In our awards-show glutted culture, there’s nothing unusual about ceremonies that work tirelessly to convince us that they don’t take themselves too seriously. What’s so wonderful about the Tony Awards, by contrast, is how seamlessly it blends a celebration of the august and rarified art of theater with the exuberant, zero-chill joy of being a theater geek.
With their winking, witty opening number entitled “This Is for the People Who Lose,” hosts Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles kicked off the 72nd annual Tony Awards with the mix of showmanship, self-deprecating humor, and good-natured egalitarianism that would continue throughout the night. “Neither one of us has every won anything,” the duo sang cheerfully, before inviting ensemble players from every Tony-nominated musical on stage to join them for a rare moment of spotlight glory.
Though the ceremony was flush with big stars — Andrew Garfield, taking home Leading Actor in a Play for Angels in America; Tina Fey, introducing her new musical Mean Girls; Bruce Springsteen, accepting a special Tony Award for Springsteen on Broadway — on the Tonys stage, everyone is quick to embrace their inner underdog. Whether it was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Rachel Bloom, who peppered her backstage commentary with pointed asides about her tortured inner life (“If the mean girls from my youth could have sung and danced, maybe them calling me an ugly loser who would never find love would have been more palatable”), or our charming hosts, who gamely rattled off a list of the many uncool places you can hear their music (“a hotel elevator,” “a romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson,” “your mom’s RAV4”), we were reminded again and again that success is, in so many ways, a choice.
Perhaps Ari’el Stachel — winner of Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical for The Band’s Visit — said it best: “I want any kid who’s watching to know your biggest obstacle may turn into your purpose.” It’s a sentiment that certainly applies to the kids from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School theater department, whose performance of Rent’s “Seasons of Love” earned the most genuine standing ovation of the night and left the A-list crowd wiping away tears.
The Tonys have always been the most democratic of all the awards show, bringing the best moments of pricey Broadway productions to the masses over the free airwaves of broadcast TV. This year’s performances were varied and delightful: The playful razzle-dazzle of Squidward’s four-footed tap dance in SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical’s “I’m Not a Loser”; the bounding, balletic beauty of Carousel’s “Blow High, Blow Low”; and the immersive joy of Once On This Island’s showstopper “Mama Will Provide” — these toe-tapping numbers no doubt sent the hearts of aspiring young thespians across the country aflutter.
The winners and presenters mostly avoided making overtly political statements, preferring instead to keep their messages of tolerance and equality more muted and oblique — like Garfield’s earnest plea to “just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked!” The exception, of course, was Robert De Niro, who prefaced his introduction of Bruce Springsteen with a profane message for our current White House occupant. The quick CBS censors were able to mute the actor’s f-bomb in time, and honestly, it was kind of a relief. Broadway is about entertainment and escape — as Groban and Bareilles sang in their opening number, “In a world that is scary and hard to endure, if you make art at all you’re a part of the cure” — and this year’s Tonys delivered both, in restorative doses. Grade: B+