Some Thoughts on the 2016 Tonys

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Despite my life-long affinity for theater, I’ve never actually watched the Tony Awards before last night. That’s partially due to award show fatigue and scheduling – Sunday night is when all the best shows are on – but I think the fact that I like to go into shows blind is also a contributing factor. I’m not a person who listens to the original cast recording before I watch a show; as much as I was dying to see Book of Mormon for years, my interest was hinged on vague premise alone rather than any familiarity with the songs that were going to be performed. On more than one occasion I’ve walked into a theater not only not really sure what the basic plot of a show was, but also not even sure if I was seeing a play or a musical. It’s an odd personality quirk – someone as obsessed with details and planning as I am, throwing caution to wind and plunking down my hard earned cash to watch something that I haven’t even remotely vetted carefully before hand. Since so much of the Tonys is performances, I think that has made me shy away from watching them in the past; even seeing one song or medley performed from a musical would be too much for me.

But given my love affair with Hamilton and the fact that I predicted it winning a boatload of Tony awards back in August, my desire to see the cast honored (and see if I was right) outweighed my usual anathema toward this award telecast. The tragic events in Orlando only solidified my resolve to watch, as I really needed a little joy in my day and no community would be able to respond as eloquently to the shooting as the diverse and inclusive theater community. My only real concern was logistics, as the Tonys had some overlap with when Game of Thrones was on, which is spoiled way too easily if you don’t watch relatively close to live. So I watched the first hour of the Tonys live, switched over to watch Game of Thrones live at 9 pm, and they jumped back to the Tonys on tape delay and skipped through the parts that I wasn’t as interested in (sorry plays) or was already familiar with (the cast performance from Bright Star). That put me only 20 minutes or so behind the live broadcast, so I put myself in social media blackout until the evening was over. Other than the dramatic tonal shift from the earnestness of the Tonys to the bleakness of Game of Thrones, this generally worked out pretty well (though as me again how I feel about this later this afternoon when I’m tired).

I have say, despite the obvious sadness and despair over the shooting earlier in the day, the Tonys were really a lot of fun to watch and the three hour telecast felt like it was flying by before I began to judiciously fast forward. Theater people just love to put on a show, so despite the fact that this was technically their night off to be celebrated, all the musical nominees put in double duty performing as well. Not only were there selections from the best musical nominees, but the casts also went outside at each commercial break to sing a song from a classic musical for the fans outside. Because there were so many performances, this gave an energy to the awards show that is sadly missing from the Oscars and the Emmys. And unlike the Grammys, there were still plenty of awards given out so that the show wasn’t just performances. It was a nice balance that kept things moving as well as giving proper notice to the people and shows that were being recognized.

It was also very refreshing to see so many diverse people recognized for their work; while the Academy Awards continue to struggle with #OscarsSoWhite, the Tony Awards excelled at recognizing people of color. All four major acting categories for musicals went to non-white actors; in fact, in one night the Tonys recognized more black performers than the Oscars have in nine years.  Granted, Hamilton has a lot to do with that, but it’s also why Hamilton is so great in that it gave so many opportunities for a diverse cast to shine. And because theater people are used to doing a show live, the speeches were generally quick and to the point. People were emotional, but they were efficient and made the best use of their time. There were no awkward pauses or rambling speeches.

I know that Neil Patrick Harris’ stints hosting the Tonys are legen….wait for it….dary, but I thought James Corden did a really good job. It’s amazing how only a year and a half ago I really had no idea who he was and now I look forward to whatever he does. His opening parody of Hamilton was great

 

as was his medley of iconic Broadway hits:

 

I also particularly liked the bit that he did about all the theater folks that have appeared on Law & Order, since that is a long running joke of mine (my friends and I make a game of it – when we get a playbill, we race each other to find the first Law & Order credit amongst the cast). Corden is such a likable and talented performer that he really helped make the Tonys enjoyable. Despite the fact that it was a forgone conclusion that Hamilton was going to win pretty much everything (sorry Phillipa Soo), it wasn’t a boring show. It also served as a reminder that while I see probably more than my fair share of musicals, I should branch out to see more plays. They can be just as entertaining and I really should make more of an effort to check them out. There’s more to theater than jazz hands and lavish productions.

So the transformation is complete – I am now a Tonys viewer and I imagine I will be for the foreseeable future. I think I’ve even somewhat overcome my aversion to knowing much about musicals before I see them; I was pretty meh about the possibility of seeing School of Rock on stage, but I have to say that after seeing those kids rock out I am much more open to the idea of seeing it. Given the tragedy that was hanging over the show, it would have been easy for it to turn gloomy or solemn – as much as I love the Oscars, they certainly are so self-serious that a ceremony in the aftermath of such a devastating event would have likely been a slog to get through. The Tonys, on the other hand, had such a “the show must go on” philosophy that while it paid the right amount of tribute to the shootings – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s speech made me cry – there was also an inherent mood of pride and celebration of the theater community and all that are a part of it. There was such a genuine joy in the show; it was people doing what they love to do and it was a much needed reprieve. While so many other awards shows feel like a grind, I was honestly a little sad when the Tonys were over. They made me want to hop on the train and spend a weekend in NYC watching shows. It’s not often that an award show is actually invigorating rather than exhausting.

My only complaint – Jake Gyllenhaal sang “A Whole New World” during the commercial break. C’mon Tonys – everyone wants to see that!

 

The full list of Tony award winners can be found here.

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