‘Band’s Visit’ Blares Loudly at the Tonys

Posted June 10, 2018 10:52 p.m. EDT
Updated June 10, 2018 11:24 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — “The Band’s Visit,” a gentle show about longing and loneliness, started strong Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall as it competed with three much better known productions for the Tony Award for best new musical.

The show, adapted from a 2007 Israeli film, picked up seven early awards, several of them surprises: for its director, David Cromer; for its book, by Itamar Moses; orchestrations, by Jamshied Sharifi; lighting design, by Tyler Micoleau; and for Ari’el Stachel, as best featured actor in a musical. David Yazbek’s Middle Eastern-inflected music took the prize for best score, and Kai Harada won for his sound design.

The book prize was especially significant, because Moses defeated Tina Fey, writer of “Mean Girls,” which was one of the show’s main competitors.

Broadway is booming — this past season was the fifth in a row with record box-office grosses — but theater industry leaders are concerned about the increasing dominance of movie adaptations, jukebox musicals and corporate producers. The Tony Awards, formally called the Antoinette Perry Awards, are presented by the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing. The awards recognize plays and musicals staged on Broadway.

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.”

And multiple recipients made reference to the polarization now roiling the United States.

“You as always are welcoming and kind and generous, and America has never needed that more,” said British actress Glenda Jackson, winning her first Tony Award at 82. “But then, America is always great.”

Among other early prize recipients: Laurie Metcalf was honored as best featured actress in a play for Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.” Costume designer Catherine Zuber won her seventh Tony, for her sumptuous work on a revival of “My Fair Lady.” And a revival of “Carousel” picked up two awards, for choreography by Justin Peck and for Lindsay Mendez as best featured actress in a musical.

“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.

Comedians and talk-show hosts typically preside over awards shows, though last year actor Kevin Spacey emceed, a few months before his career imploded amid accusations of sexual misconduct.

So Tony administrators this year went in a different direction, asking two pop singers, Bareilles and Groban, to host the show. Both are grown-up theater kids who recently made their Broadway debuts, he in 2016 in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” and she in 2017 in “Waitress,” a musical for which she wrote the songs.

The pair set an earnest, affectionate tone for the broadcast, opening with a charmingly self-deprecating song acknowledging that most nominees do not win, and poking fun of themselves as examples — both have been nominated for Tony and Grammy awards, and neither has won. “Neither one of us has ever won anything,” they sang. “So this is for the people who lose.”

Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane won Tonys for their performances in an acclaimed revival of Tony Kushner’s masterwork, “Angels in America,” a sprawling two-part play about, as Garfield described it on the red carpet, “the agony and the ecstasy of living and dying.”

Garfield 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 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 also had AIDS.

The revival, which transferred to Broadway from the National Theater in London, has reinforced the play’s claim as the best American drama of the late 20th century. “It is still speaking to us as powerfully as ever in the midst of such political insanity,” said Lane, who had won twice previously. The play’s original production, which opened in two parts, in 1993 and 1994, 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.

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 Band’s Visit,” an achingly delicate 90-minute show about an Egyptian police orchestra that for a single night is stranded in an Israeli desert town, was considered likely to beat out “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical” — the most nominated shows — for the coveted best new musical prize. (“Frozen” is the fourth nominee.)

“The Band’s Visit” would be the fifth best new musical in a row to come out of the nonprofit theater world. The show began its life off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company before transferring last fall.

— A Moment for Parkland

An especially poignant award this year went to Melody Herzfeld, a drama teacher at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who honored for excellence in theater education.

Herzfeld hid 65 students during the mass shooting at her school on Feb. 14, then later helped some of them use theater and song to express some of their feelings.

“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.”

— Born to Win

Bruce Springsteen got a special Tony Award just for being Bruce Springsteen.

Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated: He was recognized for his ecstatically reviewed and totally sold-out show, “Springsteen on Broadway,” during which he sings stripped-down versions of some of his best-known songs and tells stories from his memoir. The show opened in October and is scheduled to close in December.

“Thanks for making me feel so welcome on your block,” Springsteen said in accepting the award to rousing applause.

John 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 President Donald Trump about some unauthorized immigrants, and tearing up as he paid tribute to victims of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico last year. “My hope is that someday our stories won’t be the exception, but the rule.” Other prizes that were granted before the broadcast began: composer Andrew Lloyd Webber — one of the most successful musical theater writers and producers in history — 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.”

“By the way: there’s still a lot of salt left in this shaker,” Rivera, who is 85, said, reflecting on her intention to keep performing.

Lloyd Webber, who is 70 years old, had already won seven Tony Awards, including for “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera”; Rivera had won as a performer in “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

“All I wanted to be was Richard Rodgers,” Lloyd Webber said, referring to the legendary Broadway composer. “I never dreamed that I, a Brit of all things, would one day be honored with the same award my idol won.”

And a New York Times photographer, Sara Krulwich, became the first journalist recognized with a Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater, for her decades of photographing Broadway shows. Her award was given Monday.