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Cut-off acceptance speeches mar Tony Awards broadcast

| Tuesday, June 4, 2002

While we're still musing about the Tony Awards …

You always want awards shows to move along.

And acceptance speeches by people you don't know to be brief.

And no awards show moves faster every year than the Tonys.

But something does seem amiss when virtually every one of the 22 category victors, or teams thereof, is urged off the stage by the orchestra. I hate those team acceptances. Ban 'em. Now. Fast. Permanently.

Still, I catch myself becoming conditioned, with a quickened pulse, to fear that the recipients I want to hear, such as Alan Bates, who won for his leading performance in "Fortune's Fool," won't finish.

Most people in the home audience don't want to hear the technical winners rattle off a five-minute laundry list of agents and hometown drama teachers and producers and technicians.

On the other hand, when you're watching a world-class actor saying something of interest, you want him to exhale and collect his thoughts and be articulate before he's hustled offstage.

The trouble with the Tonys is, the TV ratings are always so low that the network broadcasting it (CBS this year) is always insistent it not run a minute past 11 p.m. So the director cuing the orchestra has no choice but to sweep every victor off with non-discriminatory haste.

The bum's rush was particularly apparent for Sunday's Tonys when Elaine Stritch was accepting for best special theatrical event, "Elaine Stritch at Liberty."

She was determined to override the musical cues and keep talking. Although she did get in a few more seconds than most, the director backed off to a long shot, cut off her microphone and went to commercial. I wanted to hear what the very candid lady had on her mind.

She did manage to bark "Don't take up my time" at an audience whose applause was cutting into her 45 seconds and to say: "An understudy told me she wanted to follow in my footsteps. I told her to get comfortable shoes." Sounds apocryphal but no less quotable.

"Thoroughly Modern Millie" was, as expected, the biggest winner, getting six of the 11 Tonys for which it was nominated. Also running ahead of the pack were "Urinetown the Musical," which went three for 10; "Private Lives," which went three for six; "Fortune's Fool," two for three; and "Into the Woods," two for 10.

The big shutouts were for "Morning's at Seven" (none for nine) and "The Crucible" (none for six). "Oklahoma!" and "Sweet Smell of Success" each had to settle for one out of seven.

It's unusual, if not unprecedented, that the only award for Edward Albee's "The Goat" was for best play.

Also unusual, "Urinetown the Musical" won for best book of a musical, best score and best direction of a musical, but lost best musical to "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Pittsburgh was represented by winners Rob Ashford, a Point Park College graduate who won for his choreography of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and, to stretch a bit, by Sutton Foster, who attended Carnegie Mellon University for a year and went on to win best actress in a musical for "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

It's always interesting when a presenter advertises a preference when announcing a winner's identity. At the 1973 Academy Awards (in early 1974), for example, best picture presenter Elizabeth Taylor said, "Oh, good!" as she found the title "The Sting" inside the envelope.

But it's getting stranger when Julia Roberts, who knew she'd be presenting the best actor Oscar in March, announced in advance she was rooting for Denzel Washington to win and, upon seeing his name in the envelope, said first, "I love my life," before reading his name.

John Leguizamo took that a step further at the Tonys. While reading the nominees for best featured (supporting) actress in a musical, he specified before opening the envelope that Andrea Martin of "Oklahoma!" was his favorite. And then she lost to Harriet Harris of "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Classiest acceptance speeches included the one by John Lithgow, best actor in a musical for "Sweet Smell of Success," who noted that he doesn't sing as well as any of the other actors in his category and, of his cast: "They're not my supporting actors. I'm theirs."

Another was by Frank Langella, best featured actor in a play for "Fortune's Fool." He noted that the chance to do well in a good part is an ephemeral experience. He thanked many "for this moment, which I know is about to pass."

Bernadette Peters and Gregory Hines are major, gifted stage stars, but they didn't have much chemistry as co-hosts, and their medley of Broadway songs sounded rushed and off-key. They were grabbing at notes and lyrics instead of caressing and savoring them.

God, who gets thanked a lot in Gene Kelly Awards speeches, didn't get mentioned at this year's Tonys, but dressers got thanked at least three times.

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