wise to consider when planning their future shows.
When in doubt, call Neil Patrick Harris. As he demonstrated last night, Harris is the essential awards show host of our time. He’s an extremely talented singer, dancer and rapper. He can rock a three-piece suit. He can perform elaborate feats of physical wizardry! His comedic timing is impeccable, his energy unstoppable. And he always seems to be having fun. When he laughs at his own jokes (as he does tend to do), he’s not boosting his own ego. He’s reminding us not to be ashamed for laughing.
Beyond these valuable qualities, Harris has a self-aware hosting style perfectly in sync with our age of live-tweeting and insta-commentary. “These are rarely funny,” he admitted last night before launching into his annual list of Broadway show title mashups, many of which were quite funny. He understands that the Tonys are extremely and unironically significant to a vast majority of the people in the audience, but he never forgets that the audience at home might have a slightly more cynical worldview. He appeals to the showbiz and at-home audience in equal measure.
And Hollywood is far from oblivious to Harris’ seemingly endless hosting charms. He’ll be hosting the Emmy Awards for the second time this fall, and based on his performance last night, there’s no reason to think he won’t be back for the Tonys again next year. Every time he hosts an awards show, I always feel like he’s reached his peak, and that maybe we’ve been too quick to anoint him. Then he hosts again, and the cycle repeats. Maybe that’s Harris’ best trick of all: with each new performance, he outdoes himself.
Just a spoonful of sincerity makes the medicine go down.: Many awards show hosts in recent memory (Seth MacFarlane and Ricky Gervais come to mind) have been criticized for their pessimistic mockery and cynicism. The Tony Awards never feel that way. Maybe it’s the earnestness of the Broadway dream, or the strength of the theater community. Either way, the Tonys never let the jokes and insults overwhelm the unabiding love for the theater that the show aims to celebrate. At one point during last night’s opening number, Harris stopped ribbing Broadway for its overreliance on child actors and slowed down to deliver a rapid-fire verse about being a kid watching the Tonys with a dream of being on Broadway someday. The moment was presented without a punchline or a payoff, and it lent the evening a grandeur and significance that other awards show would do well to emulate. Sure, awards shows are silly and there’s a lot to mock in showbusiness, but these shows still have the power to touch our hearts as well as our funny bones.
Show, don’t tell.: The Oscars frequently try to drum up enthusiasm for the “magic of the movies,” but they spend so much time running that phrase into the ground that they forget to show us the substance of that magic. The Tonys, by contrast, provide showcases for the people receiving the awards to demonstrate what they do best. The music, the choreography, the dialogue: it all speaks for itself. No one has to tell us how great musicals are: we can see it for ourselves. On the Oscars, a few brief clips and a highlight reel fail to present us with a compelling reason to buy into the “movie magic” narrative. There are too many awards shows to begin with. In order to stand out, they should remind us, through example, why the medium they’re celebrating is worth caring about.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to rewatch last night’s opening number (the best awards-show opening I’ve ever seen?) for the fifteenth time. Enjoy. (Also: credit to the writers, choreographers and everyone else who helped with that opening number. NPH deserves plenty of credit, but it wasn’t his job alone.)