Tony went to -- surprise -- a new musical with new music

"The Tony Awards," the announcer said proudly, "with the music of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Green Day -- and the best of Broadway composers."

That last part seemed almost like an after-thought. Of the four nominees for best musical, only one ("Memphis") had new music. Most shows simply put old songs in new settings. That included the other three nominees -- "Million Dollar Quartet," "Fela" and "American Idiot" -- and the unnominated "Come Fly Away."

The good news? The one completely original show, "Memphis," won the Tony. Here are a few of my comments; please add yours:

1) Listening to that Sinatra song again, I realized that his prediciton was correct. "I'm gonna live until I die," he said; he did.

2) Neil Patrick Harris remains the best host of the Tonys (or just about anything else) ever. Still, Sean Hayes did a good job. And don't you think his family was proud to see those piano lessons pay off?

3) There was great fun had by unnominated stars. Kristin Chenoweth even did an imaginary faint, when realizing she didn't get a nod. Still, let's remember that Nathan Lane was just repeating a line that was said by Bob Hope, long ago. Back then, it was: "Welcome to the Academy Awards ... or, as they call it in my house, 'passover.'"

4) The show started and ended with great oomph -- first with a thundering medley of musical moments ... and then with the "Memphis" winners adding one more performance.

5) Acceptance speeches tended to start well, then deteriorate into lists. Also, I'm in favor of rescinding any award that goes to someone who then weeps.

6) One of the great moments came from Lea Michele, with a spectacular, Barbra-worthy "Don't Rain on My Parade." She's on "Glee" now, but her first fame came from the Tony-winning "Spring Awakening." That was a musical with original songs ... which is kind of what you expect prize-winning musicals to have.





Bobby Flay, Vern Yip, Next Food Network

OK, I've been a bit sparse with the blogs lately. Blame holidays or life or me or something.

But we should note that this is the start of the summertime skills competitions. We're not just talking about singers and dancers and comedians; it's prime time for cooks and designers and even artists.

Here's a line-up, followed by two stories I sent to papers -- on chef Bobby Flay and designer Vern Yip. These are guys who have talent, zest and wonderfully short surnames.

The line-up includes:

– “HGTV Design Star,” 10 p.m.
Sundays, starting June 13

– “Hell's
Kitchen,” 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox;

-- “Work of Art” debuts at 11 p.m.
Wednesday on Bravo, then moves to 10 p.m.

-- “Next Food
Network Star,” 9 p.m. Sundays, Food Network.

-- "HGTV Design Star," 10 p.m. Sundays, HGTV.

-- “Top Chef, D.C.,” 10
p.m. Wednesdays, starting June 16, Bravo.

-- “Masterchef,” 9 p.m.
Tuesdays, starting July 25, Fox.


Bobby Flay's life has known two speeds
– zero and overdrive.

The first filled his early years. “I
was 17 and I had no interest in anything,” he said.

He dropped out of high school and
worked at a restaurant, mostly because he had to work somewhere. Then
everything clicked. Now Flay owns five restaurants and a string of
burger spots; he has his own shows and hosts “The Next Food Network
Star,” which is starting a new edition. In his spare time, he's a
football buff who's married to a glamorous actress.

His schedule takes some focus; Flay is
up by 6 a.m. daily and was doing this phone interview at 7.

“You have to be relentless,” he
said. “Restaurants are living, breathing things.”

Being a TV celebrity is also
complicated. That's clear in “Food Network Star,” now in its
sixth season.

Here are 12 amiable contestants. They
range from veteran chefs to “someone who has a lot of knowledge
about food because she's been cooking for her family for years,”
Flay said.

All are good at food; not all are good
at meeting time limits. “There's a tendency to overshoot,” he
said. “We think we can do more than we can.”

Some are naturals at working in front
of a camera. Aria Kagan, a single mom from rural Wisconsin, impressed
judges quickly. “She's very likable,” Flay said.

Others flounder, he said. “It's very
complicated – doing something and talking to the camera.”

Flay suspects his own early appearances
on “Live With Regis & Kathy Lee” were “a little dull.”
Still, people always seemed interested in this combination – a New
York Irishman who studied French cooking, then specialized in
Southwest flavors.

Once his restaurant job hooked him,
Flay went to the French Culinary Institute in New York. He studied
with two chefs, one of them big on Southwest ingredients. That became
a specialty in restaurants, barbecue shows and more.

TV also became key. Flay is known for
cooking contests, in “Throwdown” and “Iron Chef”; friends
introduced him to Stephanie March, who has played Assistant District
Attorney Alexandra Cabot, off and on for a decade of “Law &
Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Conviction.” Their marriage
in 2005 was his third, her first.

And does March ever do the cooking? “I
like him, I wouldn't cook for him,” she once said. “That would be
terrible. I wouldn't do that to him.”

