Twenty-four hours ago, in preparation for tonight’s Tony telecast, I went ahead and wrote a couple of paragraphs of this review, saying a few words about how pleased I was to be returning to The A.V. Club’s Tony beat after a few years away (after covering the show three times in the early days of TV Club); and writing about how this would be the first year that I’d be watching the Tonys as someone who’s finally, at age 45, been to his first Broadway shows. I was prepared to pivot from those paragraphs to a discussion of the ceremony itself, and to write with some first-hand knowledge for once about what a remarkable year it’d been for the American theater.
Then I woke up this morning, and everything had changed.
I imagine that the producers of the Tony Awards spent all day picking through their program, figuring out the best way to acknowledge the unspeakable tragedy in Orlando—while still putting on a show that could let people escape a painful reality for a few hours. That mustn’t have been an easy assignment. But it was a necessary one. Theater has been a haven and a rallying point for LGBT culture since well before Stonewall, and the Tonys have been ahead of the curve in major American award shows in acknowledging and celebrating queerness. A lot of us needed the Tonys tonight—especially in a year when so many nominated shows tell the story of America from the perspective of those who’ve so often been excluded from the narrative.
We may disagree on how much or how little the telecast should’ve brought up Orlando, or how well the presenters, recipients, and host handled the shooting. Personally, I thought the balance was just about right. James Corden’s quiet cold open—with the audience behind him—in which he described the ceremony as “a symbol and a celebration,” set the proper tone. And though only a handful of the people on the stage mentioned the slaughter at Pulse, those moments resonated all the more for not having their sincerity and eloquence drowned out. The Tonys tend to have the best acceptance speeches anyway, because the winners know how to perform. Add to that someone with the gravitas of Frank Langella reading a message of love, or someone with the hip cachet of Lin-Manuel Miranda penning and delivering an emotional sonnet, and I think it’s fair to say that this year’s show will be remembered for more than just the coronation of Hamilton.
As for the rest of the night… well, to some extent the producers had it easy, since this Broadway season has produced a dazzling array of likable and even groundbreaking work, including one of the hottest tickets in New York in years. Just about anyone with any interest in musical theater wants to get into Hamilton, and for one night at least, CBS had the exclusive rights to broadcast pieces of the show to the millions who’ve been dying to see more than just the few tidbits that have been performed or excepted on TV. In fact, one of the big questions pre-Tonys was which song or songs the Hamilton cast could do that would showcase all of their nominated actors. The choice of “History Has Its Eyes On You” and “Yorktown” may not have served winners Leslie Odom, Jr. or Renée Elise Goldsberry well, but it did capture the excitement of the actual Hamilton stagecraft better than any previous TV performance has, and let fans of the cast album know that—as painful as this may be for many of them to hear—there’s a lot about the musical that doesn’t translate via audio alone.
The tricky thing then for CBS was to get the most out of Hamilton without being unfair to the other nominees. And there I’m not sure the producers played square—although I doubt rabid Hamiltonians minded much. Every nominated musical gets a few minutes on the stage to strut its stuff, but the Tonys this year kept finding opportunities to sneak in more of its money-maker. The opening number was a Hamilton parody. Corden replayed his Late Late Show “Carpool Karaoke” segment with Miranda, singing two more Hamilton songs. And right after the musical won the big prize, the cast came back out to sing “The Schuyler Sisters” (where Odom and Goldsberry finally got their chance to shine). When pop scholars dig this show out of the vault decades from now to remember what the Tonys were like in the year of Hamilton, they won’t be disappointed by how fully the broadcast embraced its particular moment.
The cleverest bit of Hamiltonsploitation though was the recurring nod to Miranda’s #Ham4Ham shows, which he performs regularly outside The Richard Rodgers Theatre for all the people lining up to enter the $10 ticket lottery. Having the casts from the nominated musicals perform Broadway classics like “Tomorrow” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” out on the street served two good purposes: It allowed those casts to get a little extra camera-time themselves; and it celebrated the enthusiasm and creativity that Miranda has brought to the American theater. From Twitter to talk-show appearances, Miranda always communicates in ways that are surprising and original, and that always give his fans a little extra. (Case-in-point: That acceptance speech sonnet.) Even if the Tonys were just piggybacking off a popular idea—and, again, getting Miranda to perform a couple of more times—the ceremony still captured something essential about what’s been happening on Broadway.
Think of it this way: More than any other awards show, the Tonys are revisited and rewatched for years. That’s because it honors live theater, which, unlike movies and television, not everyone gets the chance to see. The Grammys come closest to the Tonys because of their one-of-a-kind musical performances, but the actual Grammy awards themselves are kind of a joke. Devotees of the Tonys, on the other hand, have vivid memories of each winner and each telecast, such that they can recall the big numbers from the first time that The Color Purple and Spring Awakening were nominated. Each one of these ceremonies becomes its own document, which ups the pressure to get the night right, for posterity.
