POSTMORTEM: The 2019 Tony Awards

James Corden Tony 2019 Photo

James Corden hosts the 2019 Tony Awards

CK: Okay, David. Shall we talk Tonys?

DF: By all means! Is there anything else going on in the world?

CK: Nothing I can think of…or, I should say, that I want to think of. At its best, this year’s ceremony celebrated the kind of diversity and inclusivity the theater so desperately needs. At its worst, the telecast itself privileged a parade of lame sketch-comedy scenes that went on too long, weren’t that funny, and pulled focus away from the people the awards are actually meant to honor.

DF: I’m particularly put off by Tony presenters who make the event all about themselves, rather than the honorees. Worst in this regard was Kristin Chenoweth, who seems hell-bent on turning herself into a walking freak show. Also, Billy Porter. I’m so over his grandiosity, those Project Runway epic-fail costumes, and I don’t even think he’s especially interesting as a performer.

CK: I would certainly rank Porter’s performance in Kinky Boots among the least-deserving Tony wins in recent memory. But we should probably consider the good before the bad.

DF: OK, I’ll get off my high horse – for now.

CK: The stylistically inventive, woman-led Hadestown came away the big winner, picking up eight awards, including Best Musical. Although I think you enjoyed it a bit less than I did on a whole, we’re probably in agreement that it’s unlike anything else that opened on Broadway this season, in terms of form, content, and production.

DF: My mixed feelings are rooted largely in the book, which I found insubstantial, and more interesting dealing with Persephone and Hades than Orpheus and Eurydice. But I found the piece as a whole tremendously entertaining, and I’m definitely delighted with its win, which continues a trajectory of real imagination in this category.

CK: I’ve noticed that trend too. Last night, I went back and looked at the five most recent Best Musical recipients. It’s an intriguing group: Fun Home, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, The Band’s Visit, and Hadestown. I have my own feelings about each show – some of them complicated – but I’d say they all push the genre forward and force everyone (producers, audiences, critics, creators) to consider what we expect from a Broadway musical. None is a traditionally splashy, showy type of musical, really. Sure, Hamilton has become a billion-dollar juggernaut, and Dear Evan Hansen has found a devoted fan-base that’s kept it a consistently high earner. Neither Fun Home nor The Band’s Visit sustained a long Broadway engagement, but they were both solid financial hits that spawned national tours and popular cast recordings. The length and success of Hadestown’s Broadway run remains to be seen. But looking at these five shows, it’s heartening to think how the image of what’s considered a commercially viable musical property for Broadway has shifted, and how the Best Musical award itself is no longer just a prize for the biggest, shiniest show of the season.

DF: Amen to all that. By contrast – but to me, equally satisfying – is the love shown to The Ferryman. Among this year’s straight-play contenders, it is in many ways a rather old-fashioned, narrative-heavy piece. But what a thrilling evening of theater! The size and scale of it, the command of language. Quite right that both the playwright, Jez Butterworth, and the director, Sam Mendes, took home Tonys.

CK: As you noted in your initial review back in January, it’s the kind of epic theatrical undertaking we rarely see any more – let alone done so well. I think you have to go back to August: Osage County to find an analog of the kind of sprawling, wholly original storytelling that Butterworth achieves in The Ferryman. Everything just works: the elegant writing; the edge-of-your-seat plotting; the sense that you’re being totally immersed in the world of the play. The playwright, director, and cast make it seem so effortless.

DF: But no Tony wins for that cast? Several individual performances should have been recognized – Fionnula Flanagan, Paddy Considine, Laura Donnelly – but even more so, the ensemble as a whole. It’s high time the Tonys added an ensemble category for plays. And really, how weird to recognize Mendes but not the actors. What do voters think a director does?

CK: The Tonys have long been behind the curve in this respect. If I had a vote, I definitely would have given it to Donnelly, who managed to give the kind of lived-in, unsentimental performance that’s become as rare as an original three-act play itself.

DF: Agreed. It’s hard not to cheer for Elaine May – truly a living legend, whose lifetime contributions to comedy are immeasurable, and here she is doing something new at age 87. I mean, brava! But I also think May’s performance in The Waverly Gallery, a play I’m not wild about, was pretty siloed, as opposed to Donnelly, who really held The Ferryman together.

CK: Agreed 100%. (I said as much about May’s performance in my review for Exeunt NYC). And I probably would have voted for Flanagan too, who conveys greater meaning and depth with one icy stare than Celia Keenan-Bolger does in her entire cutesy, cranked-up performance as Scout Finch.

