Broadway has changed a lot in the last few years, and in an important way: We’ve cleared the period of time when everything seemed to be about Hamilton, and then about post-Hamilton, and then about whether there could ever be another Hamilton. (There won’t.) Broadway had another big year for box office, it’s learning how to use social media to connect with younger audiences — whatever the next phase is, it seems that it’s started.
At the Tony Awards on Sunday night, again hosted by James Corden (who also did the job in 2016), a new production of Oklahoma! was nominated, as were new musicals based on old myths and 1980s movies. Well-known actors like Adam Driver and Jeff Daniels were nominated. But so were less famous faces like Heidi Schreck and Jeremy Pope — Schreck created the play What the Constitution Means to Me, while Pope was nominated for roles in both his first Broadway play, Choir Boy, and his first Broadway musical, the Temptations revue Ain’t Too Proud.
The show started with Corden apparently trying hard to re-create a well-regarded Neil Patrick Harris opening number from 2013, only with a song that wasn’t anywhere near as good. The staging, by the end, was extremely similar, and the cameos by the casts of different shows were similar, but the song was regrettably tuneless.
Fortunately, the broadcast picked up after that, in part because a lot of agreeable shows and agreeable people were honored by their industry, and that tone of lovey-dovey niceness (which was actually the target of one of Corden’s regrettable “bits”) always makes the Tonys feel a little lower-stakes — but a lot more pleasant — than awards shows where you get the feeling people might be poisoned in the bathroom.
The biggest takeaway from the evening is that Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera telling the story of Eurydice and Orpheus, came into the evening with 14 nominations, and it left with eight awards, including best musical, best score, best direction of a musical by Rachel Chavkin and best featured actor André De Shields.
Many of the other nominated musicals did well for themselves, too. Best book of a musical went to the Broadway adaptation of the film Tootsie. Tootsie also earned its lead, Santino Fontana, the Tony for best leading actor in a musical. Stephanie J. Block, one of the three women who play Cher in The Cher Show, won best leading actress in a musical. Despite being both well-liked and a big hit, it’s perhaps worth noting that Ain’t Too Proud had 12 nominations and took home only the prize for choreography.
There was some solid sharing of the wealth on the non-musical side of the ledger, as well. Best play went to The Ferryman, the Jez Butterworth drama about the Irish family of a man who was once part of the IRA. Sam Mendes also won for his direction. Best leading actress in a play was won by legendary writer-performer Elaine May for Kenneth Lonergan’s Waverly Gallery. Best featured actress in a play was Celia Keenan-Bolger, who played Scout in the Aaron Sorkin adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Best featured actor in a play was Bertie Carvel; she won for Ink, the James Graham play about a young Rupert Murdoch. And leading actor in a play went to Bryan Cranston, not too many years removed from his hugely successful run on Breaking Bad. Cranston won for Network, based on the 1976 film, in which he plays Howard Beale (who, you’ll remember, is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore).
Best revival of a play was won by The Boys in the Band, which featured a stacked cast including Andrew Rannells, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer. The production of Oklahoma! currently running at Circle in the Square, which alters the musical profoundly without changing a word of the book or lyrics, was named best revival of a musical.
Much of the broadcast real estate, as always, went to the shows — the five new nominated musicals, the two revivals and even one of the plays — that offered audiences a taste of the goods. Tootsie and Beetlejuice, both adaptations of existing movies (along with Network), went with only-okay numbers that are unlikely to do anything except reinforce their familiar references. (Man in a dress: check. Obnoxious guy who comes back from the dead: check.) Hadestown highlighted its design elements, including intriguing swinging lights, in a marriage of two different pieces of music. The Prom offered a high-energy song-and-dance that might have been the most traditional Broadway number any of the new shows offered, while Ain’t Too Proud leaned on the tremendous Temptations source music while also showing off the talents of its cast and some of its interesting staging.
Oklahoma! highlighted Ali Stroker, its tremendous Ado Annie, before moving on to a performance of the title song that doesn’t reveal all of the production’s tonal daring, but does give a taste of how spare and intimate it is. Stroker later won the Tony for best featured actress in a musical, becoming the first Tony-winning performer who uses a wheelchair. Kiss Me Kate showed off almost entirely dancing, and not by its leads: by its entire company. (Including, for those of you who haven’t been following your teen idols into adulthood, Corbin Bleu of High School Musical.)
Even Choir Boy, a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who also wrote the play that became Moonlight), includes musical performances. One of them, a stirring moment in a classroom full of boys coming alive over an undeniable rhythm, was featured along with the numbers from musicals.
The Tonys nodded to the many excitable fans of the beloved musical Be More Chill, which was nominated only for best score, by staging a send-up of the number “Michael in the Bathroom” featuring Corden, Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles. And it didn’t hesitate to give all three women who play Cher a chance to perform “Believe” together.
The Tonys have traditionally struggled to highlight plays, which don’t lend themselves to digestible moments the same way that musicals do. This year, the approach was to let every playwright take the floor for a bit to speak about their work. While it’s always a pleasure to see Taylor Mac speak enthusiastically about Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, or to watch McCraney speak movingly about the ideas behind Choir Boy, it’s hard to believe that those speeches alone will sell tickets the way a big musical opening number can. If anything, having McCraney speak directly to the audience while also spotlighting the classroom musical performance drove home how much more effective music is in standing out. Even as an admirer of McCraney, his words might not have gotten you to Broadway (were the show not already closed). But the performance might have.
A lot of performances and performers shone, but Hadestown is the big winner, after years of development from concept album to gotta-see-it Broadway ticket. There weren’t a lot of surprises in this year’s collection of winners, but there were many satisfying and intriguing moments, and a sense of an industry being pushed forward. Stroker went out of her way to acknowledge kids in the audience who have never felt represented because of a disability or a challenge. Chavkin, when she won for directing Hadestown, pointed out the lack of diversity — along lines of both race and gender — among Broadway directors, and she called for better and broader hiring. “This is not a pipeline issue,” she said. “This is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.”
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