This year’s musical numbers effectively represented the variety on Broadway right now, including the old-fashioned throwbacks like Fiddler On The Roof and She Loves Me (the latter of which is one of the two nominees I’ve actually seen, and one of the only live theater experiences I’ve had where the audience applauded the set as well the actors). School Of Rock and Waitress were 2016’s examples of Broadway repurposing movies, but with a level of wit and sophistication beyond the norm. And if not for Hamilton, there’s a good chance the night would’ve been dominated by Shuffle Along, a reportedly rollicking and stunningly recontextualized version of a 1920s “race musical.” Shuffle Along came across really well tonight; and The Color Purple and Spring Awakening were even more electrifying than they were a decade ago.
I wish the Tonys gave as much time to the plays as they used to back when I watched the show as a teenage drama geek. What was lacking in terms of actual clips was made up for by magnificent speeches like Langella’s, and Jessica Lange’s, and the amusingly half-self-deprecating/half-boastful director Ivo van Hove. Along those same lines, and iin keeping with what I was saying about Lin-Manuel Miranda always giving a little extra, every single one of the Hamilton winners gave speeches that were personal, heartfelt, and on-point. They all lived up to their adulation. (If you didn’t already love Daveed Diggs before watching the Tonys, you likely did afterward.)
Some may quibble with the choice of James Corden to host the Tonys, seeing it as a bit of obvious CBS self-promotion. Myself, I’m not the biggest Corden fan; and I thought roughly half of his jokes tonight either fell flat or came across as him trying too hard. But I liked him as the host overall, perhaps because he was so sparingly deployed. (I wonder if his time was cut back some due to Orlando.) And at least one of his comedy segments—where he identified Tony attendees by their Law And Order guest appearances—was pure gold.
I especially want to stand up for Corden’s opening song, which I saw getting dinged a bit on social media. It was an old-fashioned, even corny number, to be sure: an earnest salute to musical theater that quoted everything from Guys & Dolls to The Lion King. Corden even joked about the routine toward the end, asking Oprah Winfrey, “Have I ruined the Tonys?” But it was poignant too, on tonight of all nights, to hear Corden sing to all the misfit kids, “This could be where you belong.” Some years, the Tonys are a three-hour commercial for New York City tourism. This year, the show was a pledge of allegiance to theater itself.
And after the events of this weekend, that was even more inspiring than it otherwise might’ve been. It was stirring to see so many different kinds of faces on-stage, performing and being hailed—including the four black actors who made history by dominating the Musical and Musical Revival categories. But then it’s always been restorative, to check back once a year, and to be reminded of Broadway’s long history of letting outsiders in, to tell their stories.
- Until I re-read my old Tonys coverage, I’d honestly forgotten that Corden’s a Tony-winner. I wrote about the show the year he won, and cheered him on as “that guy from Gavin & Stacey.”
- How revolutionary was this year on Broadway? So much so that presenters and nominees who ordinarily would be the biggest draws in the room—like Steve Martin—were relegated to brief appearances. (Martin had one of the funniest lines of the night, though, talking about how making it to Broadway requires hard work, “Or you could do what I did: Already be famous.”)
- One reason why the Tonys are the best awards show is that the program moves quickly and logically through the prize-giving part. Also, like the Grammys (and unlike the Oscars and Emmys), it doesn’t spend the whole telecast apologizing for its own existence.
- Some fascinating commercials tonight, including a sneak peek at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work on Disney’s upcoming Moana. Fans of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt should’ve also enjoyed the brief snippet of Titus’ Hamilton audition tape—although we also know that Titus couldn’t be in Hamilton because, “I can’t rap or walk quickly in a circle.”
- So what would I have written had the past day gone differently for America and the world? Something about how for the first 45 years of my life my experience with the American theater had largely come from cast albums, published plays, newspaper critics, video clips, regional productions, and movie adaptations. But then as a combined present for my 45th birthday (which happened last September) and our 20th anniversary (happening this October), my wife Donna arranged for my parents to come stay and look after our kids for a few days, while she and I flew up to NYC. A year earlier—almost as soon as tickets went on sale—Donna had bought tickets for us to see Hamilton. It was already a hot show at the time, but not so hot yet that she couldn’t get face-value admission for a date that many months in the future. And so, we were there. In the room where it happens. History, happening in Manhattan. All of that. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life—and a memory I’ll cling to, in our darkest days.