This year’s Tony Awards had an immensely difficult task. They had to take on the evening after the deadliest shooting in American history. However, they didn’t back down. Instead, the Broadway community came together and put on a genuine celebration of the theatrical medium. The Tonys are always my favorite of the four major awards shows. Not only does everyone seem happy to be there and showcase their work for the national audience, but the winners bring an authentic sense of joy to their moments. After a powerful opening acknowledgement by host James Corden (“The Late Late Show,” who said “all we can say is you’re not on your own right now. Your tragedy is our tragedy”), the show went on. This year’s Tonys brought a sense of happiness that was necessary on a day like Sunday.
The host of an awards show is one of the most thankless jobs on television, but Corden embraced the position, bringing his immense skill set to the job. He was asked to sing, dance, tell jokes and deliver moments of solace to a grieving audience. He attacked each of these challenges with charm, charisma and gravitas. His opening number, while a little long, launched the night with enthusiasm and energy, as Corden moved through snippets from classic musicals in rapid succession and danced his way into our hearts. He also got to show off his more comedic side, with little bits during the show, including ones where he showcased presenter Josh Groban’s high school performance as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the amount of people in the theatre community who have been on “Law & Order” by displaying pictures of them on the show. He also introduced Andrew Rannells and Glenn Close dressed as Donald Drumpf and Hillary Clinton in “The Book of Moron” and “A Clinton Line” respectively.
It wasn’t just Corden who brought energy; the other performances from the nominated shows brought their best to the Beacon Theatre stage. The performances on the Tonys are consistently some of the best moments from awards shows, as Broadway shows share themselves with the national audience. This year’s ceremony brought us Audra McDonald tap dancing during a performance from “Shuffle Along.” The kids from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of “School of Rock,” who play their instruments live on stage, shined in a similar way to how the cast of “Matilda” stole the show a few years ago. The cast of the closed revival of “Spring Awakening” also brought their American Sign Language-infused choreography to the telecast. Personally, the way that production incorporated deaf cast members and ASL into the show (it’s entirely signed or captioned) changed the way musicals could be done for me when I saw it in December. Jane Krakowski, Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti also brought their fantastic performances in “She Loves Me” to the stage. (Levi’s enthusiasm as he sings “She Loves Me” will never fail to make me smile). There also was no shortage of emotional showstoppers, as Heather Headley, Danielle Brooks and the immensely talented Cynthia Erivo brought their huge voices to a number from “The Color Purple” and Jessie Mueller made me cry during her performance of “She Used to Be Mine” from Sara Bareilles’s “Waitress.”
Other highlights from the show came from its speeches, as the winners brought enthusiasm and gravity to their celebratory moments. A couple of winners brought up the shootings earlier that day. When Lin-Manuel Miranda won the Tony for Best Original Score for writing the music and lyrics of “Hamilton,” he performed a sonnet where he wrote: “When senseless acts of tragedy remind us nothing here is promised. Not one day. This show is proof that history remembers. … Love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.” Frank Langella, after winning Lead Actor in a Play for his performance as an elderly man with dementia in “The Father,” went up on stage and said: “I urge you, Orlando, to be strong because I’m standing in a room full of the most generous human beings on Earth and we will be with you every step of the way.” His words show how powerful live events like this can be, attempting to bring comfort in a difficult time.
However, the night belonged to “Hamilton,” which not only took home 11 awards (one short of 2001 record set by “The Producers”), but its cast also opened and closed the show. It’s no surprise that they dominated the awards, as the show is the biggest hit Broadway has seen in years. In fact, the ceremony gained two million viewers year-to-year, showcasing the clear impact “Hamilton” has had on the broader theater culture.
While talking to friends after the ceremony about the horrific events earlier in the day, I realized what this year’s Tonys provided. The ceremony showed the power theater has to be a place for people to forget what’s happening. They made me laugh and they made me cry from the powerful emotions in the performances. At its best, theater whisks you away into another world. It makes you forget your problems and the problems of the world. This year’s Tonys was a beacon of joy and celebration in a day surrounded by sadness.