The 72nd Annual Tony Awards: TV Review

An entertaining show that addressed our divisive times with economy and elegance. And an invigorating shot of vintage De Niro profanity.
6/10/2018

Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban brought unexpected comic timing along with celebrated vocal skills to their co-hosting gig at a ceremony dominated by 'The Band's Visit,' 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' and 'Angels in America.'

Pop superstars turned Broadway babies Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban really only had to clear a low hurdle as co-hosts of the 72nd Annual Tony Awards — coming across as less obnoxious than last year's emcee Kevin Spacey, whose self-satisfied performance was much reviled even before the two-time Oscar winner was knocked from his pedestal by a sexual predator scandal. Spacey's tone-deaf, wink-wink closet jokes went down as an all-time low in the history of an entertainment-industry kudos cast that has long been a meeting point for LGBTQ pride. But Bareilles and Groban aced their duties on their own terms, displaying terrific chemistry and making it less about themselves than their infectious enthusiasm as out-and-proud theater geeks.

The crossover elements from the popular music sector extended beyond the hosts to the evening's most eagerly anticipated guest performer, Bruce Springsteen, who perhaps drew an uncustomary Dad Rock demographic to Broadway's biggest night. As previously announced, the Boss was a Special Tony Award winner for Springsteen on Broadway, his sellout, up-close-and-personal concert memoir, which has been the top-earning new production of the 2017-18 theater season, grossing $65.3 million to date. By the time it wraps mid-December, Springsteen will have done 236 performances at the cozy Walter Kerr Theatre, a far cry from his epic stadium gigs.

CBS was savvy having Springsteen's musical contemporary, Billy Joel, present the honor early in the telecast while making fans wait for Springsteen's rare TV performance in the closing stretch. He made the bold choice of a largely spoken excerpt from the show, accompanying his words on piano and paying heartfelt tribute to the blue-collar Catholic neighborhood where he grew up in Freehold, New Jersey, before launching into only a few bars of "My Hometown." However, more than any stripped-down acoustic number that Springsteen might have chosen, the performance gave viewers an accurate and moving taste of the show, providing evidence of why it's become the toughest ticket in town.

Elsewhere, it was a night in which political and social messages were elegantly woven into speeches and presentations, without the need for preachy stridency. The one liberating exception that sent a surge of boisterous approval through the house at Radio City Music Hall and prompted a standing ovation (while being bleeped out on the telecast) was Robert De Niro's unequivocal opener: "Fuck Trump! It's no longer 'Down with Trump.' It's 'Fuck Trump!'"

Bareilles and Groban got to follow that by appearing in drag, respectively, from Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Waitress, the shows that earned them Tony nominations last season. "I know what you're thinking,” deadpanned Groban. "But after De Niro, CBS told us to do something drastic, so here we are."

The co-hosts were relaxed, natural and charmingly self-effacing throughout, starting with their tuneful opening number, which they began on dueling concert grand pianos and dedicated in advance to the losers — acknowledging how they've both been passed over, not just for Tony wins, but also for Grammy recognition: "So this is for the people who lose/ 'Cos both of us have been in your shoes." The same song was reprised to close the show, with lyrics repurposed to celebrate the dreamers who win, perhaps the overarching theme of the evening. Unlike many awards show hosts who either go AWOL for too much of the proceedings or drag things out with overexposure, Bareilles and Groban were a welcome connective thread throughout, most disarmingly when they cleverly transformed Sia's "Chandelier" into a mock-serious dirge about the rigors of the eight-show week.

Of all the major entertainment awards shows, the Tonys consistently delivers the most articulate speeches, and 2018 was no exception. That started on a high note with Andrew Garfield's win for lead actor in a play for Angels in America, the first award of the telecast and one of three taken home by the revival of Tony Kushner's landmark epic set in the Reagan era, at the height of the AIDS crisis. Garfield capped an emotional salute to those who fought for LGBTQ rights by referencing the recent controversy over a Colorado baker's refusal to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple: "We are sacred and we all belong, so let's just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked."

