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A pleasant but bland Tonys gets the awards part right

Photo: John P. Filo (CBS)
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From awarding innovative new work to saluting talented performers young and old, the 73rd annual Tony Awards got a lot of things right. The mythic folk musical Hadestown took home eight trophies, including awards for director Rachel Chavkin and composer Anaïs Mitchell, the only two women nominated in their respective categories. Ali Stroker—a featured actress in an edgy new revival of Oklahoma!—made history as the first wheelchair user to win a performance Tony. Elsewhere, longtime theater vets Celia Keenan-Bolger, Santino Fontana, and Stephanie J. Block all took home their first Tonys, as did 87-year-old comedy legend Elaine May.

When it came to awarding the best and brightest of this Broadway season, the Tony Awards were a smashing success. When it came to being an engaging production in their own right, tonight’s broadcast didn’t quite rise to the same heights.

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Last year Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban created their own unique energy as co-hosts of a particularly earnest Tonys. As he did in his 2016 Tony hosting debut, however, James Corden once again came off as Neil Patrick Harris lite. Though Corden is a seasoned theater pro, he never quite seems comfortable handling a big production number in the way that Harris did in his phenomenal hosting run from 2011-2013. Corden’s opening number—a salute to the magic of live performance—fell just a little bit flat, especially because it spent so much time talking about TV and too little time showcasing the nominated musicals who joined him onstage.

The Tonys at least lampshaded the potential Corden backlash in what I thought was his best bit of the night—a riff on the Be More Chill song “Michael In The Bathroom,” which saw Bareilles, Groban, and even Harris himself show up to commiserate about the anxiety of hosting the Tonys. (Or the lack of anxiety in Harris’ case.) I have no idea how the number played for those unfamiliar with Be More Chill, as the Tonys offered absolutely zero context for what was going on. For me, at least, it was a highlight of the evening (and Corden’s best vocal performance), even if it also made me wish that Bareilles and Groban were just hosting again this year.

The rest of Corden’s comedy bits were relatively uninspired, but semi-saved by game participants. He had various audience members practice their “losing” faces, with Jeff Daniels selling the final gag. Corden later introduced the idea that Broadway stars are too nice to one another and should create melodramatic beef to drive up interest. Again, Audra McDonald and Laura Linney saved a fairly lackluster idea with their commitment. Neither bit was particularly great, however, and we certainly didn’t need both of them, especially as the broadcast rushed through things elsewhere.

With Corden mostly just there, this year’s ceremony was one in which the live musical performances really shone. Hadestown showed off its striking staging in an emotional performance of “Wait For Me.” Oklahoma! replicated its stripped down style with a medley of “I Cain’t Say No” and “Oklahoma.” Kiss Me, Kate showcased Warren Carlyle’s wildly impressive choreography in the showstopper “Too Darn Hot,” even though Carlyle’s work had already lost to Sergio Trujillo’s equally impressive reimagining of Temptations’ choreography for the jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud.

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Hadestown
Photo: John P. Filo (CBS)

The Prom, Tootsie, and The Cher Show delivered crowd-pleasing numbers with some impressive stage craft, even if they all felt just a touch generic. Beetlejuice came across surprisingly well, with star Alex Brightman getting a chance to do some Tony-specific riffing, including a funny gag about fellow nominee Adam Driver and his turn as Kylo Ren. In a relative rarity, a play even got a performance showcase for once. Having taken the stage earlier in the night as a Temptation, double nominee Jeremy Pope also performed a musical number from Choir Boy, a play written by Moonlight scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney. Unfortunately, those rightly blown away by the Choir Boy performance will be sad to learn that the show closed on Broadway back in March. (Keep an eye out for regional productions, though!)