DF: Keenan-Bolger is talented for sure, but haven’t we had enough of her starry-eyed childlike wonderment? She’s 41, for heaven’s sake. It’s time to move on. More broadly, I’m going to be a total bitch and point out that I was happy with the near shut-out of To Kill a Mockingbird, a show I found awash in self-importance and Aaron Sorkin bloat.

Celia Keenan-Bolger 41 Photo

Celia Keenan-Bolger in To Kill a Mockingbird

CK: And it’s time for us to move on, as well, or we’ll end up talking about this for days. Here’s my biggest bugaboo: Nearly all of the technical awards were presented pre-ceremony. I guess because they’re not “sexy” enough to warrant more than a 15-second cut-in on the way to a commercial break. But James Corden singing in the john is?

DF: Corden can be charming in small doses, and I appreciate his genuine love for theater. But last night, he came off like Uncle Jocko in a road company Gypsy tour – desperate to get laughs at any cost. Yuck.

CK: Heaven forbid we actually celebrate the people who make the shows we love happen behind the scenes. And by doing so, at least one historic moment was lost: Jessica Paz, who shared the award for Best Sound Design of a Musical with Nevin Steinberg for Hadestown, was the first woman ever to be nominated in that category, let alone win. Why is a moment like that – or the awards for costuming, lighting, scenic design, orchestration, and even libretto – considered less important than Laura Linney and Audra McDonald schticking it up in the audience?

DF: The Tonys also have an ongoing problem of how to give substantial coverage to plays, as opposed to musicals. The latter have brassy numbers that can be shown out of context, and which seem to offer the kind of color-and-movement flash that TV producers crave. But it was particularly glaring this year, when plays so dominated the Broadway season.

CK: I enjoyed hearing the nominated playwrights speak about their work, which was often quite personal and moving. But I’d much rather have watched Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly perform a scene from The Ferryman than be subjected to whatever was going on with The Cher Show.

DF: Do not get me started on The Cher Show, or we really will be here all night.

CK: All I’m going to say is that Stephanie J. Block should have thanked Jack McFarland in her acceptance speech.

DF: I would have been so much happier if Cher had won Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Stephanie J. Block.

CK: If I could turn back time, I’d go back to when performers like Judy Holliday and Thelma Ritter won in this category.

DF: Interesting that you chose two very different people, but I think they share that they were both marginal singers with limitless charm and acting chops. Block is nearly the exact opposite.

CK: Exactly, so let’s not dwell. Instead, let’s take a moment to recognize someone with limitless charm, acting chops, and a helluva voice. How wonderful it was to see André de Shields, resplendent and inexhaustible as ever at 73, win his first Tony for his show-stopping performance in Hadestown? I usually hate it when critics use “show-stopping” as an empty adjective, but when I went to see Hadestown– and you can attest to this, since you saw the same performance – he literally stopped the show no fewer than a half-dozen times, starting with his brilliant entrance.

DF: Absolutely, and I also loved his acceptance speech. He knew he deserved it, and he wanted to make sure the rest of the world knew it, too.

CK: Ali Stroker also made history as the first wheelchair user to win a Tony Award in a performance category. I was pulling for Amber Gray, but there’s no ignoring the significance of the moment. Stroker is one of only two people in a wheelchair to ever appear on Broadway, and was the first in recorded history when she made her debut in the 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. Disability is, in many ways, the final frontier in representation onstage, and I’m sure Stroker’s comments about young people seeing themselves represented for the first time rang true for many.

Ali Stroker Tony Photo.jpg

Ali Stroker accepts the 2019 Tony Award for Oklahoma!

DF: Like you, I was rooting for Amber Gray, who interestingly played Laurey when that production of Oklahoma! was done first at Bard. But Stroker has tons of personality and terrific pipes. I also recognize the importance of this moment, and that – in honoring Stroker, May, and others – there is something bigger than an individual performance to be considered. And I’m OK with that. I also want to recognize the classy and gracious remarks made last night by both Mart Crowley (about his play, The Boys in the Band), and Brian Stokes Mitchell (honoring the late, great Marin Mazzie and others we lost this year). Both were deeply moving.

CK: How lovely was it that Crowley had the opportunity to acknowledge the original cast members of The Boys in the Band – many of whom were early AIDS casualties? And I can really think of no one who deserves to be remembered more than Mazzie, who seems to have been genuinely loved by everyone with whom she came into contact. We clearly have our complaints — if we didn’t, could we even call ourselves critics? — but in the end, I think the good outweighed the bad. So should we take our leave on a positive note?

DF: Yes, let’s.

CK: Until next year…which will, hopefully, be a true celebration of Broadway and the people who make it possible.


Categories: New York, Theater

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