They eat out, order in. Flay likes to
cook on Sundays, the one time he might slip out of overdrive.


At times, the thrust for fame comes
down to something this basic:

Here is a room – bare and boxy, small
and white and unadorned. Now make it pretty.

“HGTV Design Star” contestants
tackle that each year, but this time (June 13) it's the first

“I love the idea of starting with the
white box this year,” said Vern Yip, a judge on the show. “It's a
level playing field …. It's such a wonderful way to get to know

Each summer brings a fresh flurry of
skills competitions. Alongside the usual (singers, dancers,
comedians), there are shows for cooks and artists and designers.

“Design Star” is one of the
leaders, partly because the winners quickly become HGTV stars.
Indeed, David Bromstad (the 2006 winner) debuts a show right after
the “Star” opener.

Still, there are also some key changes
this year:

– Mark Burnett, the “Survivor”
boss, is the new producer.

– There's no host. The judges –
Yip, Candice Olson and Genevieve Gorder – handle that.

– The show has moved to New York
City, where it will embrace local flavor. Contestants will find
themselves designing at a firehouse, a flower market, a runway show.

Still, some things remain constant.
That includes Yip as judge and the white-box room as a challenge.

To fix up that room, contestants have
little time, little money and some odd requirements. This year, each
had to design it around the tastes of another contestant.

Some people try to do too much. This
year, one inexplicably tossed feathers around the floor.

And some do too little. Yip proclaimed
that one room ended up looking like a prison cell; the contestant
“sort of admitted she didn't have a lot of excitement there,” he

And sometimes, people get it just
right. Last season, Yip decided that Dan Vickery had created the most
perfect white-box design in “Star” history.

That led to a strong finale: The
quietly precise Vickery was runner-up; Antonio Bellatore – a
former rock guitarist, big and bold and bearded – was the winner.
“Antonio sort of represented a variation we didn't have before,”
Yip said.

It was a reminder that HGTV designers
come in all variations. Yip also proves that.

Born in Hong Kong, he grew up in the
U.S., in a family of achievers. “The Chinese culture, puts a lot of
attention on math and science, because that's where we see people
succeed,” he said.

His family is filled with doctors and
scientists. When a kindergarten teacher noticed his talent and
suggested an arts-oriented school, his mom refused. “I'm really
glad that's what she did,” he said. “It made me a more
well-rounded person.”

He majored in chemistry and economics
and added a Master of Business Administration. Then he became an
architect, a designer, a TV host (coming next is an “Urban
Oasis” special) and a TV judge.

That last part often leaves him
overshadowed (literally) by his colleagues. Yip says he isn't really
as short as it seems, but his colleagues have high heels. He stands
5-foot-8, Gorder is 5-10-and-a-half; Olson – a former member of
Canada's national volleyball team – tops 6-foot. Design stars, it
seems, come in many varieties.







"Toxic Towns": CNN sticks with strong documentaries

The TV news world may be getting sillier, but CNN keeps making strong, solid documentaries.

A prime example is "Toxic Towns" on Saturday, the first of a string of documentaries this month. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Towering over the Louisiana landscape,
plastic factories dominate life.

They bring jobs and prosperity, but do
they also bring health disasters? That's the question Dr. Sanjay
Gupta faces in “Toxic Towns,” which is launching a month of major
CNN documentaries.

“There is always a fight between
science and anecdotal evidence,” Gupta said.

His background is on the science side;
he's a surgeon and the son of two engineers. But in his alternate
work as news correspondent, he's jolted by the specific stories.

Gupta went to Mossville, La., where
plastics factories rule. “You can't miss them,” he said. “You're
surrounded by 14 of them.”

There, he met locals with cancer, women
with early hysterectomies, one family in which eight of 10 people had
severe problems. So far, there's no statistical link to the

“That's the same thing that was said
about Thalidomide or lead,” Gupta said. “It takes decades to
gather data …. In 1960, we believed (lead) was OK; it took 30 years
to figure it out.”

Growing up in Michigan, Gupta was used
to factories. “You always look at that smoke coming out and wonder
what's in it.”

In recent generations, factories were
lured to Louisiana by a promise of no taxes. One debate is whether
there was also an unstated promise of no regulation.

If states do regulate lightly, then the
federal government becomes the last stop. Gupta is optimistic about
current Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson, but said
the odds are steep in the U.S. “Our whole philosophy has been …
innocent until proven guilty.”

In Europe, he said, industry must prove
they are safe. In the U.S., government must prove it isn't safe. That
takes research that is just starting in places like Mossville.

CNN documentaries this month:

– “Toxic Towns, USA,” 8 p.m.
Saturday, rerunning at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.

– “Toxic Childhood,” at the same
times Sunday. Sanjay Gupta views ways to minimize the risks of
harmful chemicals in everyday lives.

