The 70th Annual Tony Awards: TV Review

James Corden Hosting Tonys - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

James Corden Hosting Tonys - Getty - H 2016

Few surprises but entertaining and celebratory, despite the long shadow of ugly reality.

James Corden hosted Broadway’s annual lovefest, a ceremony in which the triumphant success of ‘Hamilton’ was countered by the somber aftermath of Saturday night’s horrific shooting in Orlando.

Long before its record 16 nominations were announced in early May, any element of surprise concerning the coronation of Hamilton at this year’s Tony Awards had been erased. So the big question hanging over the 70th edition of Broadway's annual honors ceremony was how would a host known for his unflagging ebullience address the still-raw response to the tragic mass shooting in an Orlando, Fla., gay club just the night before. That task was rendered even more delicate for James Corden, a previous Tony winner and popular frontman of CBS' The Late Late Show, by the deep ties between New York's theater industry and the LGBT community.

Showing sound judgment, Corden dealt with the tragedy upfront in solemn pre-show comments. "Our hearts go out to all of those affected by this atrocity," said the host. "All we can say is you are not on your own right now. Your tragedy is our tragedy. Theater is a place where every race, creed, sexuality and gender is equal, is embraced and is loved. Hate will never win. Tonight's show is a symbol and a celebration of that principle."

That dedication allowed the telecast to segue, albeit somewhat jarringly, into comedy with the cast of Hamilton riffing on that show's opening number to introduce Corden: "The chubby dude from Into the Woods who played the Baker." It also established an acceptable cutoff point for direct responses to the Orlando killings, most of which were confined to the red carpet.

When Corden eventually did get to his legitimate opening number, it was a musical look back at his own childhood discovery of theater, which served as a tribute to all kids who aspire to grow up and become stage stars. The song, "That Could Be Me," name-checked a whole string of musical chestnuts, from Annie and A Chorus Line to Fiddler on the Roof and Funny Girl. Even if last year's best musical contender Something Rotten! did the multi-musical mashup more cleverly, the spirit behind it was admirable, and Corden revealed himself to be a game hoofer in a tap interlude lifted from 42nd Street. The crowning flourish, however, was a stage full of kids that transformed into this year's Tony-nominated musical performers.

Unlike the other major entertainment awards in the EGOT cluster, Tony contenders are generally less familiar to audiences outside the New York metropolitan area. That makes the kudos ceremony a challenge as primetime television, but also a unique national and global promotional opportunity to help keep Broadway attendance on the rise. The 2015-16 theater season drew a record 13.3 million admissions on Broadway, with combined grosses of $1.37 billion. As Hamilton prices continue to soar, that figure looks set to climb even higher next year.

Speaking of Hamilton, no show this season — or any other in recent memory — has penetrated the mainstream cultural conversation to the degree of Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop historical sensation, which walked away with 11 awards, including best musical, just shy of a record. So the most eagerly anticipated number on the telecast by a wide margin was that show's segment. Led by Tony-nominated castmembers Miranda and Christopher Jackson, the production presented battle cries "History Has Its Eyes on You" and "Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)." However, in a last-minute decision that came after Sunday morning's rehearsals, the creative team opted to drop the prop muskets used in the songs out of respect for the Orlando victims.

Preceded by a taped tribute from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, the Hamilton excerpt was electrifying even out of context, giving many viewers perhaps the most substantial sample of the show they can hope for, given the near-impossibility of securing a ticket. And one of the musical's most quoted lines, "Immigrants, we get the job done," encapsulated the overriding theme of the awards show: inclusiveness.

That note was struck in one acceptance speech after another, as actors thanked their extended families in the theater community while acknowledging the origins of their stage lives and the long, tough slog before widespread recognition. Jayne Houdyshell and Reed Birney, joint winners in the featured acting races for best play honoree The Humans, mirrored one another's gracious remarks by pointing to the fallow years of careers lasting more than four decades. And Hamilton stars Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs and Renee Elise Goldsberry showed that even preordained winners can be humbled by the Tony spotlight. Likewise Miranda, who marked his best original score win with a tender sonnet dedicated to his wife that also acknowledged the Orlando tragedy.

Perhaps the night's classiest speech was given by lead actor in a play winner Frank Langella, who collected his fourth Tony for playing a man losing his wits to dementia in The Father. After touching on a personal note by referencing his brother's cognitive illness, Langella then shifted his attention to Orlando.

"When something bad happens, we have three choices," he said. "We let it define us, we let it destroy us or we let it strengthen us. Today in Orlando, we had a hideous dose of reality and I urge you, Orlando, to be strong."

The evening was liberally sprinkled with Donald Trump jokes, including an amusing riff by Nathan Lane on his Trump U. education. Early on, Corden said of the audience, "It is so diverse that Donald Trump has threatened to build a wall around this theater."

