A Theater Critic Reviews the 2019 Tony Awards
Great performances buttress a predictable procession of winners at this year's ceremony.
The Tony Awards are the biggest night in American theater, but with flagging ratings in an ever-expanding television landscape, they only register as a blip on the radar of the wider culture. This development is distressing for those of us who love the theater, but there are clear reasons for it: Unlike the Academy Awards, the Tonys recognize work that only those who have been in a Broadway theater in the past year have had the privilege of enjoying. Perhaps acknowledging this, the Tonys still employ hosts that mainstream audiences are likely to recognize. This year, the ceremony was competently emceed by CBS ''Late Late Show" host James Corden.
The show opened with Corden seated on a couch binge-watching TV. As Corden sang a little song about his boredom, the walls rose away to reveal the entire house of Radio City Music Hall behind him — essentially, the entire professional theater community. An extravagant production number by Tom Kitt and David Javerbaum followed, which highlighted every Best Musical nominee. It was a strong opening from an amiable host. Corden later starred in a midshow performance of "Michael in the Bathroom" with rewritten lyrics, which were hilarious, even if they failed to mention the name of the show the song came from, the under-nominated Be More Chill.
Unfortunately, the first half of the telecast was plagued with sound issues and technical difficulties, with microphones buzzing with feedback and some of the presenters mentioning blank teleprompters. It wasn't the cleanest show ever helmed by longtime director Glenn Weiss, but it did manage to showcase the Best Musical nominees in elegant and smart ways.
And that's the real purpose of the Tony Awards telecast: It's a three-hour infomercial on primetime TV about Broadway. Acknowledging that, Beetlejuice (which won no awards) actually won the Tony telecast by presenting a rollicking performance of its opening number, but with new lyrics tailored to the event. In full Beetlejuice drag, star Alex Brightman beseeched the viewers of the Tonys to "hold on to their Patti Luponys," calling out Adam Driver and Glenda Jackson. It was irreverent and fun and exactly the kind of performance that will get home viewers googling about tickets.
Kiss Me, Kate also had a good showing with a thrilling performance of "Too Darn Hot" that surely had everyone in Radio City wondering how Warren Carlyle lost the Best Choreography Tony.
Several other shows turned in fine performances: The Prom went for a medley that showed off Casey Nicholaw's energetic choreography and a lesbian kiss that is sure to be much parsed and enumerated on social media. Oklahoma! captured the show's immersive nature with onstage seating, and its punk-rock spirit with an angry rendition of the title song that culminated in Will Brill chucking a can of Bud Light at the camera.
Hadestown delivered a plot condensation leading into "Wait for Me," which showed off director Rachel Chavkin's Tony-winning staging of swinging lights forming an obstacle course to hell. The show opted not to perform the most remarked-upon number of the show, "Why We Build the Wall," which would have felt like such a direct message to Trump's America, it might have made Tucker Carlson on Monday. It seems like Hadestown won't need the extra publicity, though: As predicted, it won Best Musical.
That was just the foremost of a lot of expected wins. Basically, everyone that we predicted would win a Tony Award did: The Ferryman won Best Play, Santino Fontana won for Best Actor in a Musical, and Stephanie J. Block won Best Actress in a Musical. Bryan Cranston won Best Actor in a Play, dedicating his win to journalists around the world. Ali Stroker of Oklahoma!, who won the Drama Desk Award last Sunday, won again for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role, becoming the first actor in a wheelchair to win a Tony Award.
Winning Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play for her work in The Waverly Gallery, the elusive Elaine May delivered the best acceptance speech of the night: She graciously spoke about costar Lucas Hedges's moving performance of a monologue near the end of the play describing her character's death, recalling, "Watching from the wings, I thought: I'm gonna win this guy's Tony."
It was a moment for the ages in a Tony Awards telecast that was otherwise forgettable. There were no major upsets, the performances went off without a hitch, and the whole thing wrapped up just nine minutes overtime. I doubt the telecast won many converts to the religion of Broadway tonight; but for the faithful, it was a joyous reminder of why we love the theater.