“Hadestown,” a musical reimagining of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, was the big winner at the 73rd Tony Awards on Sunday, earning a leading eight awards, including a prize as the year’s best musical. It was followed by “The Ferryman,” a crackling thriller about a family man struggling to escape from his violent past with the IRA, that earned four awards, including best play.
“Oklahoma!,” a dark reinterpretation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s slice of Americana, picked up best revival of a musical over “Kiss Me Kate,” the only other show nominated in the sparsely populated category. “The Boys in the Band,” a pioneering look at gay life, nabbed best revival of a play. The honor comes more than five decades after the play about a group of gay friends premiered Off-Broadway — a time frame all the more remarkable considering that playwright Mart Crowley’s drama pre-dated the 1969 Stonewall Riots that triggered the modern gay rights movement.
“I’d like to dedicate the award to the original cast of nine brave men, who did not listen to their agents when they were told that their careers would be finished if they did this play,” Crowley said. “They did it and here I am.” Five of the men in that original production, along with its director and producer, died in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s.
This year’s Tony Awards combined showbiz razzle-dazzle, courtesy of performances from several nominated musicals, with impassioned political statements that agitated for greater representation for women and people of color. It also ushered in a series of important milestones, including a win by Ali Stroker, who became the first actor who uses a wheelchair to earn a Tony for her work in “Oklahoma!”
The victory marks the latest stop in a circuitous route to Broadway for “Hadestown,” a show that was first performed in 2006 in a refurbished school bus in Vermont. The show gradually built a following after it released an album in 2010 and mounted other productions in Edmonton, Canada and London’s National Theatre.
Much has changed in the time it took for “Hadestown” to open in New York, but producer Mara Isaacs sought to evoke parallels between the musical central love story and the country’s current fiery civic moment during her acceptance speech.
Elaine May, the 87-year old comic legend, won her first Tony Award for her work as a gallery owner suffering from dementia in “The Waverly Gallery.” The play marked her first Broadway show in 52 years, and in a wry acceptance speech May thanked co-star Lucas Hedges for his monologue recounting her character’s death.
“He described my death so touchingly that watching from the wings, I thought I’m going to win this Tony,” May joked.
Bryan Cranston picked up his second Tony Award for leading performance in a play for his work as mad newsman Howard Beale in “Network.” He previously won the same award for 2014’s “All the Way,” a drama about Lyndon Johnson.
“Finally a straight old white man gets a break!,” Cranston joked before turning serious with a message aimed at President Donald Trump’s anti-press harangues. “The media is not the enemy of the people. Demagoguery is the enemy of the people.”
Santino Fontana earned a best actor in a musical prize for playing an actor who pretends to be a woman in order to get a plum role in “Tootsie,” while Stephanie J. Block won best actress in a musical for her diva turn in “The Cher Show.”
Other top winners included Celia Keenan-Bolger, picking up best featured actress in a play for her performance as Scout in the blockbuster hit “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Bertie Carvel earning a best featured actor in a play award for his portrayal of media baron Rupert Murdoch in “Ink.”
André De Shields, a theater legend whose resume includes the original Broadway production of “The Wiz,” scored a best featured actor in a musical prize for playing the Greek god Hermes in “Hadestown.” Stroker, the first performer to use a wheelchair for mobility known to have appeared on a Broadway stage, won best featured actress in a musical for her work as the boy crazy Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!”
“This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena,” said Stroker. “You are.”
The entertainment business may be youth-obsessed, but it was a good evening for octogenarians. In addition to May, 80-year old Bob Mackie won a best costume design Tony for “The Cher Show.” Referencing Ruth Gordon’s 1969 Oscar acceptance speech for “Rosemary’s Baby,” Mackie quipped, “This is very encouraging.”
“Hadestown’s” Rachel Chavkin earned a best direction of a musical prize. Chavkin used her speech to advocate for more representation on stage and behind-the-scenes, noting that she was the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season.
“There are so many women who are ready to go,” said Chavkin. “There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment too. This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job it is to imagine the way the world could be.”
It was a theme that Bradley King, Chavkin’s “Hadestown” colleague, echoed while accepting an award for lighting design. “We need to make Broadway less white, less cis, and less male,” he said.
“The Ferryman’s” Sam Mendes picked up his first Tony, earning the best direction of a play statue. Mendes was in post-production on his war drama “1917” and was not able to pick up the award in person. “It’s a little bit bonkers trying to make theater on Broadway — to be dealing with something so fragile in such a rough and tumble environment,” Mendes said in a statement. “But when it works, it’s like nowhere else in the world. So I’m hugely grateful for the embrace New York has given this play and this production.”
This year’s ceremony unfolds as the Broadway box office continues to break records. Ticket sales hit $1.8 billion over the most recent season as attendance reached new heights. But Tony voters weren’t swayed by a show’s financial performance. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Aaron Sorkin’s interpretation of Harper Lee’s coming-of-age story, became the highest-grossing American play in history and scored nine Tony nominations, tying with “The Ferryman” for the most of any non-musical. However, the show stunned awards watchers when it missed out on a best play nomination.
Winning a Tony can mean big box office for plays and musicals. Past victories for underdog shows such as “Fun Home” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” helped ensure longer Broadway runs and national tours for productions that might have otherwise struggled to fill theaters. To that end, “Hadestown” would appear to be the evening’s biggest beneficiary. Look for several shows that came up short on Tony night to announce they will be closing in the coming weeks as producers begin to grapple with difficult math.
“The Late Late Show” host James Corden emceed the Tonys for a second time, having previously assumed those duties in 2016. Corden may be best known for his CBS late night show, but he is a stage veteran and a Tony winner for his turn in 2011’s “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Corden kicked off the show by making fun of the endless array of programming available on cable and streaming platforms, arguing in a satiric song that theatrical productions have some competitive advantages.
“It can’t be hash-tagged and it isn’t tweet-able,” he sang, while flanked by the casts of Tony-nominated shows such as “Oklahoma!” and “The Prom.” He went on to note that theater offers “actual people in an actual space watching actors who are actually there.”
Other Corden gags included a bit coaching nominees such as Jeff Daniels on maintaining the correct expression when they lost and another sequence that found him singing and dancing in the bathroom of Radio City Music Hall with Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, the hosts of the 2018 broadcast. The coaching may have paid off for Daniels, who lost the lead actor prize to Cranston.
As America has grown more divided, awards shows such as the Oscars and the Emmys have come to reflect that polarization. The Tonys are no exception. Past broadcasts have included impassioned pleas for gay rights or gun control, as well as anti-Trump statements such as Robert De Niro’s censors-scrambling four-letter message to the president during last year’s show. And this year’s edition continued that tradition with Cranston’s impassioned defense of the media and best choreography winner Sergio Trujillo (“Ain’t Too Proud”) admitting on live television that he entered the U.S. as an illegal immigrant.
“I stand here as proof that the American dream is still alive,” said Trujillo.