It was duly noted, early in the 73rd Tony Awards, that the festivities followed a record year on Broadway — more tickets sold and more dollars grossed than ever. But the tight, tinny, careful show broadcast by CBS on Sunday night didn’t feel celebratory — it seemed alternately self-satisfied and insecure, as if it felt it had to keep making excuses for itself.
It was reflected in the use, or the lack thereof, of the usually riotous James Corden, hosting the Tonys for the second time. The charm, endless energy and physical grace that make him an ideal awards host were all evident. But he was saddled throughout the night with bad ideas based on the notion of the Tonys’ inadequacy compared to television, or to streaming video, or to hip-hop music.
And he disappeared for long stretches, which isn’t unusual for awards-show hosts these days — one of the marginally funnier sketches, involving him and last year’s hosts, Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles, hiding out in Radio City Music Hall restroom stalls, floated the idea of the Tonys copying the now hostless Oscars in an attempt to shore up ratings.
[“Hadestown” triumphed at the 2019 Tony Awards.]
But after his verbal dexterity enlivened an overcrowded and bland opening number that did little to showcase the season’s musicals, the material continually failed him, whether it was a tortured audience-participation gag about putting on a loser’s face for the cameras, or a tortured audience-participation gag about generating some rap-style beefs between Broadway stars. (That one ended on a high note, when Audra McDonald and Laura Linney faced off with hilarious ferocity.)
More Corden would have given the show more life, and a more unfettered Corden might have been able to cut through some of the gauze of earnest sanctimony that enveloped the ceremony to an even greater extent than in recent years. Exhortations to inclusiveness, tolerance and the special character of the Broadway community by presenters and winners have become part of the furniture of the Tonys.
Individually, each one is heartfelt and worthy, and in many cases they honestly reflect the content of the nominated plays and musicals. But they’ve become so routine that they’re losing their meaning. And there’s a disconnect between the insistence on the theater world’s wokeness and the blandness and inoffensiveness of the show. Or perhaps there isn’t. (Bryan Cranston might have been tapping into that when he jokingly-not jokingly yelled, “Finally a straight old white man gets a break!” on winning best actor in a play for “Network.”)
As always, individuals managed to break through the monotony, pre-eminently Elaine May, winner for lead actress in a play for “The Waverly Gallery.” In her inimitably wry style, she credited her award to everyone involved in the production but her. André De Shields, a member of theater royalty winning his first Tony on his third nomination, took an opposite tack, thanking the Broadway community without mentioning anyone else in his show, “Hadestown.”
Rachel Chavkin, accepting the award for director of a musical for “Hadestown,” broke through the general air of self-congratulation with a strong statement about how far Broadway still had to go in promoting diversity in the directing ranks, citing “a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.”
In its main job of drawing paying customers to the plays, the night was a mixed bag. The biggest musicals fared the worst in the production numbers — the slick, showy, mostly soulless medley from “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” and the static “Unstoppable” from “Tootsie” weren’t showstoppers. “Beetlejuice” and “The Prom” fared better, with some energetic staging and choreography and winning performances by Alex Brightman and Brooks Ashmanskas, respectively.
Reportedly at the suggestion of Corden, the authors of the best-play nominees were brought onstage to talk about their works; it was nice to see and hear the playwrights, but their brief self-promos weren’t terribly interesting.
The most inspirational performance was probably the scene from an unnominated musical, “Choir Boy,” and along with the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s sharp introduction, it could have drawn audiences to the show. So could May’s acceptance speech for “The Waverly Gallery.” Unfortunately, the night’s two nicest moments were for shows that have already closed.