With no Hamilton to electrify the TV audience, the 71st Tony Awards tried hard to generate some excitement Sunday night with first-time host Kevin Spacey and a slew of competitive races that jazzed the Broadway crowd. Whether that fed the national audience, tomorrow’s ratings will reveal. For the theater fans, there were a few surprises and even an upset or two in a mostly non-political, nearly old-fashioned show. Stephen Colbert got in some choice digs at the President, but things only got pleasantly anarchic when Bette Midler, accepting the award for best leading performance by an actress in a musical, told the orchestra she would not be drowned out despite the lateness of the hour (it was already past 11 PM New York time). The word “crap” was uttered, and a few others CBS saw fit to keep off the air.
The big winners (see the full list here) were Dear Evan Hansen, which won Best Musical, and Oslo, Best Play. In the revival categories, Jitney was named best play and Hello, Dolly! musical. Dear Evan Hansen may never actually have had competition from Come From Away, which won in only one of its seven nominated categories (for Christopher Ashley’s direction, a surprise that denied Hansen helmer Michael Greif his first win after four nominations). DEH, which won six Tonys in all, including score for La La Land’s Justin Paul and Benj Pasik, brought Ben Platt the award for best lead performance in a musical. His tearful thank-you was one of the evening’s most heartfelt.
Laurie Metcalf, who’s prepping for a return to the world of Roseanne Conners next season, was named best actress in a leading role in a play, scoring the only award for A Doll’s House, Part 2, a smart, sharp comedy by Lucas Hnath. Producer Scott Rudin fought valiantly (and expensively) to overcome the tide for J.T. Rogers’ smashing political minuet, Oslo, which took best featured actor in a play for Michael Aronov, winning two of its four nominations and knocking off the favorite, Danny DeVito. Kevin Kline reasserted his star status, winning for his elegant performance in a revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, though his weird acceptance speech gave the impression he’d been slumming. He did manage to offer tribute to mentors John Houseman, Joseph Papp, Margot Harley and Harold Guskin, theater legends all. And he made a stab at relevance with shout-outs to the national endowments for the arts and humanities that the Trump Administration would like to disappear.
Several celebrated shows came away empty-handed, including Sweat, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama earlier this year, and Groundhog Day, which won the Olivier Award for best new musical in its London debut. The fine revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, starring Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins, was ignored, as were revivals of Falsettos and Miss Saigon.
A couple of upsets showed the 839 voters took things seriously, as they went beyond the oddsmakers. Paula Vogel’s extraordinarily moving Indecent, a best play nominee, won two awards, for Rebecca Taichman’s direction and Christopher Akerlind for his exquisite, ghostly lighting. The new musical Bandstand, which got a shout-out from Jill Biden, earned Andy Blankenbuehler the award for best choreography, well-deserved for a show that nevertheless is oddly out of step, no pun intended, with the timely recognition of diversity in casting.
Voters may have been nonplussed by Dave Malloy’s ambitious Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, but they had no reticence about rewarding MacArthur genius Mimi Lien for her spectacular reworking of the Imperial Theatre for the show, and Bradley King for lighting it. And there was genuine joy in Jane Greenwod’s acceptance speech for her clothes for the Little Foxes revival that brought a featured actress Tony to Cynthia Nixon, whose portrayal of Birdie is shattering. The featured acting categories were the toughest all around, with cherishable performances in both the musical and play categories.
As for the show itself, Spacey hat-tipped past hosts from Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg to Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris and all the way back to Johnny Carson, several of which he impersonated, though not all with aplomb. He also tried on Bill Clinton for size, with a joke about Dear Evan Hansen‘s social media theme, noting that “no-one knows more about fake email accounts than Hillary.”
Nixon waved the banner for liberalism, noting that Foxes playwright Lillian Hellman wrote, “There are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it, and other people who just stand around and watch them do it.” She added, “My love, my gratitude and my undying respect go out to all the people in 2017 who are refusing to just stand and watch them do it.”
A hoofing interlude by the Rockettes, as if to reclaim their home territory on the Radio City stage, resembled nothing so much as a crowd scene from The Manchurian Candidate. Equally awful was an off-key Spacey/Patti LuPone duet that came out of nowhere. Josh Gad teased with a fake news announcement of his return to Broadway in a long-abandoned revival of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (that was supposed to star James Corden until he got the call to late-night-land).
And so thank goodness for the Divine One, who began her acceptance speech by touting Hello, Dolly! as the cure for all ills – “It’s about optimism! Democracy! This thing has the ability to lighten our spirit in these terrible times!” – before rattling off a list of names longer than a Roger Angel Christmas poem, while the orchestra could do little more than get her dander up. A few minutes later, producer Rudin defied the powers that are not Scott Rudin by hauling all of his investors onto the vast stage, when the Tony folks had decreed no more than six. The mob ruled, and a good thing, too.