At 7:30 on June 4, Gabriel Byrne stepped out of a black Town Car in front of Radio City Music Hall looking every bit as forlorn as the depressive drunk James Tyrone he’s been playing in A Moon For the Misbegotten . While the B-plus list celebrities, whom the American Theater Wing had rounded up for its annual Tony Awards, spilled out of their limos and onto the red felt carpet, an unseen Shadoe Stevens sound-alike provided play-by-play coverage over loudspeakers for the hoi polloi corralled behind barricades across West 51st Street.
Though the voice-over delivery was dramatic, some of the arrivals didn’t exactly incite the crowd. “Here’s costume designer, Martin Pakledinaz!” [nominated for Kiss Me, Kate ], the voice enthused. “Martin, say hello to your audience!” Mr. Pakledinaz’s audience did not say hello back. Then again, neither Blair Brown nor Peter Scolari did much better.
Come to think of it, the voice-over cues may have been for the benefit of the penned-up photographers and journalists. “I have no idea who any of these people are !” groused one paparazzo as Kiss Me, Kate star Marin Mazzie passed. And the glamour deficiency of the event was not helped by the sight of publicists going up and down the line of blank-faced reporters, pleading, “Does anybody want [ The Music Man ‘s best leading actress in a musical nominee] Rebecca Luker? Rebecca Luker anyone?”
Everybody knew who Mr. Byrne was, though. And as he made his way slowly down the press line, he got screams from girls across the street. It didn’t lighten his mood, which seemed to be reflected in the dark rumpled suit he’d chosen over a tux, his two days’ beard growth and perma-grimace. He looked like he was taking a slow stroll into a hail of bullets.
By the looks of it, Tony night meant to Mr. Byrne what Tony night has come to mean to the rest of New York. As Broadway has become increasingly geared to out-of-town crowds–Jack Wagner in Jekyll & Hyde !–the hard candy-coating of Manhattan glamour that once surrounded the Tonys has been chipped away and replaced with a saccharine taffy geared to the lowest- common-denominator tastes of middle America. (People who aren’t interested in theater anyway, judging from Nielsen numbers that made this year’s telecast the lowest-rated Tonys ever.)
Mr. Byrne’s mug said it all. The Tonys have become business without pleasure; a prime-time opportunity for Broadway’s producers to advertise their big musical numbers on national television, and if they win the award, nab Schubert Alley’s answer to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The logic goes that Mr. Iowa is more likely to shell out a few hundred bucks to take the family to see the road-show production of Tony-winning triumph Contact , rather than something that could be described as a pool-hall dance party set to a recording of Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible.”
“For the majority of people theater has become irrelevant,” Mr. Byrne told The Transom on his way inside, moaning in a very Eugene O’Neill way. “Television and rap music and movies are far more relevant to the vast majority of people than theater. It’s become much more about advertising, about ‘product,'” he added. “There’s a lot of reasons why theater has to take a good long look at itself.”
If the organizers of the Tonys heed Mr. Byrne’s advice, a good place to start would have been Rosie O’Donnell’s much-touted opening number for the CBS show. Ms. O’Donnell emerged on stage flanked by grooving fellow television stars Jesse L. Martin ( Law & Order ), Jane Krakowski ( Ally McBeal ) and Megan Mullally ( Will & Grace ). Behind her on risers stood what appeared to be a church choir in black tunics.
Ms. O’Donnell decided to host the Tonys after hosting in both 1997 and 1998. Last year, the ratings tanked without her presence, a fact that probably influenced the producers of the awards show to make the opening number a tribute not to Broadway, but to stars who had started on the stage and had managed to claw their way into Ms. O’Donnell’s current medium, television.
This involved Ms. O’Donnell singing wobbly tributes to Mr. Martin, Ms. Krakowski and Ms. Mullally to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar ‘s big number, “Superstar.”
Then the TV trio sang the songs from their Broadway shows of yore. After they’d all done their bits, they joined Ms. O’Donnell for the finale, a “Superstar” reprise: “Now you know! / Before TV! / We were in musical comedy! / Yes it’s true! / Before L.A.! / We started out on the Great White Way!”
“All my friends said, ‘What the hell was that opening number?'” Ms. O’Donnell’s co-host, Nathan Lane, said the evening after the Tony Awards. “But I liked the number because I know exactly what they’re doing. People know all these people. They’re wonderful theater performers and they’re now successful on television, so it’s just a way of saying, look, we’re all connected.”
Mr. Lane said he was disheartened by the format of the show, in which recipients were limited to 45 seconds of CBS airtime for their acceptance speeches. “There was a time that ratings weren’t so important [to CBS]. They did it because they thought it was a classy show. Now, the ratings are more important. They don’t care so much if it’s classy.”
Mr. Lane sighed. “There’s this thing about theater being the poor cousin in the entertainment food chain, that we fit somewhere between folk dancing and accordion playing.”
The rest of the show went without drama or incident, except when after the rousing “Seventy-Six Trombones” number from The Music Man , the CBS camera briefly found Mr. Byrne politely applauding, but wearing a root-canal scowl. Ten minutes later, Mr. Byrne lost the best leading actor in a play award to The Real Thing’s Stephen Dillane.
Mr. Byrne was nowhere to be found at the party at the Marriott Marquis afterward. Nor was Ms. O’Donnell, though Bebe Neuwirth was sitting at her table. Even Steve Urkel-like Public Theater director George Wolfe, whose The Wild Party came up empty-handed, left the not-so-wild party early, with Toni Collette.
