Customarily, I’m not one to be caught up in the competitive suspense generated by the Tony Awards, or for that matter in the many competitions between artists that excite most of us. How can you choose between a great orange and a great apple? The choice has little to do with the quality of the fruit; it has to do with my own personal preference, with what I feel like in the moment.
Way back in the last century, when I was a high school drama teacher, my students and I would faithfully enter all the play competitions. They were great for providing enthusiastic audiences for our work, and certainly when we won, it was a tremendous ego boost for hard-working and talented kids in need of approval. For most of us it was almost as much a kick without the win. We worked hard to focus on the time we had spent together, the joy brought to us by the work and the discovery of new ideas and attitudes, the making of new friends, the excitement of performing before an approving audience, and the pride in bringing to them the insights of our too-often-forgotten playwrights. No one was allowed to feel like a “loser,” because no one was. (For confirmation, see the related discussion below of The Crucible.)
There were certainly no losers in Sunday night’s Tony Awards Show. If you missed this one, you missed a goodie. All right, so maybe we all knew who the “winner” was destined to be, and clearly Hamilton has earned every kudo it gets. But the entire Awards Ceremony was filled with the finest and juiciest apples and oranges to be found in any market anywhere.
Choosing all that fruit must have been a tough job for Tony voters. This was an astoundingly refreshing New York Theatre season. I knew that even before I embarked on my spring play-going binge, and long before the May 23rd announcement of this year’s Tony nominees. There have often been trips when I took risks on new works I’d never heard of, some terrific, and some duds. I’ve enjoyed the majority, walked out on a few, and was frequently indifferent to the rest. But this time I knew I had a 100% solid treat in store: I was pleased and surprised to find six straight plays I was eager to see, as well as The King and I, which I’ll eventually come to in these pages.
Of course everyone asks if I’ve seen Hamilton, but alas that one will have to wait until the price drops well below the reported current levels of $850 and up for tickets for the foreseeable future. (Or… for the cheapskates among us who act fast enough, we could probably save some by flying out to Chicago, L.A. or San Francisco, where new productions will open over the next few months.) Barring that, I will have to be satisfied for now with reading Ron Chernov’s Alexander Hamilton, the book that inspired the musical, and listening to the entire script/score on the Original Broadway Cast Album … over and over and over.
There were even four or five additional straight plays offered this spring in New York, on and off-Broadway, that I thoroughly regret not being able to see. Still, it didn’t surprise me that of the six I did choose, four of them earned Tony nominations: The Crucible, The Father, The Humans, and Blackbird. The latter two will be the subjects of my next journal entry. And if The Effect had been presented in a Broadway house instead of off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre, it would surely be among the nominees for the 2017 Tony’s. Instead, watch for it in the Obies. The last of my six choices, was a fine production of John Patrick Shanley’s largely autobiographical Prodigal Son, which is also in my journal pipeline. It’s about a teacher and the student whose life he turns around, which is what drew me in. It too contained a performance that was well worthy of Tony consideration. Good example there: That it was not ultimately nominated does not make it any less worthy (except, of course, to the financial futures of those involved) Come back later for details.
Meanwhile, let’s get back to the 2016 Tony Awards Ceremony itself. With all of us so deeply affected by the horrific attack on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, it was a tough year to watch something so blatantly cheerful. But it turns out that almost nine million people did tune in, more than at any time in the last fifteen years. Sure, we all wanted to get a glimpse of what has turned into a worldwide cultural phenomenon, this thing we’ll not any time soon get near unless we’re willing to give up a week’s pay, this thing called Hamilton. But most of all, I believe that in the face of the devastating and inexplicable events in Orlando, we needed to find some joy… somewhere! And boy did we find it on the Tony’s.
It was abundantly clear Sunday night that the object of Theatre, and significantly also of Theatre Education, is to provide us with joy and insight. That goes for players and audience alike. With that in mind, here are what I consider to be the most satisfying moments in the entire 3½-hour presentation. Mind you, there were plenty more. I am limited only by length consideration.
MY FIVE FAVORITE MOMENTS
- The opening, in which host James Corden stood in silence, with his back to the entire theatre community, and then spoke on their behalf to the camera, to the nation at large, and particularly to all those directly affected by the Orlando murders:
“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. Together, we have to make sure of that. Tonight’s show stands as a symbol and a celebration of that principle. This is the Tony Awards.”
2. The immediate appearance, and every appearance thereafter, of the cast of Hamilton, expressing a seriousness of purpose sensitive to the day’s events, along with the unbounded, infectious Technicolor joy of the human spirit that will never fail to get us through the bad days. Implicit also was a clear respect for American history, and for the ordinary people who came out of nowhere to piece our complicated democracy together. Their stubborn passion was captured and reflected on the faces and bodies of every actor in this astonishing cast … and passed on as a gift to a grateful audience.
3. The gentle moment when Blair Underwood walked down the aisle thanking Marie Maniego, his Petersburg, Virginia high school drama teacher, for her inspiration, and then planted a kiss on the forehead of a surprised Marilyn McCormick, winner of the Tony’s “Excellence in Theatre Education Award.” That and the dynamic performances of the youngsters in “School of Rock” went a long way toward reminding us that few of the performers on stage and in the audience would be here were it not for the inspiration and dedication of a most likely unrecognized “high school drama coach.” Bravo!
4. Frank Langella wins his fourth Tony, a tie for the most ever earned by a male actor. Having just written of The Father, I took considerable delight in this one. Reminding us that there is more truth than fakery in theatre, he used his acceptance speech to express his personal anguish over his own brother’s dementia: “My brother is very much alive in me every time I play André in The Father. He’s doing well. He goes in and out. But I’m not alone in this.” He then went on to a moving tribute to the Orlando victims:
“I’m now a 78-year-old man, and I react to things a lot more profoundly than I did when I was 60, when I was 50 or 40. This constant violence and sense of madness that seems to be pervading this country is terrifying. … I urge you, Orlando, to be strong. I’m standing in a room full of the most generous human beings on earth, and we will be with you every step of the way.”
5. The high point of the evening: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s heartfelt sonnet, evidently scratched out on a piece of paper only hours (minutes?) earlier, and delivered with tears in lieu of his expected acceptance/thankyou rap for the best musical score. Yes, of course we all loved the production numbers from all nine of the nominees for best musical. But what will we remember? … This:
My wife’s the reason anything gets done.
She nudges me towards promise by degrees.
She is a perfect symphony of one.
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us,
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised. Not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed
or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story.
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.
© Lin-Manuel Miranda
COMING UP NEXT: Blackbird, and The Humans.
(I know, I said that last time. But this time I mean it. Come on, could I NOT have written about the Tony’s?)