Hope and Restraint at the Tonys. Then Came De Niro.
Posted June 10, 2018 11:53 p.m. EDT
Harry Potter has Lord Voldemort, He Who Must Not Be Named. Last night, the Tony Awards had Donald J. Trump.
CBS’ broadcast Sunday of Broadway’s annual awards ceremony managed the considerable feat of not mentioning the name of the current president of the United States, even as it steadily celebrated currently threatened values of inclusivity, openness and equality.
One participant — Robert De Niro, introducing Bruce Springsteen’s performance in the final 20 minutes of the show — broke through what felt like an orchestrated attempt to avoid controversy, using Trump’s name three times in a short, obscene salvo that brought the Radio City Music Hall audience roaring to its feet. But CBS’ censors, with the benefit of a 10-second delay, made sure the television audience did not hear it.
In the shadow of fraying international alliances and pitched political and culture wars at home, the show as a whole offered hopefulness, nostalgia, self-deprecation and modest emotional catharsis — a three-hour vacation from what Nathan Lane called, in passing, the “political insanity” of the present moment.
The broadcast did not ignore the national unrest. Like De Niro, Tony Kushner, accepting best revival of a play for “Angels in America,” broke through the uniform politesse, offering a plea to “save our democracy and heal our country” by voting in the midterm elections.
But the show’s overall tone was ingratiating and its words restrained.
Andrew Garfield, in his acceptance speech for lead actor in a play, spoke of LGBTQ rights in clear but careful terms, invoking the “America we all want to live in one day” and ending with a punch line about the recent Supreme Court decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case (“Let’s just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked”).
Amy Schumer, framing “My Fair Lady” as an early example of feminism, called Henry Higgins a mansplainer but didn’t mention any living men, or the #MeToo movement. Tony Shalhoub, winner for lead actor in a musical in “The Band’s Visit,” touchingly recalled his father’s arrival at Ellis Island a century ago without mentioning the current battles over immigration.
A performance of “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 of their classmates and school staff were killed in a shooting in February, was a dramatic high point. Melody Herzfeld, the school’s drama director, received a theater education award. But no mention was made of guns or gun control.
The most direct response to events outside Radio City came when David Cromer, director of “The Band’s Visit,” devoted most of his acceptance speech to a plea for people who are feeling troubled to reach out for help, without mentioning the suicides in the past week of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.
The just-happy-to-be-here, can’t-we-all-get-along vibe was set by the opening song, a celebration of the ceremony’s also-rans — “This one’s for the loser inside of you” — sung by the hosts, Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, and a chorus made up of ensemble members from every Broadway musical. It was a charming, if not particularly memorable, number.
That could also describe the performances of Bareilles and Groban, who were a likable and entertaining pair, particularly in a song celebrating the eight-shows-a-week stamina of Broadway performers. (In that number they even managed to overcome their atrocious costumes, matching beaded gold jumpsuits, presumably meant to evoke the spangled outfits of chorus members.) The show as a whole ran like clockwork, without any significant gaffes but also no particularly memorable outbreaks of emotion or eccentricity.
The broadcast had some negative associations to overcome. Last year’s ceremony was hosted by Kevin Spacey just a few months before a series of accusations of sexual harassment and assault derailed his career. And it was one of the lowest-rated Tony broadcasts ever, down a precipitous 31 percent from 2016, which benefited from the excitement over “Hamilton.”
In response, the show doubled down on nostalgia and theater-world insularity. Some of this had to do with the success in the musical categories of “The Band’s Visit,” keeping pop extravaganzas like “Mean Girls,” “Frozen” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” offstage.
But the night still would have been dominated by venerable figures like Springsteen, Lane, Glenda Jackson, the lifetime-achievement winners Chita Rivera and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and, in spirit, Donna Summer. One production number after another, from “My Fair Lady” to “Carousel” (with Justin Peck’s choreography) to “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” tapped that current.
De Niro’s remarks may have been the night’s most forceful, but the tone was typified by Springsteen singing the prophetic, gently bitter but ultimately resigned words of “My Hometown.”