Garfield's co-star Nathan Lane won his third Tony — his first for a nonmusical, coming after a 17-year break — for playing the toxic real-life figure of Roy Cohn, former attorney and mentor to a young Donald Trump. Lane gave a nod to the play's importance "in the midst of such political insanity," before choking up as he paid tribute to his husband and the transformative effect of marriage on his life. Kushner followed later in the telecast by marking the calendar, indicating that there are five weeks left to see the limited run of Angels, and 21 weeks until the midterms "to save our democracy," before concluding, "And what kind of homosexual would I be if I didn't say it's June 10? Happy birthday, Judy Garland."

While Laurie Metcalf was humble and concise accepting her featured actress Tony for Edward Albee's Three Tall Women — her second consecutive win, having taken home lead actress last year for A Doll's House, Part 2 — her formidable co-star Glenda Jackson brought the kind of fierce edge to her speech for which this longtime fixture of British parliament is famous. Jackson won for lead actress in a play, her first Tony after four previous nominations. The two-time Oscar winner slyly hinted at her adversarial relationship with director Joe Mantello ("I think [he] found me a worthy opponent"), before graciously acknowledging America's history of welcoming all nations and underscoring the importance of remembering that tradition.

The theme of celebrating diversity surfaced again and again. An ebullient Lindsay Mendez, who won best featured actress in a musical for Carousel, recalled coming to New York and being advised to change her stage name to Matthews if she wanted to get work. Special Tony winner John Leguizamo also celebrated the Latino contribution in a tremendously funny bit that culminated with the sincere confession: "I'm the living example of how theater can change you. It teaches you to feel empathy for those who are not like us."

Ari'el Stachel, whose win for featured actor in a musical early in the evening signaled the strong winds blowing in favor of The Band's Visit, spoke with great sensitivity of the shame he felt after 9/11 of his Middle Eastern heritage, and the life-changing experience of being in a Broadway show that provides such positive cultural representation: "Telling a story about Arabs and Israelis getting along at a time when we need that more than ever."

Stachel's castmates Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub won in the lead acting categories, with three-time previous nominee Shalhoub arguably making the evening's most touching remarks. He paid tribute to his father, who arrived at Ellis Island from Lebanon in 1920, at age 8; Shalhoub dedicated the award to him and previous generations of immigrants from his family for their courage, resourcefulness, creativity and selflessness. "May we their descendants never lose sight of what they taught us," he said.

Clearly mindful of the recent losses of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, The Band's Visit director David Cromer made a timely mention in his acceptance speech of people suffering from depression. And the pressing issue of gun violence was addressed when the 2018 Tony for Education to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama teacher Melody Herzfeld was followed by her students from Parkland, Florida, onstage singing "Seasons of Love," from Rent, one of the awards telecast's most emotional interludes.

The Tonys ceremony wrapped a decidedly oddball season on Broadway, when the dearth of original plays and musicals likely to withstand the test of time was redeemed primarily by a handful of superlative revivals. However, that didn't stop business from booming to an unprecedented high of just under $1.7 billion in combined grosses, a significant hike of 17.1 percent. Attendance was up by a more modest 3.9 percent, totaling 13.79 million, pointing to the ever-increasing phenomenon of premium-priced seating.

Much was made during the show about the Tonys telecast planting the seeds of a stage career in the minds of young viewers dreaming of navigating the jump from school and amateur productions to the Broadway big time. Though how many aspiring stage professionals will be able to afford Broadway's escalating ticket prices remains an open question. Still, let's leave it to harried parents to figure out how to score Dear Evan Hansen tickets for little Jason and Emily without taking out a second mortgage.

With the preordained wins for best musical and play, respectively, of The Band's Visit and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the evening's suspense centered around top revival honors as well as a handful of performance awards that had been neck and neck in advance punditry.

What was perhaps most surprising was the relatively modest profile of mega-budgeted insta-blockbuster Harry Potter, which won awards in six of its 10 nominated categories including best play and director for John Tiffany (you deserved it, but please don't sing "Happy Birthday" to your boyfriend next time), as well as key craft contributions. Aside from a cute bit with Groban transformed onstage into the production's leading actor Jamie Parker, the theatrical continuation of J.K. Rowling's global wizardry sensation took something of a back seat, a position perhaps heightened by the abrupt cutoff of playwright Jack Thorne's acceptance speech.

