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Monday, June 14, 2010

Rage and the Tony Awards
Posted by Jill | 7:45 PM
OK, so I didn't get to live my dream of watching Harvey Fierstein hand Billie Joe Armstrong a Tony Award last night. Frankly, I'm a lot more livid at the indescribably wonderful FELA! getting jobbed on just about everything but the technicals and the "Boy Those Black People Sure Can Dance" choreography award for Bill T. Jones. For my money, FELA! is the greatest package of design, music, dance, and powerhouse performances by a cast that truly believes and feels this work in their hearts and souls that has ever been seen on Broadway. Mr. Brilliant knows Fela Kuti's music well, and he said this was better than the real thing.

So what happened? Was it just a question of dollar signs, since neither the cuss-riddled American Idiot nor the Africanism of FELA! mean an extended life in road companies, community theatre, and your local high school? Or was something else at work here?

The old Broadway audience is dying off. Melina heard a woman leaving the theatre when we saw American Idiot who must have been one of those people who see everything -- and she was appalled at what she'd just seen. But then there was another elderly man for whom it was his third time at the show, because he loved it. But mostly crowding the theatre at American Idiot, you have kids in their teens and twenties. At FELA! on Saturday, the audience was only about half white, and a good chunk of it was under 40.

If the people who vote for the Tonys (except you, ModFab) want to throw those people under the bus in order to keep their exclusive little club alive just a bit longer, they're going to find themselves at some point with a whole bunch of empty theatres.

I suppose if you are an American-born black son of a father from Sierra Leone with a background in avant-garde theatre and a name unpronounceable unless one practices it, as is the electrifying Sahr Ngaujah, and you powerhouse your way through five performances a week in which you are on stage about ninety percent of the time, you're going to have trouble winning over Tony voters over a guy in a dress. La Cage Aux Folles may be great, and it has a fantastic empowerment showstopper in I Am What I Am, but I don't care -- Sahr Ngaujah was robbed.


It could be just commerce, but I think there's something else going on.


American Idiot and FELA! are musicals about rage -- rage at a whore media that only cares about the Gulf of Mexico to the extent that they can twitter about whether Barack Obama is showing enough emotion. Rage at eight years of George W. Bush. Rage at a corrupt Nigerian government that throws a woman out a window because they feel threatened by the activism of her son. American Idiot is about angry youth. FELA! is about that most threatening of phenomena if you're a white theatregoer: The Angry Black Man. These are two very angry shows. The anger is where these productions get their power, but while the old farts of the Theatre Wing were willing to overlook puppet sex in 2003 because of the tinkly Broadway-style songs, "Zombie" and "Jesus of Suburbia" aren't going to cut it with this crowd.

And that's why I loved this moment from the awards show last night, when Billie Joe Armstrong, knowing full well from the rip-roaring renditions of "Holiday" and "Know Your Enemy" that these were NOT his peeps and there was going to be no mosh pit that this particular show, came out and proceeded to make very clear that HE appreciates what Michael Mayer did even if the Tony nominating committee didn't, and his band will do quite well no matter what the Theatre Wing thinks:

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