Confession: I missed the beginning of the show live, including host James Corden’s over 10-minute opening number, and saw it after I’d watched the rest of the show.
I didn’t think that would shift the fabric of my whole viewing experience, but I saw more than a couple of grumpy-assed reviews this morning, and I disagree with them vehemently. Weird, right?
Aside from Corden’s opening number (it’s below, but you’re not missing much, unfortunately), this show was super enjoyable, and I couldn’t help comparing it to the Oscars… pretty unfavorably. I know. Stone me now.
It’s impressive in particular because this year’s Tonys, filled with a lot of revival shows and otherwise familiar stories like Beetlejuice and The Cher Show, still somehow feels fresh, in the following handy list for your reference:
1. It’s Pleasantly Predictable
The Tony Awards’ structure is ironclad and unimpeachable. Every act had a host bit or a joke (more on that later), an award, a presentation to a ‘special’ winner – most notably, Billy Porter did the ‘previously awarded tonight’ summary to the Drama Educator award, and even though you know it was what he was assigned, somehow he made it completely heartfelt – and then a performance. It’s comforting! People like knowing how long it will be before they won’t be bored!
2. You Make New Friends
Unlike the millions of titles at the Oscars, there are generally fewer shows nominated for Tonys, so that by the middle of the broadcast, even if you haven’t seen them, you wind up rooting for one overall, so that you’re proud of ‘your’ show, even in the not-so-glam or celeb-free categories.
3. The Celebrities
There are people who haaaate that Broadway has gone the way of casting ‘name’, film and television stars to bring in audiences, but as someone who obviously doesn’t hate it … they blend, here. You can hide a lot of ills on TV and Film, but nobody who can’t cut it lasts long on Broadway. So when Danai Gurira and Adam Driver are mixing it up with Elaine May and Josh Groban, you buy it – they belong here. The exception goes to Bryan Cranston’s ‘joke’ about “finally a win for a straight white man”, followed by a #MeToo reference moments later; it felt out of place and I think only his general belovedness by the audience will keep him from feeling the morning-after cringes today. But in general, the Tonys deliver what we always want and never get from celebrities: authenticity.
4. It’s For Everyone
Look, don’t yell at me, I mean everyone who might happen to be in the room while the TONYs are on – assuming anyone who truly hates music, theatre, or both is elsewhere. But they’re somehow so much better at blending the seasoned performers and the new in a way that doesn’t feel cloying, and in a way that’s beneficial.
Case in point – while I watched, my kid wandered in and out, staying for two sustained periods. The first was where Corden called out Adam Driver for having ‘killed Han Solo’, and the second was the performance from The Prom, which ends with two young women sharing a joyous, elated kiss. Both of which were moments that landed with me, too. How many shows do you know that are keeping the interest of multiple generations? On NETWORK TELEVISION?
5. The New Darling Game
One of the neat things about Broadway actors crossing over to film and TV is that people get to play the “Who’s My New Darling” game, falling in love over the years with ‘new discoveries’ who become household names, like Cynthia Erivo or Jessie Mueller or Billy Porter or this year’s clear-cut winner, the incredibly cool Ali Stroker, who won Best Featured Actress and is the first ever Tony award recipient to use a wheelchair. Her speech was great – and the fact that she’s starring in one of the oldest shows going, Oklahoma!, means there’s no storyline or historical accuracy or precedent or whatever that can be used as an excuse to exclude people who haven’t been able to get in the door (or on the stage) before now.
That was Best Director (for Hadestown) Winner Rachel Chavkin’s point, in a speech that’s going to be quoted for weeks:
“…I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season. There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of colour who are ready to go... This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way our world could be.”
You wouldn’t dare thank a list of agents and accountants after that.
The biggest division of all - the TONYs are a better show because everyone there knows how to be in a LIVE show. They react, they smile, they don’t hide from the cameras. The speeches are better, the wins are less gaspy and more general spreading of warmth. And it extends to the crowd-work bits, like this:
Okay, so the setup is kind of sweaty, and in general I thought Corden was fine but not excellent last night. But the performances are good – I could swear Rachel Brosnahan looked shocked to be called out at first. And the punchline? Linney and McDonald GO for it. They’re not embarrassed, they’re not halfway smiling. They’re performing some good theatre, which makes for good TV.
All this plus Catherine O’Hara’s dress (which of course I thought was perfectly on point for Schitt’s Creek doyenne Moira Rose but also evoked Beetlejuice - the work of fashion!) Judith Light’s dress (no greater point to make, I just loved it) and reliable charming-as-hell grins from Andrew Rannells… look, it moved, OK?
Broadway isn’t for everyone, musical theatre isn’t for everyone, we all know all that. But if live TV awards shows are supposed to be for everyone, ‘highest watched around the world’ and all that, maybe they could take a lesson from the people who know how it’s done.