A more oblique but affecting reference to the immigrant debate came from David Lan, artistic director of London's Young Vic, where the Tony-winning play revival A View From the Bridge originated. "It's a great play about immigrants," he said. "It felt like exactly the right time to do this play. It's been thrilling for us to bring it back to this city, where it is a great song of the great people of New York."

The inclusiveness note did perhaps sound a little off-key when Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller saluted "the most supportive, appreciative and diverse audiences I have ever witnessed." With premium tickets to the show now selling for $849 and even balcony seats going for a sweet $179, a few low-income theater lovers might disagree. But that questionable comment takes nothing away from Hamilton's well-deserved triumph, which was capped when the cast took the stage again to close the show with "The Schuyler Sisters."

Other musical interludes on the telecast that stand to boost box office include Alex Brightman and the preteen stars of School of Rock shredding the stage doing "You're in the Band"; the cast of She Loves Me supplying a taste of that enchanting revival that included Jane Krakowski doing the splits and Zachary Levi turning a cartwheel; Jessie Mueller, joined by composer Sara Bareilles to show why Waitress is proving such a crowd-pleaser; and the lovely bluegrass opener from Bright Star, introduced by co-creators Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and led by Carmen Cusack. And while it won't impact ticket sales since the show has closed, the cast of Spring Awakening, mixing hearing with deaf actors performing in ASL, gave a spirited shout-out to the teen musical's avid fans.

The Shuffle Along company pumped paradoxical joy into "Broadway Blues," which served to showcase choreographer Savion Glover's ecstatic dance routines. Likewise the Fiddler on the Roof number, which evolved from the moving minor chords of "Sunrise, Sunset" into the life-affirming wedding dance, with its galvanic choreography by Hofesh Shechter.

If anyone was undecided about Cynthia Erivo deserving to snatch the sole musical performance prize away from Hamilton with her lead actress win, her roof-raising rendition of "I'm Here" wiped away any doubt. That song capped off a stirring medley from best musical revival winner The Color Purple, which also put co-stars Danielle Brooks and Heather Headley front and center.

The megamix of hits from On Your Feet! bordered on Las Vegas-style cheesiness. But who doesn't love seeing the subject of that high-energy bio-musical, Gloria Estefan, join her stage counterpart, Ana Villafane, in a conga line? (And Emilio Estefan was irresistible stressing in his intro that the entire cast had papers: "Believe it or not, they are all legal.") In any case, the number had more of a point than the superfluous tribute to Broadway perennial Chicago.

In terms of Corden's overall performance as host, it was very much in line with his Late Late Show monologues — sweet and upbeat, if not the least bit risky or cutting-edge. Despite the inevitable longueurs that set in as the evening wore on, for the most part he kept the show moving briskly with affable appearances to paper the gaps. Corden also resisted the urge to put the ham in an evening that was all about Hamilton. (Barbra Streisand, receiving the requisite standing ovation for her first appearance on the Tony stage in 46 years before presenting the final trophy for best musical, said, "Thank God I picked the right outfit," referring to her American Revolution-styled garb.)

While recycling Corden's "Carpool Karaoke" episode from last Monday's Late Late Show felt a little lazy for a major awards platform, a very funny bit in which he referenced noted actors present for their Law & Order turns over the years was inspired — particularly when he got to nominated Fiddler star Danny Burstein's six appearances in different roles.

Another notable comedy interlude paid homage to the presidential race. Corden previewed two mock-musicals from next season, introducing Andrew Rannells as Trump in The Book of Moron and Glenn Close as Hillary Clinton in A Clinton Line, singing: "I really need this job; Please God, I need this job; I've got to get this job." (From A Chorus Line, for the uninitiated.)

One of the sweetest innovations of this year's Tonycast was having the ensembles of nominated shows perform for the crowd outside the Beacon Theatre, while ushering the audience at home in and out of commercial breaks.

That idea yielded the Shuffle Along troupe doing Guys and Dolls; School of Rock doing an earlier Andrew Lloyd Webber entry, The Phantom of the Opera; the Fiddler company doing Annie Get Your Gun; She Loves Me doing Cabaret; Spring Awakening doing Hair; Bright Star doing Damn Yankees; The Color Purple doing The Lion King; and the Hamilton ensemble paying tribute, not to their obvious progenitor, 1776, but to Rent. The snippets served to demonstrate the strengths of Broadway as a creative hub continually nourished by its history.

Possibly to the chagrin of CBS, however, one high point of the show came in the commercial breaks themselves, with a pair of scene-stealing plugs for Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. They featured the priceless Tituss Burgess as failed actor Titus Andromedon, auditioning for Hamilton. Sheer brilliance. Since a number of the original cast reportedly will be departing that Tony champion next month, just give him the job already.

Venue: Beacon Theatre, New York
Host: James Corden
Airdate: Sunday, June 12, 8 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)