While the play revival win for Angels in America was largely expected, the best musical revival triumph for Once on This Island — a small-scale, humanistic/mythical fable directed by Michael Arden with immersive imagination to evoke natural disasters in such places as Haiti and Puerto Rico — was the night's biggest upset. It vanquished heavyweight rivals My Fair Lady (which scored 10 nominations but secured only a single win for costumes) and Carousel (11 noms, with wins for Mendez and choreographer Justin Peck).

The numbers showcased on the show from nominated musicals were the usual mixed bag, reopening the eternal discussion of whether an entire song or a condensed medley is a more effective way of selling tickets on Broadway's biggest annual advertising platform.

Opting for the former, SpongeBob SquarePants (which led with 12 nominations but converted only one into a win, for scenic design) had featured actor nominee Gavin Lee perform Squidward's "I'm Not a Loser," a four-legged tap-stravaganza backed by a chorus of neon-pink sea anemones. That pricey Nickelodeon production has been underperforming at the box office and could use a boost from its Tony exposure. Tina Fey's Mean Girls musical, on the other hand, has been a smash right out of the gate, suggesting that its failure to collect on even one of its 12 noms (it now ties with 2011's The Scottsboro Boys as the most-nominated show to leave empty-handed) won't likely hurt the show's commercial legs. Nominees Grey Henson, Taylor Louderman and Ashley Park and company performed the high school clique numbers "Where Do You Belong?" and "Meet the Plastics."

My Fair Lady went for a more traditional selection of well-known songs, perhaps most notable for giving TV viewers a taste of Lauren Ambrose's impressive vocal range as Eliza, while Carousel chose the male-ensemble dance number, "Blow High, Blow Low," giving a generous sample of Peck's athletic choreography if nothing of the dark-hued musical classic's dramatic nuance. Once on This Island made a smart choice in Alex Newell's gender-bending performance as the Earth Goddess Asaka, singing the roof-raising "Mama Will Provide," even if the live goat being coaxed on by the Demon of Death was a reluctant participant.

Disney's Frozen — another show whose box-office results indicate it needs no awards help — seemed oddly resistant to showcase the obligatory "Let It Go" anthem, mashing it together with "For the First Time in Forever" in a performance that did neither song any favors. And while "Last Dance" is a joyous disco booty-shaker that never gets old, let's just say that the performance from Summer: The Donna Summer Musical played like fine cruise-ship entertainment. However, even deadly reviews haven't dimmed public enthusiasm for the production, which is grossing north of $1 million a week.

There inevitably will be Monday morning water-cooler indignation among theater cognoscenti over CBS' decision to relegate the lifetime achievement awards to Chita Rivera and Andrew Lloyd Webber to the off-air portion of the show. It's unclear whether the honorees felt placated by being hauled out immediately after to present an award, as well as having Bareilles and Groban contribute vocals to a clip reel of their greatest hits. (The return of best book of a musical to the telecast after years in exile would seem to indicate that CBS believed Fey had that award sewn up, as did many Tony forecasters.)

Perhaps the most challenging musical to showcase on the Tonys telecast was the one that swept the awards, The Band's Visit, winning in 10 of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including best musical, original score (David Yazbek) and book (Itamar Moses). The choice to have Lenk sing "Omar Sharif," about the jasmine-scented memories of Egyptian music and movies from her character's youth, likely will have left a large chunk of the viewership asking, "Who or what is Umm Kulthum?" But the number was perfectly in keeping with the distinctive subtlety and intimacy of this minor-key musical, beautifully shot to highlight Lenk's expressive gifts. It was an inspired touch also to have the production's onstage musicians burst into a rousing playoff as the show went to a commercial break.

Following in the footsteps of other small-scale recent winners like Once and Fun Home, the Tony night triumph of The Band's Visit stands to add another year to its run, as well as pumping tour prospects. And lead producer Orin Wolf neatly encapsulated the theme of the Tonys ceremony in his acceptance of the big prize: "Our show offers a message of unity in a world that more and more seems bent on amplifying our differences. In the end we are all far more alike than we are different, and I'm so proud to be part of a community that chooses to support that message."

Venue: Radio City Music Hall, New York
Hosts: Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban
Airdate: Sunday, June 10, 8 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)