– “The Atlanta Child Murders,”
9-11 p.m. June 10; rerunning at midnight; also, same times June
12-13. Soledad O'Brien interviews Wayne Williams, who was convicted
after more than 25 children were killed; he continues to profess his

– “Dads For My Daughters,” 8 p.m.
June 19 and 20, rerunning at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Gupta profiles author
Bruce Feiler, who created a “Council of Dads,” after he came down
with a rare cancer.

– “Gary & Tony Have a Baby,”
8 p.m. June 24, rerunning at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.; also, same times
June 26-27. O'Brien interviews two gay men who faced medical and
legal battles, while trying to have a baby that has a biological
connection to both.


"Idol" champion: Life soars after a slow start

The best thing about this "American Idol" season is the way two everyday people -- each 24, from Northern roots -- soared.

Earlier (see previous blog) I sent papers a story on Crystal Bowersox, the runner-up. Here's my story on Lee DeWyze, the winner:


Lee DeWyze's victory seems to be
another “American Idol” moment for the common man.

“I'm a real guy,” he told reporters
Friday. “Whether it's on-camera of off, I like to be myself.”

Viewers knew that already. The show
kept reminding them that DeWyze, 24, is the guy who mixed and shook
paint cans at a store in Mount Prospect, Ill.; currently, women are
sporting T-shirts that read, “Lee DeWyze shook my can.”

The extent of his regular-guy life goes
much earlier than that, though. “A big problem for me was finding a
direction,” he said. “I didn't really care about things (except)

He was sent to an alternative high
school, which was helpful. “I got a totally different outlook and
realized there's a lot more out there than my problems.”

Eventually, the music clicked. DeWyze
cut two albums on an independent label. He did gigs in Chicago clubs;
he's particularly fond of a House of Blues gig with the Freddy Jones
Band, on a New Year's Eve show that included Collective Soul and

Then came “Idol,” an odd fit for a
guy who leans to folk-rock. “It was frustrating sometimes, because
there were some songs … I wouldn't sing in a million years. Still,
that's what the show is about.”

Time limits were also frustrating. “I
like to build up to something, but we only get a minute and a half.”

Within those limits, however, he could
soar. “We were given free rein to go th the studio and arrange
songs any way we could, and I did.”

He thrived, always staying out of the
bottom two or three. He seemed tense at times, but relaxed when the
final three were sent home for mini-concerts. “I was only scheduled
to sing three or four songs and I did nine or 10. How do you not?”

Only the time limit stopped him that
night, DeWyyze said. It was a sign that he'll enjoy the time ahead.

Yes, his first radio single is a cover
of U2's “Beautiful Day.” After that, however, the folk-rock-blues
can emerge. “I'm going to be able to do my thing on my stage.”


Crystal: Life-changing moments

Everything in Crystal Bowersox's life seems to be changing at a blurring pace. Here's the story I just aent to papers. I'll be back in an hour with a separate one on Lee DeWyze:


Crystal Bowersox could have continued
her previous life almost forever.

She was a singer-songwriter, working
five years in Chicago's clubs and subway stops.

“For years, people (said) 'You should
try out for “(American) Idol”,” she recalled today. She
resisted. “I didn't think I was that kind of performer.”

Then – after retreating to small-town
Ohio with her son (now 16 months) _ she decided to try. The result
has changed her life in every way; she:

– Was named runner-up Wednesday to
Lee DeWyze. “I love Lee,” said Bowersox, 24. “Lee is great;
he's supertalented and I would buy his record in a heartbeat.”

– Promptly signed a record deal with
the show's producers. In addition, her final song on the show – Patty Griffin's rousing “Up to the Mountain” – was released to
radio stations.

– Broke up with her boyfriend.
Earlier, she had told the audience she was sure he would propose;
instead, she said, they agreed before Wednesday's show to break up.
“Tony's been my rock through all of this. (But) he's a small-town
guy and wants a simple, quiet life.”

– Provided a small boost for
singer-songwriters. While showing her homecoming trip, “Idol”
included her singing “Holy Toledo” – a song she wrote when she
was 17. It was, she was told, the first time anyone on the show had
been shown singing an original.

– Accidentally became a symbol for
diabetes survivors. “I tried to keep it a secret,” she said.

That's common for many young people,
she said – especially for ones who couldn't afford health care. “I
never had a lot of money …. There have been times in my life when I
had to beg for insulin.”

When she did tell the “Idol”
people, she said, everything changed. “A team of people swarmed in
to help me. I never felt more loved.”

She was hospitalized twice, but got to
the finals. At that point, she said, she was convinced DeWyze would
win. Then came host Ryan Seacrest's long pause.

“I had mouthed the words 'Come on,
Ryan' several times. I saw Lee's face and he was ready to pass out.”