Of Humans and Hamilton: A Review of the 70th Annual Tony Awards
Bertolt Brecht would have loved this year's Tony Awards. The German playwright believed that an overly suspenseful plot got in the way of an audience absorbing the themes of the play, so he liked to tell his audiences what was going to happen beforehand. Proving his theory, the 70th annual ceremony (held this year at the Beacon Theatre) was one of the most predictable in recent memory, but also one of the most exciting. We all knew that Hamilton would take home the night's biggest prize (Best Musical) along with a slew of other awards (11 in total). Seeing it unfold was not only delightfully entertaining, but also offered an opportunity to pause and reflect on what this means for the American theater.
Much of the entertainment factor can be attributed to affable new host James Corden. We fondly recall Corden raiding the bar at the 2012 Drama Desk Awards after he won Outstanding Actor for One Man, Two Guvnors. Now that he's a Hollywood star (Into the Woods) and the host of CBS' Late Late Show, hosting the Tonys felt like a perfect fit.
Corden began the evening on a somber note, acknowledging the tragic mass shooting in Orlando as the entire Broadway community appeared at his back. He immediately pivoted to levity with an opening number in which he sang a few bars from no fewer than 20 shows, including "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls and "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy. It culminated with every acting nominee onstage singing "This could be where you belong" to the television audience, encapsulating what this evening is all about: The Tonys aren't just an infomercial for the theater industry, but the homing beacon of Broadway, calling out to its lost children all over the world for one magical night.
Corden largely stepped out of the way after that magnificent introduction. There were no more contrived numbers to entertain the home audience, and really, why should there be when there is so much great material on Broadway this year? We were treated to generous helpings of that from this year's nominees, including hugely energetic performances from Fiddler on the Roof and On Your Feet! (which was only nominated for Sergio Trujillo's choreography, but rocked the house with a joint performance by Ana Villafañe and Gloria Estefan). "She Used to Be Mine" from Waitress was a real high point: Composer Sara Bareilles sang the first verse, pitching it over to star Jessie Mueller, who knocked it out of the park.
Clearing the way for these awesome performances, head writer Dave Boone kept his intros short and sweet, eschewing the cheesy and inoffensive jokes that so typically characterize awards shows. For the most part, veteran director Glenn Weiss (who has won nine Emmy Awards for previous Tony telecasts) captured the essence of each number, with only the performance of Spring Awakening feeling frustratingly limited by the camera.
Weiss had the mammoth job of not only covering the stage of the Beacon, but a second stage erected outside the theater inspired by the popular #Ham4Ham performances before the Hamilton lottery. Throughout the evening, the casts of nominated shows came out to perform their favorite show tunes: Fiddler sang "There's No Business Like Show Business" from Annie Get Your Gun and Shuffle Along sang "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat" from Guys and Dolls. Not only did this bring the show to the street, but it offered an extra opportunity to showcase the amazing talents appearing (quite literally) on Broadway.
Naturally, the most memorable speech of the night came from Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. Accepting the award for Best Score, he offered a sonnet praising his wife and reflecting on the shooting in Orlando: "Senseless acts of tragedy remind us / that nothing here is promised, not one day," he said, becoming emotional on the line, "Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love." It was impossible not to get a little verklempt.
The excitement around Hamilton allowed the Tonys to do something it rarely ever does: It ran over by 20 minutes. In truth, there was some fat that could have been cut (although hilarious, a rebroadcast of Corden's Broadway Carpool Karaoke video felt like unnecessary filler). But why not luxuriate in the moment? "Good thing I wore the right outfit," Barbra Streisand said before announcing the inevitable winner of Best Musical. She was obviously going for Hamilton couture, but looked a bit more like the vampire Lestat.
While this may seem like a fluke, a rare year in which Broadway can get away with bogarting so much of the national attention, one gets the sense that this may just be an opening act. In her acceptance speech for Best Featured Actress, The Humans star Jayne Houdyshell said to her playwright, Stephen Karam, "Thank God you are 36 years old," predicting many more wonderful plays in his future. Lin-Manuel Miranda is also 36. So is Sara Bareilles. If their work is this great at 36, what will they be creating at 46 or 56? Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller said it best by quoting his own show: "How lucky we are to be alive right now."