June 12, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
“A day late and a dollar short,” here are my thoughts on the Tony Awards from my orchestra seat at Radio City Music Hall Sunday night (many dollars short, actually. I did NOT sit in the cheap seats).
First, I have to report that it’s very exciting to be there, especially to check out everyone’s style (or in a few cases, the lack of). I was amazed that the guy heading in ahead of me was dressed in a checkered shirt and no jacket, as if he was going to a movie on a warm June night. The invitation specifically states “Black Tie,” which gives anyone with a sense of fashion some wiggle room, so long as some thought is put into the task at hand. There was one woman whose gown I came close to stepping on … and as if fated, we continued bumping into one another all evening long, right up until we exited the Plaza Hotel together sometime after 2:00 a.m. I enjoyed my seat among the nominees (winners, when you consider I had Lindsay Mendez — featured actress in a musical — to the left of me, and David Zinn — scenic design — to the right). I wasn’t on any team, nor did I have any horse in the race. However, I did have a favorite show I was rooting for, which proved to be the evening’s runaway winner. When it appeared early on that The Band’s Visit was headed for a sweep of the Tonys (it would win in ten of the eleven categories for which it was nominated), I couldn’t have been happier than if I had anything to do with the show myself. Having seen its final performance off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre in January of 2017, I hoped it would achieve a second life, allowing for many more people to see it than during its limited engagement in a 200-seat house. It seems now it will be assured of a run for at least another year, hopefully longer.
As for the broadcast, I haven’t had a chance to watch any clips from it yet. As always, I’m curious what translated onto television and how it might elicit a different response from me, as opposed to what I saw from the audience on the immense stage of Radio City. Having watched every Tony Awards since they were first nationally broadcast in 1967, the switch from them being done at a legitimate theatre like the Shubert (seating capacity 1,400) to Radio City (6,000 seats), a certain intimacy is sacrificed. But then … my three personal favorite musical performances at the ceremony on Sunday were not diminished in any way by the size of the venue. All three came late in the show and were well worth waiting for:
1) Bruce Springsteen’s quiet and haunting speech about the house he grew up in, which led to his plaintive rendition of “My Home Town.” Not only was this a bold choice, as I’m sure many at home would have loved to see Bruce go full rocker, but that would not be faithful to what he’s achieved in his now Tony winning performance of his show. What else has he been all these years but a storyteller, and his quiet delivery while seated at a piano made for an effective and emotional delivery.
2) The drama students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Off-camera, prior to the broadcast, Melody Herzfeld was honored with a Tony Award for excellence in theater education. It was she who helped shelter 65 of her students for two hours during the mass shooting that occurred on February 14th this year. It’s a shame her speech wasn’t part of the telecast, as it was deeply moving, and would have provided an even broader context with which to view her students singing “Seasons of Love,” Rent’s ode to love and loss. When the show ended, I couldn’t get out of my aisle due to the kids blocking the way, as they were being bombarded by celebrities who wanted selfies with them. I got to talk with a cluster of them and it’s no exaggeration to say that they were actually levitating.
3) Katrina Lenk singing “Omar Sharif” from The Band’s Visit, proving why she had that Tony in the bag since the show opened last November. This was such a wise choice on the part of the show’s producers, as it showcased her so beautifully, demonstrating the strength of the simplicity of the material that made it such a hit with Tony voters.
But what it all comes down to, for me at least, are the speeches. There is no other awards show that is as thematic as the Tonys, with nearly everyone speaking to what the theatre means to them; how it inspired, usually at a young age, to go into the profession and how proud and privileged they feel to be a part of its community. Practically no one pulled out a cheat sheet to make sure they didn’t forget to thank their personal trainer. Everyone spoke from their heart, with Andrew Garfield kicking things off beautifully in the evening’s first speech, recognizing how much Angels in America has brought to so many since it was first produced twenty-five years ago. Playwright Tony Kushner’s message of inclusivity dominated as a theme all night long. “We are all sacred and we all belong,” Garfield said. “So, let’s just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked.”
Other highlights included Tony Shalhoub bringing up his grandfather’s immigrant experience nearly a hundred years ago; Nathan Lane’s unexpected burst of emotion while speaking of his love for his husband; both Lindsay Mendez and Ari’el Stachel addressing their respective Latino and Middle Eastern roots, and how they have come to lovingly embrace their ethnicity, and David Cromer’s shout out to those who suffer from depression, in light of the wake of suicides in last week’s news.
I was in my seat for four hours, but I honestly felt the broadcast portion from 8:00–11:00 moved briskly. Josh Groban and Sarah Bareilles were charming, if somewhat low-key hosts, seemingly happy to be in one another’s company and sharing the hosting duties. At this point, with only a few shows slated for next season, it’s impossible to know what to expect at the 2019 Tonys, but it’s a given that I’ll be cheering everyone on, either from Sixth Avenue, or my living room sofa.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.