The 73rd Annual Tony Awards: TV Review

James Corden Tony Awards 3 - Getty - H 2019
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Commentary outshone the comedy, and surprises were few.

James Corden brought theater-geeky enthusiasm but too few new ideas to his second turn hosting Broadway's big night, at a ceremony dominated by 'Hadestown' and 'The Ferryman.'

The last time James Corden emceed the Tony Awards, in 2016, the euphoria of Hamilton's invigorating impact on Broadway — and its 11-award sweep — was muted by the raw emotional response to the mass shooting in a Florida gay club just the night before. Given the inextricable ties of the New York theater industry to the LGBTQ community, the tragedy required that Corden begin the ceremony on a solemn note. The other defining factor of that broadcast was that a Donald Trump presidency back then was still just a bizarre campaign joke, not a grim reality for the mostly liberal-leaning crowd in the house.

Cut to 2019, when the national political stage is presenting a nonstop absurdist farce, which should have provided an ideal platform for the likable Corden to cut loose with the kind of irreverent clowning he does best. So how did he do? Sadly, not as well as last time. The host started strong and had one sharp musical interlude mid-show, but elsewhere delivered strained comedy bits that felt familiar, safe and thematically generic.

The clever opening number, "We Do It Live," written by David Javerbaum and Tom Kitt, began with Corden sitting on his sofa, suffering from binge fatigue while contemplating the 24,601 titles on his streaming queue. "You watch Netflix, Hulu and Amazon / Till you can't remember which program is on," he sang, before adding the first wink-wink nod to his regular CBS gig. "I'm not speaking of network TV / Which is wonderful, obviously." He then invited the audience to "trade the remote for the near" as the apartment walls flew away to reveal the audience at Radio City Music Hall. Nice segue.

If the camera angles couldn't quite capture the impressive scope of casts from every nominated show joining Corden in the number, the sheer scale of it was audacious. The performers declared themselves "better than television," before going on to list the many exceptions to that rule, from Game of Thrones to, of course, The Late Late Show. Corden sang about the high ticket prices and uncomfortable seats on Broadway, as well as the inferior paychecks for actors. The self-irony of that mixed message bordered on the defensive, but disconcerting as it was, it didn't diminish the opener's endorsement of live theater.

Gags built around nominated actors practicing their "losing face" felt tired; Corden reprimanding his dad for taking a cellphone call was cute but feeble; and a bit about Broadway needing more feuds of the Nicki Minaj versus Cardi B variety was awkward and long-winded until it was saved by the delicious spectacle of a confrontational Laura Linney taking on Audra McDonald, who removed her hoops for a fight.

Elsewhere, Corden's best moment was a reworked version of the song "Michael in the Bathroom," from the musical Be More Chill, performed from the men's room at Radio City. Turning the angst anthem into an outpouring of Tony-hosting anxiety, Corden was joined by last year's hosts Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles, with a brief cameo by two-time host Neil Patrick Harris. But when Corden, with a look of fear, sang about the possible elimination of awards hosts, "like the Oscars," he unintentionally suggested his own redundancy in this role.

Thankfully, the Tonys is less about the host than the award recipients and the shows they represent, and on that front, the ceremony delivered some stirring speeches, a couple of stellar performance interludes in an otherwise mixed bag, and some welcome, and long overdue, respect for playwrights.

Presenting the play nominees has always been the telecast's biggest challenge, and having the writers themselves take the stage to discuss the genesis and themes of their work felt particularly appropriate in such an uncommonly strong season for new plays. It helped that they were so entertaining.

First up was Jez Butterworth lovingly saluting his partner Laura Donnelly, not only for inspiring The Ferryman through her family's tragic brush with the IRA, but for giving birth to two children while appearing in over 300 performances of the play between London and New York. Tarell Alvin McCraney eloquently traced the ties between queer black Americans and the healing power of spirituals, going back to the slavery era, as explored in his play Choir Boy. And the radical, gender-nonconforming theater artist Taylor Mac took the stage in fabulous glittery regalia, exclaiming, "Hello, queens, I wrote a play!" Mac then pointed up the contemporary relevance of the Ancient Roman farce for which judy (the author's pronoun of choice) was nominated, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus: "When mass shootings, immoral leadership and an escalation of revenge are everywhere, how can you cope? Spoiler alert: I don't have the answer."

Bryan Cranston struck a political note when accepting for lead actor in a play in Network. After a light-hearted start ("Wow! Finally a straight old white man gets a break!"), he took a cue from his rattled news anchor character Howard Beale, dedicating the honor to all the real journalists around the world in the line of fire with their pursuit of truth. "The media is not the enemy of the people," said Cranston. "Demagoguery is the enemy of the people."

Broadway has long considered itself a place of inclusiveness, and that theme surfaced repeatedly, with unspoken references to the current White House administration coming through loud and clear.

Sergio Trujillo, winner of best choreography for Ain't Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations, recalled arriving in the U.S. over 30 years ago as an undocumented immigrant: "I stand here as proof for all those Dreamers — and I want you to hear me — that the American Dream is still alive." Oklahoma! producer Eva Price, accepting best musical revival, said "Oklahoma! reminds us that when we try to define who we are as a community by creating an outsider, it can end in tragedy."