Jekyll & Hyde ‘s Mr. Wagner was there, and he spent a good part of the night crouched next to the seated Ms. Krakowski. Mr. Wagner had competition, though, from a succession of camera-wielding Japanese party guests. Between snapshots, Mr. Wagner attempted to woo Ms. Krakowski by serenading her and, later in the evening, by inserting his tongue suggestively into the wine glass he was holding. “I don’t really know him,” Ms. Krakowski told The Transom after Mr. Wagner had run through his bag of babe-snaring tricks and made himself scarce. “He liked my number. He says we have met before. I do remember, but it was kind of in passing. I didn’t know it meant so much to him.”
Nobody can resist those television stars.
Branagh’s Big Balls
Kenneth Branagh stood squinting into the spotlight in the front of the Paris Theater, where he was about to screen a cut of his newest star-studded William Shakespeare adaptation, Love’s Labour’s Lost . He was choosing his words carefully, no doubt because Miramax’s co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, the man who put up the money for his film, was in the theater listening to him. “Harvey’s been a fantastic collaborator,” he said in his plummy English accent. “We’ve often had a free and frank exchange of views. Read into that what you will .”
A few people tittered. Derek Jacobi, who was sitting in the very back row, chortled. “When we had a particularly challenging preview–some people here will know what I mean, ” he said under his breath, “he was right there with us, and I appreciate his support and his input very much.”
Mr. Branagh seems to have made his job very difficult. As he himself said before the Paris audience, he chose to adapt the Shakespeare play that–for reasons that became obvious to some audience members during the screening–had not been performed for the 200 years following the bard’s death. And he chose to make it a musical using American popular standards. And he chose to set it in World War II-era Europe. And he decided he would use a Citizen Kane- like faux newsreel footage to encapsulate much of the action. And he would put in a synchronized swimming scene and a sight gag involving a dead sheep. And he would do all this in about an hour and a half–an accomplishment considering that the play was one of Shakepeare’s most interminable.
“I have to pee really bad,” said Alicia Silverstone after the screening. Ms. Silverstone, who portrayed the princess in Mr. Branagh’s film, was standing in line to get onto an elevator leading up to the very modest reception that Miramax was throwing for the film in the upstairs banquet room of a restaurant on West 57th Street called Shelly’s New York.
Ms. Silverstone wore a dress with a slit going down to her belly button, with multicolored sequins all over it, which seemed like a pretty elaborate get-up for a crowd that included actor Peter Boyle, in chinos, and Sopranos co-star and E Street Band member Little Steven Van Zandt, in snake boots, and a gaggle of scruffy reporters.
Mr. Branagh was getting polite reviews from the guests. “It was a very difficult thing to pull off, you know?” said Mr. Van Zandt, earnestly.
“I found it a goof,” said Mr. Boyle, who was wearing a Knicks lapel pin.
Reviews for Shakepeare’s play were more guarded.
“I mean it is Shakespeare, but it’s not a great play,” said Mr. Boyle, nodding.
“You gotta give Mr. Branagh credit,” said Mr. Van Zandt. “The man’s got balls.”
“Balls of an elephant!” Mr. Boyle yelled, perhaps a bit too loudly.
“Balls!” shouted Mr. Van Zandt.
” Cojones !” howled Mr. Boyle. They seemed to be cracking each other up.
Meanwhile, Mr. Weinstein was at a table seated next to a young actor named Jon Abrahams, who was in Outside Providence .
The Transom asked Mr. Weinstein about his rumored disappointment with Mr. Branagh’s preview of the film several months before. Mr. Weinstein looked hard at The Transom and chose his words carefully. “I was very supportive of this entire movie,” he said. “I had a great collaborator with Branagh every step of the way. I’m very proud of the movie. I’m very proud of my own work. There’s nowhere you’re going to go on this that’s going to get me fucked, because I’ve been a good boy.” The Transom noted that Love’s Labour’s Lost was one of Shakepeare’s longest plays. Mr. Weinstein looked like he was about to say how he really felt about the play. “And probably …” he paused in thought, “his longest.”
Samantha Ronson’s Massive Attack
D.J. Samantha Ronson put Massive Attack’s “Protection” on the turntable and then went on an attack of her own. Ms. Ronson was spinning records at the June 3 cocktail party hosted by Coach leather goods at the Bridgehampton mansion of real estate mogul Rodney Propp when The Transom asked her what she thought of the New York magazine profile of her brother Mark Ronson, also a D.J., and how the article had portrayed their socialite mother, Ann Dexter-Jones.
“You don’t fuck with my mom or God–some things are holy!” declared Ms. Ronson about Nancy Jo Sales’ cover story, which depicted Ms. Dexter-Jones as “tirelessly self-promoting; if there were a marathon for name-dropping, she’d beat Donald Trump and Russell Simmons faster than you can say ‘Phillip Seymour Hoffman.'”
Ms. Ronson insisted that her family–her stepfather is Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones–is “really normal” and that her mother was “a nice lady.” And just in case, we had missed her point, she reiterated: “You don’t fuck with my mom. I’ll kill anyone who does.”
Ms. Sales, who now writes for Vanity Fair , replied: “I thought [my story] was affectionate toward Ann Jones. I really enjoyed her and the whole Ronson family and I’m sorry they read it that way.”
– Deborah Schoeneman