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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


The telecast was, in most respects, a by-the-numbers affair, with the usual sprinkling of presenters more famous for TV and movie appearances (with a special emphasis on CBS) than their theater histories, mixed in with recent, mostly young Broadway names. The quality of the banter and comedy from the presenters was unusually low. Even Colbert, who presented the musical revival award, and Josh Gad (of “The Book of Mormon”) had pretty feeble material.

The Tonys’ ongoing attempts to discover a way to honor straight plays once again came up short. Having the authors of the best-play nominees — surprisingly telegenic though they were — describe their plays in a minute or less didn’t really do the shows, or the viewers, any favors. Positively embarrassing was a fake food-product-placement promotional bit featuring gags from shows that didn’t get a slot on the show, like “A Bronx Tale,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and — why? — last season’s “Waitress.”

For many years now, the Tony awards have downplayed their status as an actual awards show honoring excellence in Broadway theater. These days, as noted before, the telecast is mostly just a three-hour advertisement for Broadway musicals. The bestowing of the less glamorous awards is now relegated to the untelevised portion of the proceedings. (Sad, in particular, that the nigh-legendary costume designer Jane Greenwood, winning her first competitive Tony after more than 20 nominations, was not allowed her moment in the spotlight, and that we only heard an excerpt from the lifetime achievement award speech from James Earl Jones.)

Perhaps most successful in selling Broadway razzle-dazzle was, unexpectedly, the rock-pop opera “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” (Its title now economized, apparently, to “The Great Comet.”) The show managed to re-create the all-enveloping atmosphere of its immersive staging, with audience members (or fake ones) onstage and the cast accosting various celebrities (Tina Fey, Colbert) in the actual audience.

Also coming off well was “Dear Evan Hansen,” which kept its focus firmly on Tony-winning star Ben Platt, who fairly broke your heart with the anxiety and insecurity in every twitch of his eyes and the throb in his voice in “Waving Through a Window.” Although it was not a best musical nominee, “War Paint” presented a fabulous diva sing-off between two of the most venerated musical theater performers today, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, on “Face to Face” (more like “Face to Collarbone,” given LuPone’s diminutive stature, but never mind).

Blithely unimpressive was “Penny in My Pocket,” a number from “Hello, Dolly!” that was cut from the original production. Despite David Hyde Pierce’s chipper performance, it felt like what it was: a second-tier placeholder. (“Dolly” doesn’t need the platform of the Tonys to sell more tickets.)


Sometimes the most refreshing moments in awards shows are the fluttery and flustered speeches of the winners, and that was the case here. Midler knew she would win, but nevertheless grasped madly, and hilariously, for names of some of her co-stars. Taichman’s shock at her award was palpable, and even as she lost track of her thoughts she charmed. Rachel Bay Jones, another surprise winner in the featured-actress-in-a-musical category for “Dear Evan Hansen,” also delighted with her affectionate tribute to her parents, also actors.

But perhaps most entrancing, and moving, was Cynthia Nixon. Also a surprise winner in a tough category (featured actress in a play), she gently stressed how “prescient” Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” was in foreseeing a world populated by those who “eat the earth” and those who watch idly while it is consumed. In an awards show surprisingly free, given today’s climate, of political content, her speech struck notes vital, honest, and topical. She made you sit up and listen, and think about what theater, and art in general, can have to say to us in an era of great anxiety, uncertainty, and even fear.

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