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Apart from Choir Boy, the Tonys struggled to showcase its other play nominees, which is a consistent problem for the broadcast. The playwrights of the five Best Play nominees each gave a short speech introducing their work. While that led to some engaging speeches from the likes of McCraney, Heidi Schreck, and Taylor Mack (and a somewhat strange moment where Jez Butterworth went off-script to monologue about his partner Laura Donnelly, who inspired his play and starred in it), I’m not sure it gave viewers a particularly good sense of the plays themselves. The Tonys would be much better served by putting together a 1-2 minute “trailer” of footage from each play, one that lets you see the impressive realism of Butterworth’s The Ferryman or the manic comedic tone of Mack’s Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus.

Choir Boy
Photo: John P. Filo (CBS)
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More so than any other awards show, the Tonys celebrate art that’s inaccessible to most people in the country. That’s part of what makes the show so vital—it’s a rare chance for theater lovers to get a glimpse of the alluring world of Broadway. Yet that also means the audience needs more context than usual for the art being honored, which this year’s Tonys were strangely reluctant to provide.

Whereas the new plays at least sort of got intros, the play revivals weren’t given any context at all. That means viewers might have missed out on a really unique moment in tonight’s broadcast. Writer Mart Crowley was in his early 30s when his groundbreaking queer play The Boys In The Band premiered off-Broadway in 1968. Tonight, at age 83, he accepted a Tony award for the Broadway debut of that same show. That’s a very cool bit of theater history, and one the Tony Awards could have contextualized a lot better.

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Mart Crowley accepts a Tony on behalf of The Boys In The Band revival
Photo: John P. Filo (CBS)

Thankfully, you can always count on the Tonys to have the best awards speeches, since theater people know how to play to a crowd. Hadestown featured actor André De Shields was magnetic in an appropriately otherworldly speech. Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin—only the fourth ever woman to win a Tony for directing a musical—didn’t mince words as she demanded more equality for women and people of color in Broadway creative roles. Oklahoma!’s Ali Stroker dedicated her award to people with disabilities who now have an example to follow in her path to Broadway success. In one of the night’s most memorable moments, Elaine May ended her speech with a great punchline about how her co-star Lucas Hedges earned her her Tony thanks to an emotional speech he delivers after her character dies.

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All in all, this was a mostly satisfying, if not completely exhilarating year for the Tonys. I’ll remember the winners and I’ll remember some of the musical performances, but I doubt I’ll revisit the opening number in the way I still do with Neil Patrick Harris’ “Bigger” or last year’s openhearted tribute to losers. Even in a so-so year, however, the Tonys remain one of the best awards show on TV, particularly for theater fans. It would just be nice if next year’s broadcast finds a voice that’s a little more original.


Stray observations

  • Best dressed: It’s a tie between Lucy Liu’s gorgeous purple gown, André De Shields’ golden winged shoes (on theme since he plays Hermes in Hadestown), and Billy Porter’s stunning red ensemble, which was made out of a curtain from Kinky Boot.
  • Cynthia Erivo’s in memoriam performance of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” was absolutely breathtaking.
  • There were a few technical snafus with sound throughout the night, including some disconcerting ambient noise during Corden’s first big monologue. On the other hand, the show smoothly covered up the awkward reality of having to play people off the stage by cutting to audience reaction shots instead of sticking with the winner as they realize what’s happening.
  • It felt like the “We’re Live!” opening number was building to a “Being Alive” homage, but, alas.
  • After cracking a joke about a straight old white man finally getting a break, Bryan Cranston dedicated his Network win to journalists, noting, “The media is not the enemy of the people. Demagoguery is the enemy of the people.” Meanwhile, Cher Show winner Stephanie J. Block thanked God for her life and the Goddess Cher for hers.
  • It’s a shame that the technical and lifetime achievement awards get handed out off-air. On the other hand, I appreciate that the broadcast makes a point to showcase at least one or two memorable lines from each winner.
  • The cast of the upcoming adaptation of Moulin Rogue! introducing the puppet from King Kong felt like the weirdest game of Tonys’ Mad Libs ever.
  • If you’re interested, I shared some more in-depth thoughts on this year’s musical nominees here.
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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.