In the creative process, you must be willing to kill your darlings. Can you do without that scene you love, or that hilarious one-liner that does nothing to further the story? Writers know all about this, and the more clear-eyed of them watching the 76th Annual Tony Awards from the picket line surely saw what many of us watching from home realized: The Tony Awards are better without writers.
As I’ve previously reported, it was possible that the Tony Awards wouldn’t even be broadcast this year in light on the ongoing writers’ strike. But in an act of mercy, the Writers Guild agreed not to picket the Tonys while urging its members not to attend an event that still represents millions in advertising revenue for CBS. No WGA writers were involved in the creation of the evening and their absence had the potential to demonstrate just how vital they are to events like this.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the show felt tighter and more organized than in previous years. We didn’t have to suffer through lame wisecracks from the presenters or cutesy sketches from the host, Ariana Debose, who opened her segment of the show with a wordless dance number (brilliantly choreographed by Karla Puno Garcia) that showed off the gorgeous lobby of the United Palace, the uptown venue where the Tonys were held this year. Without a script, DeBose had precious little to do but mitigate expectations, warning, “To anyone who thought last year was a bit unhinged, to them I say, ‘Darlings, buckle up.'” But there was very little turbulence on display.
Instead, the home audience was treated to performances from all the nominated musicals (and a couple of unnominated ones). We even got to see snippets of performances from individual actors — in plays! The whole thing ended at exactly 11pm, without any of the overtime that habitually plagues bloated award shows. This was a better Tonys than any I’ve previously covered.
Don’t take my word for it. Our greatest living playwright and last night’s Tony Award winner for Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard, offered some words of support for striking writers while also observing, “Without a script, with the possible exception of ballet and award evenings, we’re basically flummoxed.” No one seemed flummoxed onstage last night.
As in previous years, the night began on a streaming platform. Tony viewers were encouraged to tune into Pluto TV at 6:30pm before making a needlessly complicated switch over to CBS or Paramount+ at 8pm. (Why not just stream the whole thing on Paramount?) Julianne Hough and Skylar Astin hosted that segment, dubbed “Act One,” with minimal fuss, blasting through six categories in the first half-hour. It was delightful to actually hear from designers as they accepted their awards, as well as Lifetime Achievement Award recipients John Kander and Joel Grey. “Act One” wrapped up with 16 minutes to spare, roughly the length of a Broadway intermission. I was able to switch over to CBS early and catch Anderson Cooper’s interview with David Byrne on 60 Minutes.
The smoothness of the event shouldn’t surprise anyone who has spent any time around Broadway: When you perform eight times a week, you learn to persevere over the unexpected and go on with the show. After taking a selfie with several members of the audience, DeBose seemed to lose her place in the order and said to the camera, “Please welcome whoever walks out onstage next.” And we did (it was David Henry Hwang and Kenny Leon to present the Best Featured Actress in a Play Tony to Miriam Silverman). Any other mistakes were quickly high-stepped over by a parade of song and dance.
Big production numbers from Some Like It Hot, & Juliet, and Shucked conveyed the irresistible joy of those shows, while Sweeney Todd showcased its chillingly sharp cast led by Josh Groban (as well as Natasha Katz’s Tony Award-winning lighting design). Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond brought the house down with a powerful rendition of “This Is Not Over Yet” from Parade, which went on to win in the hotly contested revival category. And the cast of Kimberly Akimbo delivered a heartfelt performance of “Anagram,” proving why that show deserved to win the Best Musical Award (despite my incorrect prediction that it wouldn’t).
The most cringe-inducing moment of the evening was a tie between the “Sweet Caroline” sing-along (led by Will Swenson and the cast of A Beautiful Noise) and the In Memoriam segment, which featured Joaquina Kalukango singing “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from The Phantom of the Opera as the names and photos of the deceased were projected on what appeared to be a leftover chunk of the Phantom set. It seemed to juxtapose that sure-to-be-resurrected mega-musical with the irrevocably dead, and it made me wonder what my late colleague Michael Feingold would have thought about being memorialized alongside a prop chandelier from a musical he didn’t much care for.
This year’s Tonys were not without politics, much of it relating to the writers’ strike, but not all: While reintroducing Jason Zembuch Young, a teacher from South Plantation High School in Florida and this year’s winner of the Tony for Excellence in Theater Education, Denée Benton referred to “the current grand wizard…I’m sorry, excuse me…governor of my home state of Florida,” provoking gasps in the audience. I’m not sure Ron DeSantis was actually watching to receive the barb, but he is a man who got married at Disney World, so I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that he’s also a closet show queen.
Michael Arden spoke for countless out-and-proud show queens when he accepted his first Tony, for directing Parade. It’s unfortunate that CBS, keen to avoid an FCC fine, censored part of his remarks (maybe they should offer an adult tier on Paramount+). I’ll just reprint them here: “Growing up, I was called the f-word more times than I can remember, and now all I can say is that I’m a faggot with a Tony.”
And you could be one too! That was the overarching message from writers, directors, designers, and actors: You may not think you have the right body type, personality, sexuality, or gender expression for showbusiness, but there’s a place for you in the theater. No one is better at delivering that message than the artists themselves — and that’s exactly what happened this year.