Theatre, live theatre — from dusty black box spaces in church basements in a quiet New Jersey suburb to the bright, shimmering, elusive lights of Broadway — is victory. This is what I think about as I watched the 72nd annual Tony awards on Jun. 10, on Missouri cable on my small, St. Louis apartment TV.
I love the Tony awards. I love the performances, the playful theatre banter that seems like inside jokes between me and the stars on the other side of my TV, the teary-eyed acceptance speeches, the dresses — I live for it. It’s a wonderful celebration of the collective spirit of the commercial theatre industry, the end goal for many of the theatre lovers on a theatrical career path. It would be mendacious of me to say that when I’m staring at the TV, eyes filled with tears myself, in my “Mean Girls On Broadway” T-shirt, that I’m not writing the script for my very own Tony acceptance speech in my head. But I also know that while the Tony awards are a fantastic celebration of bold and bright Broadway greats, they aren’t everything. And not winning a Tony award is no gauge of talent or worth. Perhaps being the 10-year-old playing a gender-bent Corny Collins in Hairspray Jr. because nobody else would in the youth center of your childhood hometown, is just as much of a win as a flashy Broadway award show.
What strikes me as cruel and unusual is the clapback of Tony spectators, all around the country, who take to social media immediately after a favorite of theirs doesn’t win with comments like, “that show was robbed” and “they deserved to win,” or even worse, bashing the show or performer that did take home the coveted award. This kind of attitude completely distracts from the true purpose of the Tonys — to celebrate theatre and art as a victory. To celebrate creating something that touches someone and inspires someone and moves someone, no matter how large and lavish or small and simple that performance is. The inclination to verbally destroy one piece of art on behalf of another or to take to social media only pits groups of people against one another. It accomplishes the complete opposite intention of theatre and art altogether.
It was victorious, when upon accepting his Tony for leading actor in a musical, Ari’el Stachel embraced his roots passionately, saying, “Both of my parents are here tonight, and I have avoided so many events with them because for so many years of my life, I pretended that I was not a Middle Eastern person,” equating the Tony award winning musical “The Band’s Visit” to a coming out journey of sorts. “And after 9/11, it was very, very difficult for me,” he continued, “And so I concealed and I missed so many special events with them. And they’re looking at me right now and I can’t believe it.”
It is heartbreaking to me that anyone could be so caught up in the literal “winning” or competitive aspect of an award show that they’d attempt to take away a moment that breathtaking from someone like Stachel. By sharing that story, reveling in his accomplishments and thanking the theatre community around him, everyone watching, and everyone who has seen that show and listened to that soundtrack wins too. Everyone nominated in the category with him wins as well, both by having eight shows a week and telling their own stories and by being equated to the caliber of Stachel, whose grace and emotion seemed to effuse from the television. The Tony awards lifted him up and gave him a space to thank the world for the opportunity to celebrate his heritage. But with or without an award, the ability to do this on stage is a victory.
The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School singing “Rent”’s “Seasons of Love” in unison to a quiet and open Radio City to commemorate the tremendous lives lost at their school months prior, is a victory. Their teacher Melody Herzfeld accepting her theater education prize spoke eloquently. “We all have a common energy,” she said. “We all want the same thing: To be heard. To tell our truth. To make a difference. And to be respected. We teach this every day in every arts class.” These words — and having the privilege to hear them — is quite possibly the biggest victory of all.
With these moments in mind, these artistic victories, there’s no reason to be concocting a harsh polemical against anyone making art in the world just because an awards show did not go your way. Today, all of us on the pursuit of creation — artists, musicians, actors, writers, readers, spectators, visionaries –– are winners. Because as creators, we give the world a lens through which, even in the darkest of times, can see beauty.