There were no big surprises or major upsets tonight at the 73rd annual Tony Awards, as Hadestown, The Ferryman, Bryan Cranston and Elaine May took the trophies they were meant to take, overt politicizing was kept to a few well-placed swipes, and James Corden oversaw it all like the Broadway-besotted pro we know him to be.
The show made its idealogical positions clear mostly by way of the inclusivity shown onstage — one of the funniest moments of the night came when Bryan Cranston accepted his award for best actor in a play with an exuberant “Finally, a straight old white man gets a break!” The Network actor’s swipe at “demagoguery” was as close to the Oval Office as Radio City got tonight.
All in all, CBS’ Tony broadcast showed how an awards show should be done: No flab beyond what a three-hour broadcast necessitates, smart selections from the nominated musicals, a few well-placed comic bits from Corden and an unexpected show of respect for the playwrights of the non-musical nominees.
Corden got things off to a decent start with a not-overlong comedy intro — singing as if from his Radio City dressing room before performers from the various nominated shows joined him to fill the stage. Broadway-versus-TV jokes were made, as if to welcome a non-theater audience that probably wouldn’t tune in anyway.
Later, Corden introduced what was by far the funniest routine of the night, encouraging Broadway performers to engage in Cardi B-Nicki Minaj-style beefs to boost ratings for CBS. I expected the worst — the bit seemed like a typical late-night set-up, and a rather hacky one at that — but things took off beautifully as Ben Platt and Rachel Brosnahan, then Darren Criss and Andrew Rannells, all tried and failed miserably at being anything but too darned nice. Putting a terrific capper to the bit was Audra McDonald and Laura Linney in an earrings-off throw-down over who flipped whom the bird, to show how a beef gets done.
There were few, if any, big surprises among the winners. Joe Mantello’s staging of The Boys In the Band came closest to an upset, taking the best revival of a play trophy over Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery. I liked both shows a lot, tilting a bit toward Lonergan, but the Boys win certainly provided what was the most touching moment of the evening, as an emotional Mart Crowley — taking the Tony stage more than 50 years after his groundbreaking play debuted Off Broadway — dedicated the award to the original Off Broadway cast, each of whom accepted the roles, he said, over the objections of agents, managers and the like. Went unspoken was another toll taken on that cast: Many died of AIDS in the years that followed. (Do yourselves a favor and take a look at William Friedkin’s 1970 movie version, with that cast, led by the brilliant Kenneth Nelson; similarly, Broadway producer Ryan Murphy has scooped up the winning revival cast for a Netflix version, bringing a truly welcome full circle to the next Boys chapter.)
Boys aside, my predictions I think were sturdier than not, though I welcome readers to pick over my selective memory lapses. Yes, I would have chosen Beth Leavel over Stephanie J. Block in lead actress/musical, and was rooting for Gideon Glick or Robin de Jesus over Bertie Carvel, but when you get performances as good as those, you’re just nitpicking over details. Cheers, Bertie.
Among those I got right — as, to be fair, just about every other Broadway prognosticator this year did — were The Ferryman as best play, Hadestown as best musical, Oklahoma! as best musical revival, and, in acting categories, Elaine May, Santino Fontana and Celia Keenan-Bolger. And while I could barely decide between two of the towering performances of Hadestown – Andre De Shields versus Patrick Page — I came down (strike one) on the side of Page’s villain, with that low, low voice and his swing at the authoritarianism of He Who Went Unnamed tonight.
De Shields, accepting the award for best featured actor/musical for his role in Hadestown, struck an early high note in the acceptance speeches, offering three rules for “sustainability” he’s learned over a 50-year career: “Number one – surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you. Two, slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. And three, the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next. So keep climbing.”
Ali Stroker, an actress who uses a wheelchair, made history for her featured actress/musical win (she plays Ado Annie in Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!), using her acceptance speech to offer hope to all kids with disabilities and acting dreams. Her voice breaking, she thanked, among others, all the friends over the years who “held my hand and pulled me around” New York City. Great speech and even greater performance night after night in the thrillingly expansive Oklahoma!, even if in my prediction I leaned toward Amber Gray’s ravishing turn as Hadestown‘s Persephone.
Winning the best actor in a play award for his role as mad-as-hell newsman Howard Beale in Network, Cranston dedicated his award to the journalists around the world “in the line of fire.”
“The media is not the enemy of the people,” he said. “Demagoguery is the enemy of the people.” Like Corden and his well-placed, less-is-more comic bits, Cranston found just the right time and took the right jab at the demagogue just back from a European vacation. And he didn’t even have to say his name, proving you can play a mad-as-hell nutcase with ego problems when need be and then assume the very essence of discretion and tact when the occasion demands.