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The 71st Tony Awards Review: Charles Isherwood on Why the Awards Ceremony That Celebrates Great Theater Was So Off-Key

It was a great year for Broadway, but the awards show couldn't follow suit.

bette midler tony awards

Bette Midler at the 2017 Tony Awards

Shutterstock

“Shut that crap off!” snapped a feisty Bette Midler as the orchestra attempted to play her offstage. She had gone well beyond her allotted time in giving her acceptance speech for her surefire win at the 71st annual Tony Awards. Since Midler didn’t sing — disappointing to all — who could begrudge her a record-breaking acceptance speech?

Midler’s ebullient phone-book-length list of thanks was, indeed, a highlight of the Tony telecast on CBS. Considering what a wonderful season it was in terms of quality and even quantity on Broadway, the telecast can only be regarded as a dutiful but hardly dazzling, and often dull, celebration of a season that deserved a more vibrant tribute.

True, a signal attraction of any awards show – the possibility of a shock or even a surprise or two – was for once in evidence at this year’s awards. The top categories, best musical and best play as well as several others, were tightly contested down to the wire.

Suspense regarding many of the awards was the good news, at least for the hardcore theater lovers. So was the voters’ remarkable spreading of the wealth. No show really dominated (the biggest winner, “Dear Evan Hansen,” took home six awards), and there were near-jaw-dropping surprises in a few categories. (Brava for Rebecca Taichman, the director of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” perhaps the most unexpected win.)

The downside going in to the telecast was the absence of a national headline-making hit like last year’s “Hamilton,” or previous blockbusters such as “The Book of Mormon” or “The Producers.” Only the rare Broadway show that breaks through into pop-culture awareness draws new viewers to the Tonys — which are, compared to the Oscars and Emmys and Grammys, a ratings also-ran.

Maybe the producers decided to shrug off attempts to broaden the appeal, once Bette was out of the picture. This year’s telecast had a more insular feeling than most, even as it remained, as it has in recent years, a pretty bald attempt to advertise any and all musicals running on Broadway.

One of several inside-the-business back stories that dominated pre-Tony press consumed the whole opening number. As anyone following closely knew, the evening’s host, Kevin Spacey, was not the first choice; he had in fact gamely joked that he was the “25th person” asked. To begin the festivities he performed a medley of mock songs from the best musical nominees, essentially a long one-joke riff on Spacey’s understudy-host status.

Full of allusions to previous hosts (Neil Patrick Harris, James Corden, Hugh Jackman), it seemed to drag on forever — and was not particularly enlivened by guest appearances by Stephen Colbert and Whoopi Goldberg. Perhaps funny to those in the know, it could only have been mystifying to a wider audience.

Kevin Spacey71st Annual Tony Awards, Arrivals, New York, USA - 11 Jun 2017

Kevin Spacey at the 71st Tony Awards

Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

Still more odd was Spacey’s Johnny Carson impersonation when introducing a song from best musical nominee “Groundhog Day.” True, he does a good Johnny — but why? And when Spacey later came on as Bill Clinton, one began to wonder if he was looking toward a future as the next Rich Little.

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