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Hugh Jackman Jumps; Tony Viewers Say, 'What?'

Hugh Jackman gave it all he had at Sunday night's Tony Awards.
Heather Wines
Hugh Jackman gave it all he had at Sunday night's Tony Awards.

The Tony Awards are usually the best awards show of the year to watch, but they are also the worst to experience on social media, simply because so much of what you encounter is theater people who are exasperated with every single thing that happens. (It often feels like the entire evening is just people sighing and rolling their eyes.) It's ironic, then, that Sunday night's Tonys seemed to get off to a rough start in part because so many of the theater people didn't get, or didn't care about, the movie reference.

Host Hugh Jackman, taking on the impossible task of following last year's Neil Patrick Harris opening number (maybe the best one on any awards show, ever), jumped off the red carpet and into the theater. Jump, jump, jump, jump. It was an homage to a famous number called "Take Me to Broadway," performed by the wonderful film dancer Bobby Van in Small Town Girl, but probably better known because it shows up in the dance-centric compilation film That's Entertainment Part II. (Van is also in the great "Tom Dick Or Harry" number — along with Tommy Rall and some guy named Bob Fosse — in the uneven film adaptation of the inherently uneven Kiss Me Kate.)

The "Take Me to Broadway" dance is not a dance per se, but an athletic feat. If you don't believe me, I encourage you to try it for about 30 seconds. Not jumping in place, but transporting yourself via two-footed jumps for 30 seconds. Jackman's number was about 4 minutes, with a couple of little breaks. It was supposed to be minimalism, I think: the idea was that the only answer to the Harris number was not to go bigger, but to go smaller and simpler and hope that the purity and simplicity of such a stripped-down number would carry it.

No such luck: They encountered a lot of bafflement about why it was happening, and, even for those who did know that it was an homage, a lot of wondering why it was supposed to be entertaining. If I had to guess, somebody who was involved in the planning process is the person who sends that Bobby Van YouTube clip to everyone and says it's the most amazing thing you've ever seen, and mostly people say, "Huh," and on this one night, that enthusiasm got the piece on the air but couldn't help it go over with audiences.

The rest of the show was full of so-so material, to be honest: a long and not very entertaining salute to the actresses, a lot of little bits that only partly worked, and some musical numbers — including one from the stage version of Aladdin — that didn't translate well at all. The most interesting experiment was a performance by Jackman with LL Cool J and T.I. that was intended to draw out the kinship between rap and the "Rock Island" opening of The Music Man. It's the kind of thing that sounded like a terrible idea, but when you saw it executed, it was pretty interesting — though undoubtedly polarizing. (Questlove later mentioned on Twitter that he'd helped put that together, to which the world said, "Of course.")

There were nice speeches from winners like Harris (who won, as many expected, for Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Bryan Cranston (who won for his portrayal of LBJ in the play All the Way), Jessie Mueller (who won for her eerie impersonation of Carole King in Beautiful), and James Monroe Iglehart (who won for playing the genie in Aladdin).

There were big wins for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (Best Musical), All the Way (Best Play), and — not televised — The Bridges of Madison County, whose composer, Jason Robert Brown, won Best Orchestrations and Best Score, despite not being even nominated for Best Musical. (Scratch your head over that one a bit.) The Hedwignumber was probably the best-received of the night, continuing Harris' tradition of killing at the Tonys. And whoever decided there would be no Adele Dazeem joke about Idina Menzel: You are the wind beneath my wings.

But on the whole, it seemed to fizzle a bit, never quite recovering from that stripped-down opening that somebody hoped you'd love as much as he or she once loved Bobby Van.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.