Accepting best musical for the night's big winner, Hadestown, producer Mara Isaacs said, "If Hadestown stands for anything, it's that change is possible, that in dark times, spring will come again." And Rachel Chavkin, accepting best direction of a musical for the same show, gave an impassioned call for greater racial and gender diversity among Broadway creatives. "This is not a pipeline issue," she said, noting that she was the sole woman nominated in her field. "It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job it is to imagine the way the world could be."

In a resounding salute to queer representation, 83-year-old author Mart Crowley accepted the best play revival award for The Boys in the Band by referencing the landmark original 1968 production of his chronicle of a birthday party attended by a group of pre-Stonewall gay New Yorkers. He dedicated the award "to the nine brave men who did not listen to their agents when they said their careers would be finished if they did this play. They did it."

Among the touching moments early on was featured actress winner Celia Keenan-Bolger recalling her Detroit childhood exposure to the kind of racial hatred depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, in which she plays Scout Finch.

But the standout speeches of the night came from the veterans. Elaine May, eternally droll at 87, accepted her best actress in a play Tony for The Waverly Gallery by describing standing in the wings watching co-star Lucas Hedges talk about her character's death and thinking, "I'm gonna win this guy's Tony." And Hadestown featured actor winner Andre De Shields gave a shout-out to his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland: "I am making good on my promise that I would come to New York and become someone you would be proud to call a native son." Supremely elegant at 73, De Shields then listed the three cardinal rules of his career 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 the mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing."

Also memorable was the widely predicted win of Ali Stroker for her spirited turn as the libidinous Ado Annie in Oklahoma! The first wheelchair user to win a performance award at the Tonys, an emotional Stroker said, "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."

The Tonys ceremony wrapped a critically and commercially robust season on Broadway, with multiple deserving contenders in most categories — and several more that missed out on nominations — as well as box office that set an all-time record. Grosses for the 2018-19 season, which wrapped May 26, hit $1.83 billion, representing a 7.8 percent hike over the previous year, while attendance was up by 7.1 percent, with admissions nudging 14.8 million. As more and more hot-ticket productions shift large blocks of seating at premium prices, a $2 billion season seems just around the corner.

Despite the soaring revenues for the sector, however, trade association the Broadway League is careful to point out that shows playing in the 41 New York theaters that fall under the Broadway banner are not exclusively for high-income consumers. "With over 50 percent of tickets priced below $101, the industry is achieving its goal of being more accessible to everyone," said League president Charlotte St. Martin when the history-making annual figures were released. That might not convince the folks trying to get tickets to Hamilton.

The Tony Awards remains Broadway's biggest annual marketing blitz. It's a unique national and global promotional primetime television platform showcasing production numbers from nominated shows. And even if the perennially ratings-challenged viewership on CBS indicates that the appeal is limited to a niche audience, an attention-grabbing performance slot can generate a direct next-day adrenaline shot at the box office.

That's most important to shows that have struggled to fill seats, like The Prom, which has been a modest earner despite its strong reviews and seven Tony nominations. The cast's high-energy medley and inclusive message — culminating in the swoony "I Just Want to Dance With You," which ended with the same sweet teenage lesbian kiss that had Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade viewers clutching their pearls — should sell a few tickets, even if the show went home empty-handed. The performance also stands to boost anticipation of the Ryan Murphy Netflix film of the property, coming next year.

Other performances that played well on the telecast included an electrifying Motown medley from Ain't Too Proud, performed by a cast featuring Tony nominees Derrick Baskin, Jeremy Pope and Ephraim Sykes, executing Trujillo's dance moves with tremendous verve. Pope also appeared in a stirring a cappella gospel number from Choir Boy, which is likely to make theatergoers who missed that limited engagement kick themselves.

Hadestown incorporated the underworld industrial lamps and pit-helmet beams that helped win lighting designer Bradley King his second Tony. But the song performed, "Wait for Me," was a difficult choice for the uninitiated. Heavy on narration, it underlined how hard it is for musicals that are conceptually all of a piece to choose a representative number that works out of context. The same was true of director Daniel Fish's radical reinterpretation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, though Stroker's infectious yips and yelps on "I Cain't Say No" gave a flavorful taste of her captivating performance.

Other numbers were either too busy (Beetlejuice) or too tacky (The Cher Show). The latter seemed to suffer from the unfulfilled expectation that the real Cher would magically appear, though star Stephanie J. Block was a popular and deserving winner of best actress in a musical. One of the bigger disappointments among the musical presentations was Tootsie. While it seemed an obvious choice to have lead actor winner Santino Fontana sing "I Won't Let You Down," the audition song of his character's Dorothy Michaels persona, the producers opted instead for "Unstoppable," a triumphant declaration of Dorothy's ascendance that fell kind of flat.

Those missed opportunities succeeded in diluting, rather than celebrating, the qualities that make the shows they were lifted from so appealing. Perhaps for that reason, the one legitimate shot of vintage Broadway, the explosive dance number "Too Darn Hot," from Kiss Me, Kate, worked like a charm.

Venue: Radio City Music Hall, New York
Host: James Corden
Airdate: Sunday, June 9, 8 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)