Tony Awards upped its fashion game this year - so why was the red carpet so dull?

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

The earliest arrivals to step onto the 2015 Tony Awards red carpet did not seem to quite understand how the fashion game works. No longer the poor kin to the Oscars and the Golden Globes, the Tonys got a fashion makeover.

Vogue waved its magic wand. Designers loaned frocks. Zac Posen worked overtime. Stylists styled. The entire spectacle was sprinkled with a generous helping of bedazzled, otherworldly models. Jennifer Lopez debuted a new, regal look that had her draped in Valentino, rather than her birthday suit.

The stakes had been ratcheted up on the once low-key length of broadloom leading into Radio City Music Hall.

And yet, those sweet, confused red carpet hosts kept insisting on talking shop! And talking. And talking. Broadway performers themselves, they lamented the stress of eight shows a week; they blabbed about icons like nominee Chita Rivera; they let George Takei prattle on about his upcoming stage show. God bless 'em. Every one.

But they failed to ask the performers to identify who was responsible for their Cinderella duds. The camera operators for the live, online show couldn't quite grasp the relevance of full-length shots. Even worse, the actress Beth Behrs couldn't remember who made her pale blue dress and no designer immediately claimed credit.

No one is advocating for the full-body inspection and branding opportunity that has come to define the Oscars. But everyone at the Tonys looked more glamorous, which is what the Tony producers wanted. The red carpet production needed to do a better job in spotlighting the fun, pleasure and entertainment value in that transformation.

Thankfully, there were few mother-of-the-bride dresses in evidence. Fashion's usual suspects — Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Narciso Rodriguez — did fine work, but so did a few more surprising names such as the New York-based Sophie Theallet and the Spanish design house Delpozo.

But a more fashionable red carpet does not necessarily mean a more interesting one. The nature of the Tony Awards is that many of the nominees — at least those who have not made a name in film or television or risen to the level of national treasure — are unknown to those outside the theater community and its ardent fans. Listening to meandering conversations about a play one has not seen between two people who are unfamiliar with each other is not particularly scintillating. And while there are those who would argue that asking Dame Helen Mirren, "Who made your dress?" is demeaning of such a celebrated actress, it would have been more interesting than listening to interviewers discuss the Kind nutrition bar she had tucked in her handbag.

Who made the dresses and tuxedos that allowed the actors and actresses to clean up so nicely? Who kept them from having to make an emergency shopping trip to the better dress department, call up Rent the Runway or rent-a-tux? Who is helping the Tonys make a pitch to broaden its audience and get its red carpet televised?

This information was much too hard to come by for anyone watching the arrivals as they were streamed online. Actress Sierra Boggess, doing red carpet interviews, seemed mostly concerned about whether various performers had worked a matinee that afternoon, as if she was some sort of inspector from the Department of Labor. Actors Darren Criss and Laura Osnes double-teamed Vogue editor Anna Wintour about her fashion influence on the red carpet but failed to ask Wintour about her own beaded, short-sleeve gown.

Posen delivered some stand-out dresses, included a granny apple green strapless ballgown worn by Annaleigh Ashford, who won the Tony for her role in "You Can't Take It With You."

Posen also created a dazzling silver, art deco gown for co-host Kristen Chenoweth and a sleekly constructed olive green sheath into which Bernadette Peters was poured.

Posen accompanied Peters down the red carpet and the Broadway icon pulled him into her interview with Criss and Osnes. Peters clearly wanted to talk fashion. One wished Posen had been prodded to talk more about his work. Does Broadway call for a different aesthetic than the Oscars?

The Great White Way seemed to inspire gowns that were glamorous and a bit sexy, but not terribly bare. There were not as opulent as what one might see sweeping down the red carpet at the Oscars. They were less fanciful, less indebted to old Hollywood. What is Tony style? It isn't yet defined. It is a work in progress.

Amanda Seyfried and nominee Elizabeth Moss both wore Oscar de la Renta. Seyfried's gown was like a piece of elegant Medieval armor and Moss's was sweetly embroidered. Two very different statements, but both strong and striking on a red carpet made more sophisticated thanks to a simple green hedgerow backdrop that replaced the previous years' busy billboard that blared sponsors' names.

Vanessa Hudgens looked young and girlish in Naeem Khan and Patina Miller looked like a million bucks in a silver column by Jason Wu. The men, too, were well turned out with Tony winner Alex Sharp in Billy Reid's cream colored dinner jacket, Max von Essen in Brooks Brothers and presenter Corey Stoll in a shimmering Brioni suit.

To say that the stars of Broadway have long struggled to negotiate the Tony Awards red carpet is to suggest that they were keenly aware of its potential to elevate their public image or to lure a broader audience to their industry's premier celebration. But most Broadway performers do not work with stylists. They do not have lucrative contracts as brand ambassadors for designer fashion labels. The Tonys still has the feeling of a really talented convention of drama club kids.

In past years, the folks who walked the Tony red carpet could have been heading to a fancy wedding or a bar mitzvah.

Wintour — a theater fan — noted her disappointment and dismay at the bland, homogeneity of the Tony red carpet during a discussion last year with students at a London fashion school. She lamented: "How many mermaid fishtail strapless sequin (gowns) can we see?"

While many were offended on behalf of Broadway's brightest, Wintour had only voiced what the American Theatre Wing, which organizes the awards, had already recognized. The organization was embarking on a two year plan to upgrade the red carpet and perhaps, attract the same kind of media coverage networks like E! devote to the Oscars and Golden Globes.

"There is no reason why the Tonys' red carpet shouldn't be as spectacular as the work being celebrated that evening," says Hildy Kuryk, Vogue's communications director.

It was time for the nominated actors and actresses to stop dressing like they were in the chorus and start dressing for center stage.

While Vogue already had relationships with actors Carey Mulligan, a Tony nominee who wore a merlot-colored Balenciaga gown and Sharp, fashion's powerhouse public relations agency KCD Worldwide was brought in to serve as a liaison between the nominated actors and the fashion industry.

"One of the issues in the past is a lot of Broadway actors don't have a stylist," says Ed Filipowski, a partner in KCD. "Designers are not always willing to lend to actors without a stylist." To do so means that designers risk having an actor who is a fashion novice pairing an elegant gown with a pair of Birkenstocks and a strand of beads pulled from a street vendor's discount barrel.

To keep the likelihood of such crises to a minimum, KCD recruited the aid of celebrity stylist Jeanann Williams, who has worked with Naomi Watts, Emily Mortimer and Marisa Tomei. And the publicity firm contacted friends and clients.

"We emailed about 15 or 25 designers," Filipowski says. "They said, 'Of course.'" They were happy to dress the Broadway crew.

Indeed, fashion designers are regulars in the audiences of plays and musicals. And Filipowski, along with his partner Mark Lee of Barneys New York, is one of the producers of the nominated musical "The Visit."

"We thought, 'Why don't we bring these two worlds together,' " Filipowski says of fashion and theater. Stage actors "should be celebrated. These shows are fabulous."

The clothes made the stars shine brighter. The red carpet droning did not.