“Hamilton” ascended to the awards throne to which the Broadway smash has been headed all season, taking home eleven trophies at the 2016 Tony Awards, including the top prize for new musical, in a ceremony that aimed to strike a tricky balance between acknowledging the recent shootings in Orlando with the life-affirming impulse to go on with the show.
The big winner of the night among plays was “The Humans,” snagging four trophies including the medal for new play, while the revival awards went to musical “The Color Purple” and play “A View from the Bridge.” The Tony ceremony also stood in stark contrast to this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy by setting a new landmark in diversity, with all four musical acting trophies going to African-American performers — three from “Hamilton (Leslie Odom, Jr., Renee Elise Goldsberry, Daveed Diggs) and one from “The Color Purple” (Cynthia Erivo).
The live Broadcast on CBS opened with host James Corden making an impassioned speech about the tragic events in Florida, which had occurred less than 24 hours before the telecast. He pre-recorded his introduction in the half hour before the show went live, in order to make sure he got the important acknowledgment right.
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“Your tragedy is our tragedy,” he told Orlando from the stage of the Beacon Theater, the Upper West Side venue where the ceremony took place. “Theater is a place where every race, creed, sexuality and gender is equal, is embraced and is loved,” he said. “Hate will never win. Tonight’s show stands as a symbol and a celebration of that principle.”
“Hamilton” creator-star Lin-Manuel Miranda also acknowledged the shootings in his first speech at the podium, accepting the award for best score. “I’m not freestyling. I’m too old,” he joked, in reference to his tendency to rap, and proceeded to read a sonnet. “When senseless acts of tragedy remind us nothing here is promised, not one day, this show is proof that history remembers,” he said, later adding: “Hope and love last longer. … Love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.”
Later in the evening, Jessica Lange, accepting the award for best actress in a play for her performance in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” said, “This is such a dream come true, and it fills me with such happiness, even on such a sad day as this.” Frank Langella, taking the lead actor in a play award for his turn in “The Father,” said from the podium, “I urge you, Orlando, to be strong. I’m standing in a room full of the most generous human beings on earth, and we will be there to support you every step of the way.”
The Orlando shootings were top of mind in other parts of the ceremony as well. Nominees and other attendees sported silver ribbons to acknowledge the tragedy, and producers of “Hamilton” chose to drop the use of musket props from its telecast performance of the song “Yorktown (The World Turns Upside-Down).” Barbra Streisand, handing out the new musical Tony to “Hamilton,” noted, “Tonight our joy is tinged with sorrow.”
The telecast was bound to have a political overtone even before the Florida shootings cast a shadow over the proceedings. “Hamilton,” the founding-father saga retold with hip-hop and a diverse cast, had such cultural pull that it warranted an introduction by President Obama and the First Lady, with the president, in a videotaped sequence, praising the show as “a civics lesson kids can’t get enough of.”
The upcoming presidential election also provided fodder for the ceremony. One skit touted upcoming musicals “The Book of Moron,” featuring “Book of Mormon” original star Andrew Rannells in a bad blonde wig as Trump, and “A Clinton Line,” starring Glenn Close as Hillary Clinton quoting “A Chorus Line.” (“I really need this job,” she sang.)
Immigration got a handful of shout-outs, too. Emilio Estefan introduced Gloria Estefan and the cast of their bio-musical “On Your Feet!” with a gag about the show’s largely Latino cast being entirely legal. “We all have our papers,” he said. Later, one of the producers of “View from the Bridge” called the Arthur Miller play “a great play about immigrants,” making it especially relevant today, while the song from “Hamilton” included the line, “Immigrants. We get the job done.”
Diversity had long been poised to be a hot topic at the ceremony, following a 2015-16 season widely celebrated for an inclusive slate that encompassed not only “Hamilton” but also “Shuffle Along,” “The Color Purple,” “Spring Awakening,” “Allegiance,” “Eclipsed” and “On Your Feet!” “Think of this as the Oscars, but with diversity,” Corden cracked early in the ceremony. “It is so diverse, Donald Trump threatened to build a wall around this theater.”
The emcee’s surprisingly heartfelt opening number culminated in a tribute to Broadway’s inclusiveness. In a song welcoming kids of “every color, class and race and face and shape and size” — as well as boys, girls and transgender kids too — he trotted out the 20 nominated musical actors. “Don’t wonder if this could be you. It absolutely could be,” he sang.
In a season that’s been all about “Hamilton,” the Tony telecast acknowledged the #HamilTonys phenomenon early. After Corden’s speech about the Orlando shootings, the ceremony launched with a spoof of the first song from “Hamilton,” performed by the musical’s cast with lyrics rewritten to intro Corden, the “upstart Brit” and “chubby dude from ‘Into the Woods’” and the host of CBS’ “The Late Late Show” whose gig as the Tony emcee made for “a classic exercise of corporate synergy” for CBS.
Soon thereafter, Corden joked, “I promise you, tonight’s show will not be all about ‘Hamilton.’ There will also be commercial breaks.”
