Politics and Perseverance Propel a Joyful Tony Awards

Hosts Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban run a tight program that still leaves room for Broadway personalities to shine.

The Band's Visit actors Ari'el Stachel, Katrina Lenk, and Tony Shalhoub all won awards on Tony Sunday.
The Band's Visit actors Ari'el Stachel, Katrina Lenk, and Tony Shalhoub all won awards on Tony Sunday.
(© David Gordon)

In the face of ever-dwindling ratings, there's always a lot of hand-wringing about the Tony Awards telecast on CBS: Broadway watchers worry that there aren't enough household names among the nominees, and that the hosts don't have broad enough appeal. Last year's show hosted by Kevin Spacey (everyone's last choice) is an episode both CBS and the American Theatre Wing probably want to forget. Happily, this year's joyous and hopeful telecast is likely to help with that. It's not yet clear if the ratings for America's premier theater awards will rebound from last year's 15-year low, but quantity does not always equate to quality — especially if you're reaching the right people.

Tony nominees (but not winners) from 2017, Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban set the tone early on with an opening number written by Bareilles, Groban, and composer-lyricist Shaina Taub that saluted "the people who lose," asserting that if you make art at all, you're part of the cure for what ails the world. They later sang a hilarious spoof of Sia's "Chandelier" and a touching medley of songs for a tribute to Lifetime Achievement Award winners Chita Rivera and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Remarkably for first-time hosts, they also helped the telecast come in just five minutes over schedule, a rare achievement for a live awards show. Bareilles and Groban wisely played to their strengths, specifically their extraordinary voices. They also conveyed sincerity and warmth, showing off their childhood theater photos and asking the home audience to share their own, several of which featured later in the broadcast.

Everyone who was at Radio City Music Hall last night is talented, but someone still has to win, and one show did so spectacularly: ''The Band's Visit'' took home 10 Tony Awards, winning every category in which it was nominated with the exception of Scenic Design (snagged by David Zinn of SpongeBob SquarePants). The momentum for this simple musical about an Egyptian police band in Israel really took off with Itamar Moses's somewhat surprising win over Tina Fey (Mean Girls) in the Best Book category. Then, when Ari'el Stachel won for Best Featured Actor, it was clear that this was The Band's Visit's night.

That status was confirmed by the time Katrina Lenk gave an unforgettable performance of "Omar Sharif," intimately captured by director Glenn Weiss to convey the cinematic vibe of The Band's Visit. Weiss smartly highlighted the elements that make all of these nominated shows special, from snow blowing in front of the camera for Frozen to Gavin Lee's jaw-dropping four-legged tap dance routine in SpongeBob. The presentation of awards was also well-choreographed, with just two awkward missteps: The first was when Harry Potter and the Cursed Child playwright Jack Thorne was cut off before his acceptance speech for Best Play, a moment that was compounded by the orchestra playing the whole team offstage to Carole King's "Natural Woman." The orchestra also gave the team of Once on This Island the musical vaudeville hook as it accepted the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.

It's too bad because Once on This Island proved that it deserved the win with the best performance of the evening, a jubilant event that culminated with Nathan Lane having a close encounter with a goat. Alex Newell, who many consider the most unjustly snubbed actor the year, gave a rendition for "Mama Will Provide" that surely made the nominators regret their omission.

The performances are always the best part, but the presenters were often just as noteworthy. Head writer Dave Boone did an excellent job of crafting material tailored to each person: Amy Schumer introduced the performance of My Fair Lady by calling it a "comedy about classism and sexism" and referring to Henry Higgins as a "mansplainer." The combination of messenger and message was enough to make the anti-Schumer crowd scowl, but it was an introduction that would have made George Bernard Shaw proud.

Some of the presenters were even less coy about their politics: Introducing a rambling musical monologue by Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro simply remarked, "F*ck Trump," leading to a standing ovation as the audio was cut off for several seconds.

Other moments were less confrontational, but no less political. Drama teacher Melody Herzfeld, of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (the site of a horrific school shooting), received the Tony Award for excellence in theater education. Afterward, her students gave an emotional (and surprisingly professional) performance of "Seasons of Love" from Rent.

While accepting his award, Stachel spoke about hiding his Middle Eastern heritage in post-9/11 America in an effort to be considered for a greater range of roles. He then introduced his parents, who were his guests for the evening. He finished off by saying, "I want any kid watching to know that your biggest obstacle may turn into your purpose."

Earlier, Best Featured Actress in a Musical winner Lindsay Mendez (Carousel shared a similar story: "When I moved to New York, I was told to change my last name from Mendez to Matthews," she recounted, advising, "To all the artists out there, be yourself and the world will take note."

Lindsay Mendez of Carousel won the 2018 Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical.
Lindsay Mendez of Carousel won the 2018 Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical.
(© David Gordon)

Such messages seem guaranteed to alienate a certain set of viewers, but appealing to everyone in America was never the purpose of the Tony Awards. The artists and producers of this year's telecast rightly understand that this event is a vital homing beacon for theater people around the world, people who think differently and dream beyond their so-called limitations. This telecast may not turn out to be a ratings bonanza, but it spoke loud and clear to the people who need to hear it: There's a place for you.