Broadway bows to the Union Jack — again

Commentary on the Tony Awards

At the Tony Awards, the empire struck back.

So what else is new, one might ask, given that the Tonys have often provided a spectacle of English hegemony over homegrown American fare?

But the surprising show of British victors at Sunday night’s ceremonies — often in categories where a more than credible American recipient was overlooked — suggests that you don’t need an onslaught of London transfers for English accents to dominate proceedings; one or two will do nicely –the 1999 spring season offered up eight within 11 weeks — and cultural genuflection does the rest.

That’s in no way to deride the achievements of some of the winners, starting with “The Real Thing’s” Stephen Dillane, whose definably casual and relaxed stage manner — no Jeremy Irons-style fireworks for him — extended to a Tony acceptance speech so low-key that it raised British understatement to something approaching a high art. (After the ceremony, the actor was glimpsed on Seventh Avenue making a post-victory call from a pay phone; clearly, his status as Broadway’s latest Brit du jour doesn’t come with a cellular.)

And I couldn’t be happier with the featured actor prize for 77-year-old English veteran Roy Dotrice, whose rending achievement in “A Moon for the Misbegotten” impresses doubly in view of how cutesy and shtick-laden that same role — in lesser hands — can appear, and often has.

Instead, playing an impish old soak with a genuine interest in his daughter’s salvation, Dotrice at last Saturday’s matinee communicated with the audience rather more directly than the production’s hard-working leads, Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne, ultimately did with one another.

Small wonder that Dotrice got the lion’s share of the curtain bravi (the unimpeachable technical finesse of Byrne in particular notwithstanding). For all its self-evident extroversion, the performance burrows to the painful heart of a play whose yearning for love is instead replaced by a cumulatively moving sense of loss.

Other than Dotrice’s invaluable participation, “A Moon for the Misbegotten” is that relatively rare creature on Broadway: a fully American-originated revival of a classic in a season in which even the Roundabout’s “Uncle Vanya” drew upon a star (Derek Jacobi) and adaptation (by Mike Poulton) previously allied to the play in London. So it’s doubly interesting that “Moon” was upstaged three times over by “The Real Thing,” the Tom Stoppard play that first caused its own Tony stir a scant (in Broadway terms) 16 years ago.

In retrospect, one wonders whether the failure of “Moon” director Daniel Sullivan to secure a Tony nom may have been an early tip-off that all would not be well on the awards front down on the Hogans’ Connecticut farm. (The distressingly literal-minded design probably didn’t help the production’s cause: If ever a play cried out for the abstraction afforded it by David Leveaux in London and then on Broadway, it’s “Moon.”) A chance for America to honor its own was — tellingly — not taken up.

And so it proved throughout Sunday night’s laurels, sometimes for sensible reasons, at other times for bewildering ones. Michael John LaChiusa’s breathlessly exciting score for “The Wild Party” — a work whose electrifying CD will surely enhance its reputation well after its current theatrical run has been sadly aborted — gave Tony voters a far better opportunity than “Parade” did a season ago to honor a composer free from either derivative Europop or post-Sondheim drear. But no: The prize went instead to Elton John and Tim Rice, “Aida’s” British duo, who signaled their investment in the proceedings by not bothering to show up. Their absence, meanwhile, mattered not a whit to the “Aida” claque in the Radio City audience, which roared its partisanship at every available opportunity.

Elsewhere, an ostensibly strong eleventh-hour showing from the season’s final entry, Claudia Shear’s “Dirty Blonde,” proved powerless in the face of particle physics and Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen,” Broadway’s most daunting English import in years. (No less daunting, apparently, was English director-nominee Matthew Warchus’ name, which presenter Al Pacino dutifully mangled.) There’s got to be an irony somewhere in the fact that a far sexier English play steeped in science — Stoppard’s “Arcadia” — lost its own Tony bid whereas a homegrown play about the progenitor of “Sex” couldn’t compete with surely the first Tony-winner ever to consider complementarity. Or maybe voters were merely compensating for last year, when “Closer,” a great English play, lost to “Side Man,” a middlebrow American one.

Indeed, there could hardly be a more apt symbol for Broadway’s surrender to the British than the total shutout of “The Music Man” at the hands of “Kiss Me, Kate” — a musical, after all, inspired by the Bard and this time around directed by a prodigiously talented Londoner (by way of Australia), Michael Blakemore. That could be why Sunday night’s most unexpectedly misplaced symbol came with the image of the unfurled American flag at the exuberant close of “Seventy-Six Trombones,” when what the ceremony was actually celebrating — and not for the first time — was Broadway’s bow to the Union Jack.

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