‘Band’s Visit’ Blares Loudly at the Tonys

Posted June 11, 2018 12:45 a.m. EDT
Updated June 11, 2018 1:06 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — “The Band’s Visit,” a gentle show about longing, loneliness and the Middle East, triumphed over three much better known productions to win the Tony Award for best new musical Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall.

The victory sent a strong message from Tony voters, who rewarded adult emotion and artistic integrity over commercialism and familiarity. While “The Band’s Visit” is based on a film, it came to the stage far less known — and presold — than the other contenders, “Mean Girls,” “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical” and “Frozen.”

But the Tonys also honored one of the biggest brands in popular culture, giving “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” an expensive and ambitious sequel to J.K. Rowling’s seven smash-hit novels, the prize for best new play. “Cursed Child” was spared much of the criticism directed at other moneyed ventures because of widespread admiration in the industry for the extraordinarily high level of stagecraft in the show.

“The Band’s Visit,” adapted from a 2007 Israeli film, picked up 10 awards, including key prizes for its stars, Katrina Lenk, playing a sultry Israeli cafe owner, and Tony Shalhoub, playing the commander of an Egyptian police orchestra, as well as for Ari’el Stachel, portraying an amorous Egyptian trumpeter. Among the show’s winners were its director, David Cromer; its composer, David Yazbek; and its book writer, Itamar Moses.

An achingly delicate 90-minute show, it offers a vision of a world in which people can overcome suspicion and fear to find common humanity. Its victories came during an emotional awards ceremony at which many prize winners rued the current political climate in the United States.

“Music gives people hope and makes borders disappear,” said the musical’s lead producer, Orin Wolf. “Our show offers a message of unity in a world that more and more seems bent on amplifying our differences.”

British actress Glenda Jackson, winning her first Tony at 82, offered a gentle, but still pointed, comment on today’s climate.

“You, as always, are welcoming and kind and generous, and America has never needed that more,” said Jackson, a former member of the British Parliament. “But then, America is always great.”

But actor Robert De Niro, introducing Bruce Springsteen, brought a note of anger to the proceedings as he slammed President Donald Trump. “It’s no longer ‘Down with Trump,'” he said, going on to suggest a profane alternative.

The ceremony, hosted by singers Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, was filled with emotional moments. A choir of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who had survived a mass shooting in February, sang a moving rendition of “Seasons of Love,” the anthem of survival from “Rent.”

Several performers — John Leguizamo, who was born in Colombia; Ari’el Stachel, whose father came from Yemen, and Lindsay Mendez, whose father is Mexican-American — praised theater for providing a home for Americans of all heritages. “I am so proud to be part of a community that celebrates diversity,” said Mendez, who identifies herself as “a Mexican-Jewish girl,” and who said she had been advised to change her surname to Matthews when she first moved to New York — advice she ignored. Mendez won for playing Carrie Pipperidge, the same role that won Audra McDonald her first Tony in 1994.

The Tonys, formally called the Antoinette Perry Awards, are presented by the American Theater Wing and the Broadway League.

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” took five other awards, including for direction by John Tiffany and set design by Christine Jones.

The victory by Harry Potter was perhaps the least surprising outcome of the season, but still a welcome one for the show’s producers, who are hoping the play, running just over five hours and presented in two parts, will run on Broadway for many years. The lead producers are Sonia Friedman, Colin Callender and Rowling.

The play, an original story set 19 years after the conclusion of the final novel, depicts Harry Potter as a father, struggling with the ordinary challenges of parenting and the extraordinary challenges of doing so as a famous wizard. The original production in London won nine Olivier awards, the most ever won by any show.

The play, written by Jack Thorne based on a story by Tiffany, Thorne, and Rowling, the author of the novels, is still running in London, as well as New York, and a third production is scheduled to open in Melbourne, Australia, next year.

A starry revival of Tony Kushner’s 7 1/2-hour “Angels in America,” which transferred to Broadway from the National Theater in London, was named the best play revival for an acclaimed production that cemented the play’s claim as the best American drama of the late 20th century.

The play’s original production, which opened in two parts, in 1993 and 1994, had won the Pulitzer Prize and two best-play Tony Awards; it was later adapted by Mike Nichols as a miniseries for HBO, and it is regularly studied and staged.

Andrew Garfield, who on the red carpet described the play as about “the agony and the ecstasy of living and dying,” was honored as best leading actor in a play for his all-out performance as Prior Walter, a gay man whose battle with AIDS brings him prophetic powers and an encounter with the celestial. And Nathan Lane won as best featured actor for his portrayal of a raging Roy Cohn, the right-wing lawyer who secretly had sex with men and died after contracting AIDS.

Garfield, winning for the first time, dedicated his award “to the countless LGBTQ people who have fought and died for the right to live and love” and took a shot at the Supreme Court decision last week affirming a Colorado baker’s refusal to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

“We are all sacred, and we all belong, so let’s just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked,” he said. The biggest upset of the night was in the category of musical revival, which was won by “Once on This Island,” beating out two better known shows with bigger box office grosses and wealthier producers, “My Fair Lady” and “Carousel.”

The revival of “Once on This Island,” a tragic fairy tale musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty about a poor young woman’s doomed love for a wealthy man on the Caribbean island where they both live, was staged in the round, with a set that resembled the aftermath of a hurricane and a cast that included chickens and a goat.

Among the other prize recipients: Laurie Metcalf was honored as best featured actress in a play for Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.” And costume designer Catherine Zuber won her seventh Tony, for a revival of “My Fair Lady.”

Jackson’s Tony was notable because she had been nominated for four Tonys before taking a 23-year break from acting to serve in the British Parliament. She was honored for her performance as an enfeebled but tyrannical mother in Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.”

Springsteen got a special Tony Award in recognition of his ecstatically reviewed show, “Springsteen on Broadway,” during which he sings stripped-down versions of some of his best-known songs and tells stories from his memoir.

Leguizamo, the actor, writer and comedian, also received a special Tony “for his body of work and for his commitment to the theater, bringing diverse stories and audiences to Broadway for three decades.” This past season, Leguizamo appeared in “Latin History for Morons,” his fourth solo show on Broadway.

“I just want to say: I’m an immigrant, and I’m not an animal,” Leguizamo said, alluding to a comment by Trump about some unauthorized immigrants, and tearing up as he paid tribute to victims of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico. “My hope is that someday our stories won’t be the exception, but the rule.”

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber received a lifetime achievement award, as did Chita Rivera, a revered Broadway dancer and actor whose credits include originating the role of Anita in “West Side Story.” An especially poignant award this year: Melody Herzfeld, a drama teacher at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was given an award for excellence in theater education. Herzfeld hid 65 students during the mass shooting at her school on Feb. 14, and then later helped some of them use theater and song to express some of their feelings; it was some of those students who performed during the broadcast.

“All the goodness and tragedy that has brought me to this point will never be erased,” she said. “I remember on Feb. 7, in a circle with my students, encouraging them to be good to each other. And I remember only a week later, on Feb. 14, a perfect day, where all these lessons in my life and in their short lives would be called into action.”