A 2012 Tony winner for “One Man, Two Guvnors,” the Tony host then segued into his opener, which began by recounting his discovery of theater as a youth and his childhood dreams of being onstage. The tune reflected the origin story of most theater fans, who tend to become lifelong devotees following early exposure to the stage, and spiraled out into a sequence reminiscent of Oscar telecast openings, in which the emcee imagines himself in a series of iconic titles. In this case Corden found himself doing bits of “Les Miserables,” “The Lion King” and “Guys and Dolls,” among many others, ending in a Momma Rose-style breakdown a la “Gypsy.” “Here I am, hosting the Tonys, this time tomorrow I’m back at 12:30!” he finished in a panic.
The telecast nodded to “Hamilton” by recreating the Broadway musical’s “Ham4Ham” series of live afternoon mini-performances on the street outside the theater. On an outdoor stage on the sidewalk outside the Beacon, Miranda led fellow nominees Andrew Lloyd Webber (“School of Rock”), Sara Bareilles (“Waitress”) and Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (“Bright Star”) in a round of “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.” Throughout the ceremony, subsequent outdoor sequences saw the casts of nominated shows riffing on Broadway’s greatest hits, with, for instance, the cast of “The Color Purple” singing some of “The Lion King,” “Hamilton” performers doing “Rent” and “She Loves Me” crooning from “Cabaret.”
“Hamilton” won the first award it was eligible for on the broadcast, with Goldsberry scoring for featured actress in a musical, and swiftly followed up with co-star Daveed Diggs nabbing featured actor in a musical and then Miranda taking the prize for score.
By that point in the evening, the Broadway juggernaut had already kicked things off in the pre-telecast segment of the awards, winning the first competitive trophy announced for costumes of a musical (Paul Tazewell). The production picked up lighting of a music (Howell Binkley) as well, but as predicted by many in the industry, it didn’t take home the award for set design. That went to Broadway veteran and first time Tony winner David Rockwell, scoring for his sets to “She Loves Me.”
The haul for “Hamilton” also included director (Thomas Kail), choreography (Andy Blankenbuehler), lead actor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), orchestrations (Alex Lacamoire), book (Miranda).
Aside from the Tonycast’s opening number, the most hotly contested real estate on the telecast is the one musical segment that airs prior to the evening’s first commercial break. This year, pole position went to “School of Rock” and the song “You’re In The Band.” It’s a number that’s been oft-seen in the production’s overall marketing push, but it made for a good fit for the Tony segment, given its high energy and the irresistible appeal of watching the production’s half-pint actor-musicians rock out.
Whether to perform a single song straight through, or a medley of memorable moments, is one of the toughest decisions theater producers face in putting together a nominated production’s segment. Those segments — which this year went to all nine nominated musicals, plus Estefan bio-tuner “On Your Feet!” – essentially function as nationally televised advertisements for each show.
Several productions this year went the “School of Rock” route and performed a single full number. Along with “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside-Down)” from “Hamilton,” “Shuffle Along” gave a solid sense of the show’s narrative arc with the dance-heavy “Broadway Blues” while “Fiddler on the Roof” spotlighted both the emotion and the lively dance in the wedding sequence that features familiar tune “Sunrise, Sunset.” The cast of “Bright Star” performed their show’s opening number, “If You Knew My Story,” which offered a taste of the production’s bluegrass-inflected musical style but may have come off as too statically staged to sell many tickets.
Other productions went the medley route. “On Your Feet!” did a shock-and-awe megamix of Estefan hits, bringing Gloria Estefan out to duet with Ana Villafane, the actress who plays her in the musical, while “She Loves Me” gave Jane Krakowski a chance to show off her splits before ceding the stage to her co-stars, also familiar from TV, Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti, the latter of whom sang a snippet of the musical’s signature tune, “Vanilla Ice Cream.”
Among the cleverest medleys was the sequence from “The Color Purple” (introduced by producer Oprah Winfrey), which interpolated its featured actresses Danielle Brooks and Heather Hedley, executing choreography drawn from their notable numbers, into the musical’s opening song. The sequence then made way for headliner Cynthia Erivo and her showstopper, “I’m Here.”
In a performance funded by fans on Kickstarter, the cast of the “Spring Awakening” revival also gave their production an effective showcase, despite the fact that the now-defunct show has no plans for future life. The segment launched with the ruminative “Mama Who Bore Me,” which sets up the production’s convention of working deaf actors and American Sign Language into the proceedings, before ramping up into the more rocking “The Bitch of Living.”
As expected, Stephen Karam’s nuanced family drama “The Humans” took the trophy for best play, as well as the featured acting in a play trophies (Jayne Houdyshell and Reed Birney) and the medal for set design (David Zinn). “Humans” producer Scott Rudin, who also produced the winning play revival “View from the Bridge,” handed his Tony to the show’s director, Joe Mantello (“Wicked”), to call attention to a nominee who had lost the award he was up for to Ivo van Hove, the director of “View.”
“Hamilton” also closed out the telecast, taking the evening’s final trophy, new musical, and then sending its cast on stage to perform “The Schuyler Sisters” under the credits.