Tony Awards: James Corden’s Producer on Orlando Tragedy, Last-Minute Changes, Carpool Karaoke

James Corden Tony Awards
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

The show went on at last night’s Tony Awards after the day’s events in Orlando shocked the nation, and the producers say they faced difficult decisions about how to address the news.

“You think it’s so important because you plan for three, four or five months, and in one moment, you realize how unimportant it all actually is,” says Ben Winston, James Corden’s longtime producer and executive producer of “The Late Late Show.” He served as the host’s producer on last night’s telecast, working alongside executive producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss.

Here, Winston tells Variety about coming up with Corden’s moving opening speech, the part of the show he was most worried about, and the “Law & Order” segment the audience wasn’t prepared for.

What’s your review of the show?

I thought it went very well. I thought it was a good show.

You had a difficult challenge to balance the tragedy with the business of handing out awards. 

It was difficult. We were discussing it throughout the day. The executive producers and James and I all wanted to open the show with what was really important about the day, and that was Orlando. And James wanted to speak from the heart and allow the show to become a symbol of what should never be silenced. I think it allowed the show to carry on. I think it made people comfortable that he could open the show like that.

How did you come up with the cold open?

We wrote it together. James and I sat with one of our writers, and we chucked around a few ideas. It was hugely important to him that he got it exactly it right. To be fair, it didn’t take very long. It was very clear what we all wanted to say. James wrote it in about five minutes or so. The message was clear. We didn’t debate or argue over words. It was just from the heart and it was what he felt in that moment in time.

What was the original planned opening?

It was the “Hamilton” parody that you saw, but it was clear to us that would never have been suitable. The most important thing was that we addressed [Orlando] from the top.

Were there any other changes made to the show? I know the “Hamilton” cast performed without their muskets.

There were one or two things or one or two considerations we made within the show as a whole. We were sensitive to the situation. You’re very aware of something like that, but you also have to make decisions very quickly, because you’re doing a live show within hours. You have to think there was a lot of sensitivity and sadness.

The show really played to Corden’s strengths as a singer and dancer.

He’s such a great performer. That’s the truth. It’s such a joy to produce and write for him. Because there are so very few talents that are so honest and truthful that they can open a show like he did with such heart and give the moment the reverence it deserves and at the same time he’s such a brilliant performer that he can sing and he can dance and he can tell a joke and he can be mischievous with Oprah in the front row and then he can make a joke about the actors’ careers in “Law & Order” but not make it rude. He always treads the line so well with never being cutting or rude but always being inclusive. It’s such a big part of why he’s such an endearing talent is that he never makes anyone feel left out of his humor. And you sort of root for him as well as enjoy watching him.

How much did he ad-lib last night?

He’s brilliant at that. He was spontaneous around Oprah. He realized he was next to her, so he decided to bump her on the nose, or whatever he did. Which I thought was really lovely and funny. He was spontaneous with his parents, which is always great fun. We were delighted that Glenn Close and Andrew Rannells decided to play Trump and Hillary. I thought those two were fantastic and such fun. Danny Burstein [the star of “Fiddler on the Roof”] — we talked about that for a while, how many parts he’d had in “Law & Order.” We revealed six characters, but in our research, we found that he had played 11 different characters. We could have carried on going. Anyone in that room we could have picked on. There were 60 actors in that room who had been in “Law & Order” — from Audra McDonald to Neil Patrick Harris to Jesse Tyler Ferguson. We just happened to choose those five. That seemed to play very well in the room. We just chose who hadn’t been featured in the show already. I could sense a real fear in the room. There were 60 actors in the room who were thinking, “The camera could absolutely be on me in a minute and reveal the part I played.”

They didn’t know it was coming?

No, the whole room was relieved when it wasn’t their particular picture.

You also played “Carpool Karaoke” again, but a slightly new version.

