Last night's Tony Awards garnered the highest ratings the show has seen in 15 years. Considering the cultural significance of theater since practically the dawn of time, and that this is the 70th year of the ceremony, one has to wonder at this return of interest. It looks like it may be down to a variety of factors, including the freshness of a new show like Hamilton, the great mix of revivals and original new plays, and perhaps most significantly, the way in which theater has far more quickly embraced diversity over film and television.
Host James Corden joked that the Tonys were like the Oscars but with more diversity, and just looking around at the audience and nominees, it was abundantly clear how true that sentiment is. Another smart move on the part of Tony producers was the emphasis placed on well-known Broadway hits and mainstays. Not only did Corden start the show with a medley of beloved musical numbers — making for a trivia game of sorts for true musical buffs to showcase their vast knowledge — but also the ensemble casts of several musicals sang the hits from popular recitals following the commercial breaks.
With performances galore, heartfelt speeches, and a sense of community exuding from the screen, here are all the reasons why last night's Tony Awards may have been the best yet:
You don't have to love James Corden as the new host of The Late Late Show to appreciate him as host of the Tonys. He's an obvious choice, as he hilariously sings in his opening medley about how as a kid, seeing these classic roles and hearing these songs made him want to take on the parts. Everything from The Phantom of the Opera to Dream Girls. He performed with the high energy and charisma needed to host an awards show celebrating the theater. And his somber opening speech honoring the mass shooting in Orlando earlier that morning was an excellent blend of sensitivity and inclusiveness.
The Color Purple Performance
Of the many performances of the evening, none were as moving as Cynthia Erivo singing "I'm Here" from The Color Purple. Being fortunate enough to watch a theatrical musical number on HD TV made it only too easy to see the sincere heart and soul Erivo put into her magical performance. And whoa. That voice! Erivo later won Best Actress in a Musical her role as Celie in the Oprah Winfrey-produced production, and gave a heartfelt speech about being a "London girl [made] very, very happy."
Hamilton's 11 Wins
Having been nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards, Hamilton was always going to have the biggest buzz of the ceremony. It was just common sense to bookend the entire evening with performances by the cast, with an additional performance during the show as well. From principal actors Daveed Diggs (Best Featured Actor), Leslie Odom Jr. (Best Leading Actor) and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Best Featured Actress), to choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton took home its weight in trophies. The jokes around Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr in the musical, winning the award over Lin-Manuel Miranda's Alexander Hamilton, is just ripe with assassination jokes.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's Speech
The Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the historical musical that has stolen hearts across the country didn't go home empty-handed. Nominated for several awards, he ultimately received the awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical. In his speech for Best Music, Miranda read a sonnet he had written, in part to his wife Vanessa, referencing the horrible events of Sunday morning:
"When senseless acts of tragedy remind us nothing here is promised, not one day/The show is proof that history remembers/We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger/We rise and fall/And light from dying embers/ Remembrance that hope and love last longer/And love is love is love is love is love..."
Dry eyes were scarce, and those watching at home sniffled together at the truth of his words.
Law & Order Jokes
By far the night's funniest joke was a montage of all the actors present who had played bit parts in Law & Order. A hilarious gag, it riffed on not only the insecurity of life as an actor and the dreams now being realized by those in the room, but also took a jab at Law & Order's long-running status as a solid paycheck and quick moment of fame for up-and-coming actors. Claire Danes, Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr., and many others popped up beside photos of the characters they played. Of course, none had Fiddler on the Roof's Danny Burstein beat, with his record six separate roles on the show. Glad the Special Victim's Unit has led to his resounding Broadway success!
By far the biggest win of the night was the refreshing sense of diversity the Tonys exuded. In multiple categories there was often more than one person of color represented. Historically black musical Shuffle Along, Or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is enjoying a popular revival, and the performance of "Shuffle Along" was among the highlights of the night. As of late its been pretty difficult to feel a strong sense of diversity in awards shows, not to mention the lack of roles offered to diverse ethnicities in film and television. The Tonys' sense of inclusion was by far the strongest theme of the night, and the progressive nature of Broadway is why it will remain an entertainment mecca for years to come.
Unfortunately, for all the good of the Tony Awards, there were at least a few moments that just failed to electrify.
On Your Feet! Performance
A medley performance from On Your Feet!, the musical showcasing the rise of powerhouse duo Gloria and Emilio Estefan, should have been a sure-fire get-on-your-feet moment for the Tonys. And yet the entire thing felt forced. Gloria Estefan, who made a surprise cameo appearance for the medley, should have let the stars of the show take center stage. Somehow her involvement made her songs feel dated and underwhelming.
As much as Carpool Karaoke has become a favorite bit on Corden's The Late Late Show, inserting a way-too-long clip of himself and Miranda singing show tunes while driving around New York City felt stale. When the couple pick up Audra McDonald, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jane Krakowski and continue singing songs from Les Misérables, it spirals into an awkward display of one-upmanship. Sure, any true Broadway buff can easily belt out a range of musical hits while in the car, but now we know it doesn't make for interesting TV. Especially when the awards show was already littered with goosebump-inducing performances.
Overkill On The Nostalgia
Starting the show with a medley of Broadway's greatest hits was an inspired choice, quickly challenging the audience to pick a favorite. The producers then took it a step too far by inserting snippets of the major musical ensembles singing segments of Broadway staples after each commercial break. Not only were they placed awkwardly outside among the crowd, but the songs chosen were obvious and not always a good fit for the ensemble singing them. Some were so corny that at times it looked like even the singers were embarrassed by the obvious nostalgia grab. Either the Tonys should have saved this sort of heavy-hitting Broadway appreciation for its 75th anniversary show, or maybe not shoehorned in quite so many of them. Considering the show ran over, it would have been the easiest cut to make, and felt like an unnecessary ode to the past in a time when the now of Broadway is what made last night's Tony Awards so exciting.
It's a great time for theater and last night's Tonys was the best they've been in a while. So now there's only one question left:
When is Hamilton touring the country and where do I buy my tickets?