The Tony Awards are an odd beast—an awards show in which the vast majority of the country has no real access to the art being lauded; a celebration of theater that’s eager to get as many famous Hollywood faces onstage as possible. Naturally, that begs the question: Who exactly are the Tony Awards for? Everyday viewers looking to do their yearly check in on the New York theater scene? The Broadway community looking to honor its best and brightest? Producers hoping to increase name recognition for their shows? Thankfully, back in his 2013 opening number “Bigger,” Neil Patrick Harris (courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda) provided the perfect answer to that question:
There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere who’s sitting there living for Tony performances, singin’ and flippin’ along with the Pippins and Wickeds and Kinkys, Matildas and Mormonses. / So we might reassure that kid / And do something to spur that kid. / Cause I promise you all of us up here tonight / We were that kid.
Yes, the Tony Awards are about honoring talent and selling tickets, but they’re equally designed to be a gift to theater kids thousands of miles away from the Great White Way—those who can only engage with Broadway via cast albums, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade appearances, and BroadwayWorld.com forums. For marginalized kids, the Tonys are a reminder that, yes, it does get better. There are communities who will embrace and celebrate you for who you are. There’s a fundamental earnestness to the Tonys that sets them apart from other awards shows. And while the Tonys have sometimes tried to move away from that in favor of snark (another signature of the theater world), this year’s ceremony leaned directly into the earnestness—and it was all the better for it.
An ongoing motif of the evening featured childhood photos of the night’s presenters in their first theatrical productions—a reminder that a love of theater often starts early. But this year’s ceremony didn’t just metaphorically reach out to theater kids across the country, it literally brought them onstage too. After their drama teacher Melody Herzfeld received the Excellence in Theatre Education Award, students from Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School performed a beautiful rendition of “Seasons Of Love” from Rent. And that song choice encapsulates the night as a whole. Rent is the kind of show it’s easy to scoff at as a cynical adult, but which generally means a whole hell of a lot to teenagers. Rather than feel the need to lampshade the overly earnest choice, the Tonys just let a group of resilient teenagers perform a song that clearly resonates deeply with them.
Though the Parkland performance was the standout moment of the show, it worked so well because it flowed naturally from the openhearted spirit of the evening, which originated in this year’s pitch-perfect hosts, Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban. Both are recognizable faces with legit Broadway cred (Bareilles wrote and later starred in Waitress while Groban enjoyed a well-received run in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812). But more importantly, both feel like the cool but approachable seniors in your high school drama club. Bareilles and Groban provided the perfect balance of joyful enthusiasm and self-deprecation throughout the night, especially in their low-key opening number (written by Bareilles), which acknowledged the fact that neither of them has ever won any major awards before warmly toasting the “losers” of the world. Plenty of awards shows have made similar jokes in the past, but this one sang—literally.
Bareilles and Groban were great anchors throughout the evening, popping up every so often to provide a sense of continuity without eating up too much screentime. They made fun of their particular musical niches (music you’d hear in a Starbucks, songs you’d put on a mixtape labeled “emotional”), and delightfully underplayed the visual gag of appearing in each other’s most recent Broadway costumes. Not everything they did worked (their Sia-themed lament about Broadway’s grueling schedule felt a little undercooked), but kudos to Bareilles for earning one of the biggest laughs of the night just by acknowledging a technical timing snafu.
Whereas the Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys can count on their audiences having at least some familiarity with the art being honored, the Tonys are more explicitly designed to serve as an intro to what Broadway has to offer. So it helps that a lot of this year’s nominees come with plenty of name recognition. Technically all four of this year’s Best Musical nominees are based on existing properties, although only three of them are well-known ones: Mean Girls, Frozen, and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical. Of the three, Mean Girls turned in the weakest showing (I’m not a huge fan of the score to begin with) with a mash-up of “Where Do You Belong?” and “Meet The Plastics.” The other two shows, however, faired much better with flashy, upbeat performances of “For The First Time In Ever”/”Let It Go” and “I’m Not A Loser,” respectively. Anything that allows Caissie Levy and Gavin Lee to sing on national TV is fine by me.
But the night belonged to The Band’s Visit—a quiet, intimate musical based on a 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian police orchestra that accidentally winds up stranded in a tiny town in Israel. The show took home 10 Tony awards, winning all but one of the categories in which it was nominated (Best Scenic Design of a Musical went to SpongeBob). As Broadway increasingly draws inspiration from big name source material, it’s wonderful to see something as mature and musically original as The Band’s Visit win in such a major way. And hopefully those awards—coupled with Katrina Lenk’s captivating performance of “Omar Sharif”—will bring more attention to the show. I only wish David Yazbek’s win for Best Score had been televised in the main ceremony.
