BWW Review: What You Missed at the 2019 TONY AWARDS Broadcast!
At the 73rd annual Tony Awards, the best and brightest of the Broadway season was on full display. The show featured performances from the season's shows, plus a slew of powerful wins and speeches. I spent the night watching the broadcast closely to put together a comprehensive recap and review - ahead, check out some of the most talked-about moments of the night!
Returning as host after his well-received turn in 2016, James Corden presided over a broadcast that was, in turns, utterly charming and utterly ridiculous. The opening number, highlighting the special joys of live theater, did drag on a bit, but Corden is so overflowing with that genuine joy of loving theatre. He taps into a very geeky, everyman sort of enthusiasm that reminds us all how "you can feel a sense of wonder reawaken in you" each time we step into a theater.
The highlight of his mid-broadcast bits was by far "James in the Bathroom," a hilarious and spot-on parody of BE MORE CHILL's signature solo "Michael in the Bathroom." And it only got funnier when last year's hosts Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles joined in the fun - followed by the most spot-on (and restrained) Neil Patrick Harris cameo anyone could ask for. Unfortunately, not all his interstitial bits worked as well; a bit that staged stars in the audience being asked to "call out" other performers was cringey and went on way too long. Some of those ridiculous transitions could easily have been cut to make room for presenting a handful of creative awards on the broadcast.
Still, the most important quality in a Tony host is a clear, enthusiastic love for the magic of theatre (and a willingness to step aside to let the shows shine), and Corden has that in spades. We've just gotta work on that pacing (and maybe the broadcast's camera work too).
AIN'T TOO PROUD kicked the night off right with a spot-on medley that highlighted the depth of talent in their cast. It's tough to do jukebox musicals right, especially for televised performances that only get a few moments to prove that they're more than very expensive tribute bands. By interspersing a bit of narration and the sheer energy onstage, AIN'T TOO PROUD hit the right notes.
It was pretty much a given that TOOTSIE would perform a number that would show off star Santino Fontana's Tony-winning transformation from "Michael Dorsey" to "Dorothy Michaels." While I'm forever in awe of how Fontana switches around his vocals and mannerisms seemingly effortlessly, the production's "Unstoppable" was fun, but ultimately a bit hollow. The show's strength is its talented cast, rather than its material.
Where the first two performances of the night were, by necessity, fairly old-fashioned and straightforward, the revival of OKLAHOMA! was ready to shake things up, and that's exactly what they did. The medley started with a gleeful "I Cain't Say No" from Tony winner Ali Stroker before segueing into the title song. From the palpable chemistry between Damon Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones to the rough, just-edgy-enough energy of the whole cast, everything about this number showed that everything's up to date for this OKLAHOMA!
On the opposite end of the spectrum, BEETLEJUICE poured out plenty of energy but with so-so returns. While Alex Brightman's quippy jabs in the rewritten lyrics to "The Whole Being Dead Thing" were pointed and often funny (personal favorite: directing a "you killed Han Solo!" jab at Adam Driver), the number as a whole was a bit on the messy side, both musically and visually.
THE PROM has been using its splashy finale "It's Time to Dance" for many of its promotional appearances, and it's easy to see why: it's a fun, giddy group dance number that lends itself well to promoting the show within a short time span. For the Tonys, though, the song was smartly preceded by a snippet of "Tonight Belongs to Us" featuring leading nominees Brooks Ashmanskas and Caitlin Kinnunen, which brought a bit more quirky character to the performance.
CHOIR BOY isn't a "musical" in the traditional sense, but the music-heavy play broke into some of the musical-dominated categories this year, so it makes sense that the cast would perform on the broadcast. What followed was a sparse, unusual, and entirely moving performance that demonstrated the possibilities of music on stage.
I feared the unique aesthetic and staging of HADESTOWN wouldn't translate well to the Radio City stage, but I should never have let doubt come in. Starting with newly-minted Tony winner André de Shields narrating an adjusted version of the bittersweet bookend song "Road to Hell," the number opened up into "Wait For Me," the show's stunning visual and musical centerpiece, complete with mesmerizing swinging lamps and stunning lighting by Tony winner Bradley King. It's entrancing even in this scaled-back form and was the highlight of the show by far.
KISS ME, KATE followed in the footsteps of last year's CAROUSEL and featured an ensemble-heavy dance number with "Too Darn Hot." It's a shame we didn't get to see Kelli O'Hara, Will Chase, or Stephanie Styles, but what we did get was semi-surprising proof that Corbin Bleu, somewhere along the line, transformed himself into a modern-day Gene Kelly, packed with tap-dancing talent and sly charm.