We added a new “Hamilton” song to open it. We didn’t want to play the exact same thing. The truth of it is it wasn’t ever made for the Tonys. It was made for the lead up to the Tonys. Because it played so well, the people at the Tonys, the executive producers, the network all wanted it. They asked us if we could do a shorter cut. The actual thing was 11 minutes so we did a 5 minute cut. We put a new “Hamilton” song in there. A lot of people in the room hadn’t seen it, and it was a good breather in the room. It was unexpected — we only decided to play it in the room mid-week.

How did the stars — Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Audra McDonald, Jane Krakowski — all decide who was going to sing which part in “One Day More”? Was it spontaneous? 

We never discussed which bits they were going to do. Either it was improv or maybe they discussed it while we were filming Lin [Manuel Miranda’s] parts. Part of me thinks they improv-ed it and made it up on the spot, because nobody on our team heard them discussing it. They only met five minutes before they all got in the car. So I think it was just actors’ instincts. I think they just ran with it. It’s just so joyful. It’s also fun for us to do a “Carpool” without big recording artists. It’s the first time we’ve ever deviated from that. On this occasion, we felt like we had done so much work on the Tonys. What better commercial to get people to get people to watch the Tonys. Hopefully that contributed to to the fact that ratings were up. I’m glad we did it. As soon Lin agreed, we thought it was fun. You can’t overthink these things.

The ratings were the highest in 15 years. How are you feeling about that news? 

Being at 12:30, I always feel like we don’t buy much into overnights. We try not to focus too hard on them. Our catchup and online [viewing] for a show like ours, that’s what affects us. But in primetime and the Tonys, and James hosting his first real awards show in America — yes, it’s a good thing. I was  hoping it would be good. If I’m honest. I didn’t expect it to be as strong. I’m sure it has just much to do with “Hamilton” as it does with James. It’s always so nice when you work so hard on something and you wake up the next morning and you realize that people watch it. It’s not about winning. If you work hard, you do it so people will watch it. And if people watch it, hopefully they’ve enjoyed it. That makes the job more satisfying.

Having the casts perform songs at the commercial breaks also worked so well. Whose idea was that?

That was Ricky and Glenn. It was a really good idea. They’re really exceptional. It was my first time working with them. They’re so phenomenally talented and hardworking and brilliant. That was one of the joys of this process. That was entirely them. I thought it worked brilliantly. It gave a wonderful vibe to the show. It represented what the show was about which was theater being for the people. The fact that it was on a stage outside so people could turn up and watch. I thought there was something joyous. It gave a real grounding to where we were in NYC. I thought it was a great piece of television. But nothing to do with me. I’d love to claim credit for it, but I can’t.

It was a tremendous night for “Hamilton” with its 11 wins. How did it feel to be a part of that?

It’s very exciting. It’s such a wonderful production. It’s great that on the year that a musical will part of our lives for may years and decades to be there and be backstage when Lin comes off or Daveed digs to see the joy that it brought them it was phenomenal. One of the most exciting things that I’ve ever been involved in producing.

What was your favorite moment?

I enjoyed all of it. I felt like his opening number was great. It was technically so tricky. It was quite a bit of performance for James, to play 20 different musicals in 5 minutes from both the dance routines to remembering the lyrics, from the costume changes to the children. Then the children becoming the nominees. Which I thought was a beautiful moment. There were so many things that I was nervous about. But once we got that out of the way and it had gone so well both in the room and online, I thought James will have the confidence to make this a great night now. When your opening goes badly, that affects the rest of the night. Once that was out of the way, I definitely punched the air. I enjoyed the whole experience a lot more. There was a lot of tension leading up to that moment. Because there was so much to get right. And that was my highlight.

Anything that didn’t go according to plan?

No, I don’t think so. The events that occurred yesterday put making television into perspective. As crazy as a night as the Tonys are, it paled in comparison to the news that we were trying to take in. I think that’s the overriding factor for us. For me, it was the first time I was involved in the Tonys. And I thought James did such a great job. Jimmy Fallon tweeted a lovely message and Oprah tweeted a lovely message, too. That means a great deal, from people you respect and admire. To see their reactions has been lovely for him as well.

How is James feeling this morning?

Tired and excited.