Elsewhere, the Tonys still hasn’t figured out how to showcase its straight play nominees. The ceremony made stabs at showing off the stagecraft of big winners Angels In America and Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, but ignored the other plays almost entirely. And even Cursed Child felt weirdly underrepresented given the raves it’s been getting for its special effects. At least Josh Groban transforming into Cursed Child star Jamie Parker provided an appropriately magical moment.
Though the awards themselves mostly played out as expected with Cursed Child, Angels, and The Band’s Visit all winning big, this year’s ceremony brought just enough surprises to keep things interesting for Broadway nerds. I audibly gasped when Best Book went to Itamar Moses (The Band’s Visit) rather than Tina Fey (Mean Girls), who had been heavily gunning for the award. I was similarly surprised to see Carousel’s Joshua Henry lose to The Band’s Visit’s Tony Shalhoub for Best Actor in a Musical. Meanwhile, Once On This Island got the surprise of a lifetime when the production took home the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical over well-received productions of both Carousel and My Fair Lady. The team’s genuine surprise and enthusiasm was an infectious jolt of energy to the broadcast, as was the show’s performance of “Mama Will Provide,” featuring a great turn from former Glee star Alex Newell.
Admittedly, not everything about the ceremony worked, and things particularly started to drag in the final third of the three-hour broadcast. In addition to being honored with a special Tony award, Bruce Springsteen was given ample time to perform a monologue and brief song from his one-man Broadway residency Springsteen On Broadway. While Springsteen fans may have been thrilled, it went on far longer than it needed to without any real payoff at the end. Ditto a bizarrely frenetic montage in which Bareilles and Groban honored Lifetime Achievement recipients Chita Rivera and Andrew Lloyd Webber. There were also a couple painfully awkward moments in which thank-you speeches were cut short even as the camera couldn’t quite decide if it wanted to cut away or not.
For the most part, however, things ran fairly smoothly. And thankfully, you can always count on a group of theater folk to give poised, thoughtful speeches. Angels In America’s Andrew Garfield spoke about LGBTQ rights; Shalhoub and Carousel’s Lindsay Mendez honored their heritage; Patti LuPone celebrated outspoken women; John Leguizamo recounted his unlikely path to Broadway; Angels In America scribe Tony Kushner reminded viewers that the midterm elections are only 21 weeks away; and The Band’s Visit director David Cromer emphasized the importance of reaching out to those struggling with depression
But, for me, the speech of the night went to The Band’s Visit’s Ari’el Stachel (a Tony winner in his Broadway debut!) who talked about the joy of finally playing a Middle Eastern character after years of feeling the need to downplay his ethnicity, particularly after 9/11. Stachel ended his speech by noting, “I want any kid who is watching to know that your biggest obstacle may turn into your purpose.” Much more so than the glitz, glam, and kicklines, that sentiment encapsulates the true spirit of the Tony Awards.
- For those confused at home, the sound cut out during Robert DeNiro’s Springsteen intro because DeNiro opened with the line, “I’m gonna say one thing—fuck Trump. It’s no longer ‘Down with Trump,’ it’s ‘Fuck Trump.’” Here’s unedited video from the Australian feed that helps contextualize the audience’s enthusiastic standing ovation.
- Other performances: My Fair Lady did a medley of “The Rain In Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “Get Me To The Church On Time”; Carousel emphasized its choreography with “Blow High, Blow Low”; the current company of Dear Evan Hansen performed “For Forever” during the In Memoriam segment; and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical performed “Last Dance” because why not.
- I don’t think the backstage segments utilized Rachel Bloom as well as last year, but she more than made up for it with this Twitter exchange.
- I can’t remember if it’s been similar in years passed, but I liked how the camerawork often mirrored what it’s like to watch a Broadway show from the front row, box seats, balcony, etc.
- If you’re reading a review of the Tony Awards you probably already know this, but listening to cast recordings is such a great way to engage with musical theater without having to travel to New York! There are tons of musicals I’d consider favorites that I’ve never even seen on stage. To get you started, here’s a YouTube playlist of The Band’s Visit’s achingly beautiful score.
- Best presenter: Tituss Burgess. Best dressed: Ming-Na Wen. Best beard: Norbert Leo Butz. Best disinterested reaction to a goat: Nathan Lane.