As the only musical performing that wasn't up for one of the night's top prizes, THE CHER SHOW had a lot of ground to cover. The trio of leading ladies - Micaela Diamond, Teal Wicks, and soon-to-be-Tony-winner Stephanie J. Block - were fantastic, nailing Cher's vocals and mannerisms. And yet it, too, still felt mostly like a particularly well-produced Cher tribute more than anything.
For the night's "In Memoriam," Tony winner Cynthia Erivo presided over the usual montage of theatre community members who passed away this past year (with a pre-montage introduction by Brian Stokes Mitchell, who paid special tribute to the late Marin Mazzie). It's always a solemn segment, although this year's choice of song was a bit odd: THE LION KING's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."
For the most part, the winners' circle was packed with expected victors. Hadestown was the big winner on the musical side, taking home eight trophies, including wins for featured actor André de Shields, Anais Mitchell's extraordinary score, and best musical. Rachel Chavkin also took home the best director award, two seasons after her equally spectacular work in The Great Comet failed to garner her a win. The edgy Oklahoma! revival (playfully dubbed "Sexy Oklahoma" by fans and commentators) snagged the win over the more traditional Kiss Me Kate, plus a history-making win by featured actress Ali Stroker.
As expected, The Ferryman took home the best play award, despite a late surge of support for Heidi Schreck's masterful What the Constitution Means to Me. Across the board, acting wins mostly went to predicted winners. Frankly, the biggest upset of the night came in the scenic design of a musical category, where Rachel Hauck of Hadestown pulled off the win over expected favorite David Korins of Beetlejuice.
As per usual, the night's winners had plenty to say in their acceptance speeches. Featured actor in a musical winner De Shields shared his inspiring "three cardinal rules for longevity": "One, surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Two, slowly is the fastest way to get where you want to be. And three, the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing!"
Best score winner Mitchell also talked about "three things" in her speech: three things that are true "for making a musical, and also for making great change: nobody does it alone, it takes a long time, and it is worth it!"
They weren't the only Hadestown winners to raise their voices in inspiring fashion while at the winners' podium. After thanking her loved ones and collaborators, director Chavkin ended her speech with a passionate rallying cry for more voices in the theatre:
"Life is a team sport, and so is walking out of hell... whether you can keep faith when you are made to feel alone and it reminds us how that is how power structures try to maintain control... This is why 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, artists of color ready to go, and we need to see that [same] diversity in our critical establishment too. This is not a pipeline issue, it's a failure of imagination by a field whose job it is to imagine how the world could be."
Oklahoma!'s Stroker became the first performer who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony for her giddy, fierce Ado Annie, and in her speech, she gave a shout-out to those who would be most affected by and inspired by her win. "This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena: you are!"
Oklahoma!'s producer, Eva Price also spoke eloquently upon accepting the trophy for best revival of a musical.
"Oklahoma! reminds us that when we try to define who we are as a community, by creating an outsider, it can end in tragedy... We are living through difficult times, but we have to be hearty and we have to be tough, because the sweet and tender things in life can happen and they're too wonderful to miss."
Although not an acceptance speech, Heidi Schreck's introduction of her breakout play What the Constitution Means to Me was one of the most powerful speeches of the night.
"The most powerful thing a woman can do is tell the truth about her life," she movingly stated, before going on to remind us "how we can imagine a better, more humane future for this country."
Several of the night's speeches were barely broadcast, but Special Tony Award recipient Terrence McNally had a touching and important observation that did make it to air:
"No one does it alone - least of all playwrights, most of all this one." It's true of all of these winners, and an ironic reminder at a show where too many of the categories and artists are honored off-screen.
This was a Tonys that was pretty much lacking in surprises, but that didn't make it any less enjoyable to watch. Every years, hosts and winners alike reiterate how watching the Tonys is such a formative experience for young theatre fans and artists, as well as for longtime members of the community. The Tonys truly are the one awards show that seems to remember it is a source of inspiration and joy for more than just the handful of winners.
Finally, consider this my official plea to cut down the cheesy "fun" host segments and actually show some of the creative awards (no best book, seriously?) on the main broadcast. These are crucial components of the theatre world and I'm guessing a fairly big portion of the already-niche audience would prefer to see more awards and fewer silly gags. The Tonys are, after all, about honoring the very best theatre can be and the way that theatre is a true community, especially for the young aspiring artists watching the broadcast and dreaming of being there themselves someday. So let's be a community - including all the people who make a show happen, so that young designers and writers at home can see themselves on that stage too. Let's raise our cups to them too.
Photo CRedit: John P. Filo/CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc.