August Wilson’s “Jitney,” the story of gypsy cab drivers in 1970’s Pittsburgh, was named best revival of a play, while “Oslo,” a drama about the Oslo Peace Accords, was picked as the best new play in a broadcast that mixed razzle dazzle and politics.
“Dear Evan Hansen” picked up a leading six statues, including awards for its book, score, orchestration, best featured actress in a musical for Rachel Bay Jones, and best actor in a musical for Ben Platt.
Politics loomed large at this year’s show, with nominees and presenters wearing ribbons on their lapels in support of the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, causes that have become focal points of the ongoing culture wars. It also popped up in speeches. Cynthia Nixon, honored as best featured actress in a play for her work as an emotionally abused woman in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” praised people engaged in political resistance. She said the play, the story of a rapacious and morally bankrupt family trying to get rich, is “eerily prescient.” Without naming him directly, Nixon seemed to be referencing Donald Trump and the new president’s controversial tenure.
“Eighty years ago [Hellman] wrote, ‘there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it and other people who just stand around and watch them do it,'” said Nixon. “My love, my gratitude, and my undying respect go out to all the people in 2017 who are refusing to just stand around and watch them do it.”
Rebecca Taichman, who picked up a best play directing award for “Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s look at an obscenity case that led to the arrests of a troupe of actors, also drew parallels with that story and the divisive political moment.
“This is a story about love in perilous times and about speaking out… and making art…when one is in great danger,” said Taichman.
Kevin Kline won best actor in a play for his work as an aging matinee idol in “Present Laughter.” He used his time at the podium to plug the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, two organizations that are facing funding threats from the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress.
The awards also aired as the Public Theater is being hit with sponsor defections for its Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar.” The show has a Trump-like Caesar being assassinated — a provocative creative decision that led Delta and Bank of America to pull their financial support.
It wasn’t all Trump. There was also an underlying theme of inclusion and tolerance, both in the selection of winners and the speeches that victors delivered. Platt, recognized for playing a teenager with a social anxiety disorder in “Dear Evan Hansen,” spoke directly to those who feel left out of the mainstream.
“The things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful,” he said.
Laurie Metcalf nabbed best actress in a play for “A Doll’s House, Part 2” after three previous nominations. Best known for her work on “Roseanne,” Metcalf competed against several major stars. The likes of Cate Blanchett (“The Present”), Sally Field (“The Glass Menagerie”), and Laura Linney (“The Little Foxes”) were also nominated in the category.
Michael Aronov won a best featured actor in a play award for his work as an Israeli negotiator in “Oslo” over the heavily favored Danny DeVito (“The Price”). Gavin Creel took home his first Tony Award after two previous nominations, picking up best featured actor in a musical for “Hello, Dolly!” Creel plays Cornelius Hackl, a clerk visiting the big city.
The Tony Awards are always a niche affair, honoring the newer Broadway shows that haven’t yet had the chance to cultivate a national profile to rival “The Phantom of the Opera’s” or “Wicked’s” of the world. This season, with no “Hamilton” to give the proceedings a jolt of pop-culture currency, the telecast’s opening number embraced its inner theater geek with a comic medley of songs drawn from the four new musical nominees, a sequence that recalled the best-picture montages with which Oscar hosts like Billy Crystal have opened that show.
To tunes from musicals including “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Groundhog Day,” emcee Kevin Spacey made an ongoing joke of his last-resort emcee status in a lineup of well-liked Tony hosts that has included Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris, and (last year) James Corden. Making a determined effort to show off the actor’s stage chops, the segment had him singing rewritten excerpts from each of the four nominated musicals and, by the end of it, tapdancing in top hat and tails. He used the number to crack jokes about mean tweets and the Tonys’ historically low ratings. There were also cameo appearances from Stephen Colbert, whose late night show airs on CBS, the network broadcasting the awards show, as well as hosting recidivists Whoopi Goldberg and Crystal.
Early on in the night, Spacey noted that Broadway’s busy, eclectic 2016-17 season addressed such weighty themes as divorce, infidelity, suicide, greed, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We are in for such a fun night tonight,” he said.
Spacey, renowned for his mimicry, trotted out impressions of Bill Clinton and Johnny Carson throughout the show. But the biggest laughs were reserved for Colbert, who skewered Trump while presenting the award for best musical revival.
“This D.C. production is supposed to have a four-year run, but reviews have not been kind,” Colbert said. “It could close early, we don’t know.”
Unlike last year when “Hamilton” dominated the annual celebration of Broadway’s best, this year’s edition lacked a clear frontrunner. “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” entered the night with a leading 12 nominations, but was shut out of the major categories, winning two technical awards. “Come From Away,” the story of a small town in Newfoundland that welcomed travelers stranded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was viewed as a potential best musical winner. The production did manage to beat out “Dear Evan Hansen” in one key category, earning best director for Christopher Ashley.
The night’s initial performance from a nominated musical — and pride of place in the earliest moments of the show — went to an ensemble number from “Come From Away” that made no secret of the story’s links to the terror attacks of 9/11. As a de-facto national TV ad for the production and its upcoming road tour, it also effectively answered the question of how the show could address the topic sensitively in the context of a feel-good musical.
Next up came a high-drama medley from “Miss Saigon,” a love story set in the Vietnam War, that spotlighted the work of lead actress nominee Eva Noblezada. Representing “Dear Evan Hansen,” Platt sang “Waving Through a Window,” the surprisingly catchy signature number about loneliness and insecurity.
One of the top questions of the night — when will lead actress in a musical frontrunner Bette Midler show up, and will she end up singing after all? — was answered halfway through the telecast. After David Hyde Pierce performed “Penny in My Pocket” from “Hello, Dolly!,” the nominated musical revival in which he stars with Midler, she emerged to present the lead actress in a play award.
Though musical segments tend to be considered the highlight of the ceremony, the Tonys are always wrestling with the best way to showcase plays — especially so this season, when new plays have proven especially numerous. This year, the Tonys solved the problem by bringing out the nominated playwrights themselves — including Pulitzer winners Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel — to give quick recaps of their shows.
It was a night of emotional thank you’s and odes to the power of performance. All that self-congratulation wasn’t immune to a few pointed jabs, even from the people being recognized.
“I can’t remember the last time I had so much smoke blown up my a–,” quipped Midler, while accepting her honor for “Hello, Dolly!”
Gordon Cox contributed to this report.